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It’s time for Dodgers pitchers to bat again

Clayton Kershaw was the last Dodger to bat in a game, 377 days ago

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Clayton Kershaw not only starts on the mound for the Dodgers on Tuesday, but will also be the team’s first pitcher to hit in a game in over a year. He is expected to get one at-bat against Milwaukee, and the Dodgers will use a designated hitter in that spot after he comes out of the game.

This is in preparation for pitchers hitting again in the National League, with MLB players and owners unable to agree on use of a designated hitter for 2021. Pitchers, many of whom haven’t swung a bat since last spring training, and some since the 2019 season, are gearing up for a skill that has atrophied for years, even if they aren’t necessarily looking forward to the prospect of holding a bat again.

“It’s fun in a ‘blind squirrel finds a nut’ kind of thing,” said Walker Buehler, who has 12 hits and 54 strikeouts in 113 career plate appearances, hitting .118/.167/.147.

When asked last week if he wanted to hit in games before the regular season started, Trevor Bauer said, “Not really, no.”

Bauer has four hits in 43 career at-bats, striking out in nearly half (24) of his 49 plate appearances, most recently going 3-for-19 (.158) with two walks in 2019. But he’s not alone in his futility at the plate. In 2019, major league pitchers hit just .128/.159/.163, a putrid -18 (yes, negative) wRC+.

“It will probably be the safe difficulty for us. We’re probably not going to have a ton of success,” said Kershaw with a laugh. “We’ll just do our best, try to compete, and make them throw a ton of pitches. That’s kind of been my goal in the past.”

Kershaw was the last Dodgers pitcher to bat in a game, the only one to do so last spring, grounding out to shortstop against Johnny Cueto on March 4, 2020. That was 377 days ago.

Kershaw in 2019 was just 5-for-49 (.102/.120/.122) with 16 strikeouts, though he led the majors with 15 sacrifice bunts. Kenta Maeda was second with 13 sacrifices, and Hyun-jin Ryu — who also homered; yes, “It’s happened” — was tied for third with 12. Dodgers pitchers led the league with 52 sacrifices in 2019, 11 more than the next-highest team (Colorado), and 21 more than the No. 3 team (St. Louis).

As a team, the Dodgers had 55 total sacrifices two years ago, or only three by non-pitchers. They also had three sacrifices in the 60-game 2020 season, which was middle of the pack in MLB and just below the league average of four sacrifices last year.

But it’s 2021, and pitchers are hitting again in the National League. Bunting season is back.

Big D

Any discussion of Dodgers pitchers hitting should invoke Don Drysdale, whose 29 home runs are the most in franchise history by a pitcher, and the seventh-most by any major leaguer who pitched in at least 50 percent of their games. Drysdale hit seven home runs in 1965, when the Dodgers’ team leaders in home runs hit 12.

Drysdale retired during the 1969 season, when he was just 33 years old. He got into broadcasting almost immediately, calling games for the expansion Montreal Expos in 1970 and 1971. But I didn’t realize Drysdale’s role was even larger than that until seeing this on Sunday:

The link to John Olerud’s dad is cool. Drysdale had sort of a catch-all role with the Expos. The Associated Press report of his hiring in Montreal in February 1970 quoted Expos president John McHale: “He will work as a member of the Expos game-of-the-week broadcasting crew, perform special duties as a minor league pitching coach and represent the Expos in various public relations functions in both Canada and the United States.”

Had I known this five years ago, maybe I could have shelled out a few grand for a game-worn Drysdale Expos jersey. Alas.