Perspectives - Masahiro Tanaka: Hitting, Running The Bases, and the National League

When Masahiro Tanaka reached base last night on an error by Mets first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, many Yankees fans were both elated ("A base runner!") and concerned ("I hope Tanaka doesn't get hurt running the bases.").   In fact, almost immediately, Michael Kay and the YES announcers David Cone and Al Leiter started discussing how running the bases might impact on Tanaka's pitching performance going forward. 

In short, when an American League pitcher is forced to hit and run the bases, it becomes an immediate concern.  The injury potential for the pitcher is real and very obvious.  We have all seen pitchers injured while batting and running the bases.  The injury concern is particularly heightened for American League pitchers playing in National League ballparks.  

As we are all aware, after Tanaka awkwardly scored on a sacrifice fly last night, he had to be removed from the game due to "hamstring tightness." This put the Yankees in the game at an immediate disadvantage and it could playout to hurt the Yankees even more as the details of Tanaka's injury become more apparent over the next few days.  Yankees fans should be very concerned.  If Tanaka's injuries are serious, it could impact the rest of the Yankees' 2018 season and possibly his career.  This is not hyperbole, it's happened before - to the Yankees.  

In June 2008, the Yankees lost Chien-Ming Wang to a foot injury that incurred as he ran the bases in an Inter-league game.  I think a lot of fans today forget just what Wang meant to the Yankees at that time and just how good he was.  Wang was their ace.  In each of the previous two seasons, he had won 19 games.  Even more, in the time period from 2006 leading up to the injury, Chien-Ming Wang had accumulated 46 wins against only 15 loses for a .754 Winning Percentage.  For the 2008 season, Wang was 8-2 with a 4.07 ERA.  He was a workhorse.  He was already nearing 100 innings pitched for the year.  Wang was also just 28 years old at the time; a strong pitcher who was just entering his prime.

Following the injury, Chien-Ming Wang was never the same.  In 2009, he won but one game.  In total, between 2009 and 2016, Wang would only pitch in 39 games for the rest of his career.  In that time, he accumulated a 14-14 record.  Running the bases proved costly for Wang.  That injury ruined his career.

That 2008 injury to Wang also severely impacted the American League pennant race.  In 2008, the Yankees finished in third place, six games behind the second place Red Sox.  Might Wang's presence in the rotation have helped the Yankees erase that six game deficit and reach the playoffs as a Wild Card?  I think so.  The Yankees tried to replace their ace with pitchers like Dan Giese, Darrell Rasner, and Sidney Ponson, among others.  The drop-off was enormous.  And the injury was totally preventable - an American League pitcher should never be batting or running the bases to satisfy the needs of Inter-league play.  

Today, because of Tanaka's injury, and batting a very challenging Red Sox team, in what might become one of the great pennant races of all-time, the Yankees might be without one of their top starters again because a pitcher was forced to run the bases.  This is the height of stupidity and foolishness.

In virtually every single baseball league from Little League through high school, college, and even through the minor leagues, baseball uses a designated hitter.  Pitchers are groomed to be...pitchers.  Pitchers are not asked nor expected to hit.  Pitchers are not asked nor expected to run the bases.  All teams use the DH in the minor leagues - even the National League teams.  The designated hitter is part of baseball.  It has been around for 45 years.  There is more baseball tradition tied to the DH than Inter-league play, wild cards, and so much more.  

Because of the way pitchers are developed from their earliest years, is foolish to expect that a pitcher, after spending the majority of his developmental years building one skill should suddenly be asked to embrace a brand new skill set - at baseball's highest level.  This isn't great strategy, it's absurd.  Sure, an athlete should be able to swing a bat and run and they can, BUT, in this situation, they are being expected to do these things against the very best competition in the world.  What people tend to forget or ignore is the fact that these pitchers are not just swinging a bat and running, they are trying to perform these skills while competing against the very best baseball players in the world.  This fact cannot be stressed enough.  These are specialized athletes being asked to do things they are not trained to do going against players who are the best in what they do.  Of course pitchers are going to get hurt.  This will happen again and again and again.

This entire philosophy and practice is even more absurd when pitchers in the American League are forced to hit and run the bases during Inter-League play.  American League teams are built and developed around the designated hitter.  The DH is an important (and essential) part of each American League's team's construction.  It makes no sense from a competitive standpoint to require a team that signs and develops players for one role to have to change their approach just because they are playing in another team's ballpark.  Whatever logic drives this is flawed, at best.  Baseball should not be operating under two very different sets of rules, or, if it is, it should not be having teams who play under these different rules competing against each other during the season.  

What adds to the absurdity of all of this is that American League pitchers don't even practice these skills.  David Cone and Al Leiter, both pitchers who pitched in the AL and NL during their careers made these points very clear during last night's broadcast.  In the National League, pitchers do base running drills, at least in Spring Training.  They practice sliding.  They, at least, develop some rudimentary experience with this aspect of the game.  Pitchers on American League teams never drill in this fashion.  Ever.  It is painfully obvious that American League pitchers are put at a competitive disadvantage when they are asked to hit and run the bases.  In addition, by putting athletes in roles in which they are not physically prepared, baseball is putting these pitchers in harm's way.  Of course they are going to get injured.  The fact that this happened and will continue to happen is painfully obvious.

I understand that baseball embraces Inter-league play because they feel it is way to gain fans, grow the sport, and gain financially.  But when players, like Masahiro Tanaka, a $155 million dollar baseball player, are purposely put into situations that increase the likelihood of injury, the practice, on every level seems and is foolish.  Whatever financial gain the Yankees or baseball might feel they receive through Inter-league play might have just been spent on an injury to a key player on a possibly legendary team and impacting a possible legendary pennant race. 

Even more, the harm they may have done to the player himself is inexcusable.  Because baseball has not been able to reconcile the AL/NL debate, players' lives, such as Chien-Ming Wang's (and now possibly Masahiro Tanaka's) are forever changed.  This must stop.  I am continually amazed that Wang's injury, ten years ago, didn't make baseball wake up to this absurd practice.  

If the National League is committed to their rules and are unwilling to embrace the designated hitter, and if baseball wants Inter-league play, then the teams should compete the way the teams are designed and the way they play the rest of their seasons.  Let the AL team employ the DH and let the NL team have their pitchers hit.  It makes no sense, on any level, to have AL pitchers batting and running the bases as part of the in game competition.  

How many more pitchers must be injured before baseball fixes a problem that has been apparent from the start?

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Dr. Paul Semendinger is the Editor-in-Chief of SSTN.  In addition to writing about the Yankees, he uses his vast experience as a successful educator, public speaker, athlete, and parent, to motivate others.  Dr. Semendinger's book of motivational and reflective essays, Impossible is an Illusionis receiving very positive reviews.  Dr. Semendinger also writes for children.  His first two children's books, Principal Sam and the Calendar Confusion and Principal Sam Gets Fit are delighting children everywhere.  In addition to enjoying Dr. Semendinger's posts here, you can also see his work at www.drpaulsem.com