Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

DH talk brings back memories of reverse experiment

by Jason Coskrey

One thing the current conversation about a possible universal DH in MLB is showing is that a lot of people have great disdain for the concept of pitchers hitting.

Like, a lot.

So it’s sort of amusing to recall the time NPB flipped the DH rule during interleague play for the express purpose of allowing Pacific League fans to experience the beauty of their pitchers stepping into batter’s box during home games.

The truth is, if MLB does eventually add the DH to National League games, NPB and the Central League probably wouldn’t be too far behind.

But the DH rule grabbed the spotlight for a very different reason during the interleague portion of the 2014 season in Japan.

Generally, interleague games and the Japan Series follow the rules of the park they’re played in. So PL pitchers hit in CL parks and a DH is used in PL venues. But in 2014, the 10th year of interleague play, NPB decided it would be fun to switch things up and use the DH for games in CL parks and have PL pitchers hit at home.

As Wayne Graczyk, a former columnist for The Japan Times, noted, former Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine may have helped plant the seeds for the idea when interleague play began in 2005.

“If you’re going to play half the games with a DH and half without, it would make more sense to use the DH in the Central League parks,” Graczyk noted Valentine as having said. “The fans in our ballpark never get to see our pitchers hit, so it would be something different for them.”

Probably only coincidental that using a DH in the smaller CL parks would’ve been an advantage for Valentine’s Marines.

The rationale, though, was similar to what NPB touted as the benefits of the “reverse DH” in 2014. “You can enjoy a different type of baseball in Central and Pacific League parks,” the league said in April of 2014.

In reality, though, it probably had a lot to do with Shohei Ohtani, then a second-year player for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Ohtani had appeared in 77 games as a hitter and 13 as a pitcher as a rookie. Flipping the rule would give fans the chance to see him hit in a game he also started on the mound at Sapporo Dome.

So the CL and PL swapped rules during interleague play that year. Ohtani made three starts at home, hitting .143 with a double in seven at-bats as the No. 7 hitter and going 1-0 with a 4.11 ERA in 15 innings on the mound.

Few pitchers covered themselves in glory during that experiment. The Yomiuri Giants’ Toshiya Sugiuchi was 2-for-5 and the only hurler with multiple hits. Only Ohtani and Orix Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko, who also had a double, had extra base hits and Hiroshima’s Junpei Shinoda led all pitchers with two RBIs.

Basically, the reverse DH was an experience that would only be worth repeating for the novelty of it — and to be fair, there wasn’t that much.

That said, the era of pitchers hitting in any NPB games might be nearing its final stanza as the move toward a universal DH gains steam in North America. Because it’s not uncommon for MLB to adopt a change and for NPB to watch it play out for a season or two before following suit.

Besides, Japanese pitchers as a whole aren’t much better at hitting than their MLB counterparts.

Prior to Game 1 of the 2018 Japan Series at Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium, a CL park, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher Kodai Senga openly admitted to having no idea of what to do at the plate, and jokingly said he hadn’t even practiced laying down bunts.

“No, I haven’t done anything at all,” he told reporters. “I told our team I wouldn’t be able to do it anyway. I’m not good at that at all.”

According to DeltaGraphs, CL pitchers hit .105 with five home runs in 2018. The Carp’s Daichi Osera was the best with nine RBIs and a .175 average in 57 at-bats. Their PL counterparts were .088 with a home run by the Fighters’ Kenta Uehara.

Many who enjoy baseball without the DH, or like both versions (guilty), cite strategy as a big reason. Many who don’t, point to the general inability of pitchers as hitters. Others simply think it’s nonsensical for there to be two sets of rules, and it’s easier to add the DH to one league than take it from the other.

Either way, it seems the universal use of the DH could be coming in the future. Which would make 2014’s experiment in Japan an even more odd, if not interesting, footnote when looking back down the road.