By Jon Weisman
It’s like a DH-nado hit baseball over the weekend.
Maybe it’s the online circles I travel in, but renewed advocacy for bringing the designated hitter to the National League seems to be everywhere you turn.
The spark seems to have been the injuries in the past week to ace pitchers Max Scherzer of Washington (April 23) and Adam Wainwright of St. Louis (April 25) suffered while batting. The discussion actually goes far beyond pitcher health, so I mention this only to explain why this is all happening right now.
Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk made a number of wide-ranging arguments in his pro-DH piece, followed in short order by such writers as Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, David Schoenfield at ESPN.com and Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe at SI.com. Calcaterra had his own follow-up piece today, in the wake of lengthy debate at Baseball Think Factory.
Resembling nearly every political debate, there have been legitimate points mixed with straw-men arguments and a tendency to reduce the opposing side to close-minded bullies. And I was really comfortable paying it little mind, filing it away as part of a debate that has spanned nearly my entire lifetime, but today, the conversation seemed to take such a one-sided turn that I felt the need to speak up for the anti-DH side.
So, here are the main arguments the pro-DH crowd is making, and my counterpoints …
There should be one set of rules for both leagues.
I’ve always found this a truly peculiar sentiment within a sport that offers 30 different types of officially sanctioned ballfields, where it’s universally acknowledged that playing conditions in one stadium are going to be different from any other. I don’t see anyone from the pro-DH side looking to legislate uniformity in the ballplaying environment.
Is that apples to the DH’s oranges? On some level it is. On another, it’s very much on point. For example, Rosenthal argues that giving the American League the DH makes for a figuratively uneven playing field, leaving NL teams are at an inherent disadvantage.
“Many American League teams employ a rotating DH, enabling them to rest their everyday players,” he writes. “AL teams also hold a distinct advantage in acquiring position players – those teams can grab sluggers such as Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and even Robinson Cano, knowing that such hitters eventually can serve as DHs.”
That the NL has won six of the past eight World Series would seem to poke a hole in Rosenthal’s contention. Perhaps that’s random noise. Perhaps, with no DH to worry about, NL teams can place a premium on players skilled at multiple positions vs. one-dimensional sluggers who might clog up a roster.
In any case, there’s no proof that there’s an inherent disadvantage for the NL that needs to be rectified.
Frankly, it might be more compelling to argue that it’s the AL side that is fighting an uphill battle. For three of the first six games of the World Series, AL teams are faced with the potentially difficult decision of whether to keep their nominal DH on the bench or play him in the field.
That being said, all things even out until the seventh game of the World Series, when one league will have an advantage over the other, depending who the home team is. In the past 20 years, there have been only five World Series that went the distance. The NL has won four of those, including last year’s, which ended in an AL park. Has the DH played a significant role in those outcomes? You tell me.
But ultimately, we come back to the fact that passion runs high on both sides of the DH argument. Why make a move to disappoint one side or another, just for the sake of supposed equality in a sport that is rife with other inequalities (and, many would say, charmingly so).
Pitchers get hurt.
I mention this only in passing, because even the pro-DH side usually acknowledges that pitcher injuries while on offense are so rare, if not freakish, that it doesn’t make sense to make a significant rule change because of them.
Pitchers can’t hit.
This is really the biggie, the core of most pro-DH arguments. Futility of pitchers at the plate has never been higher, as Schoenfield writes.
There was a time when pitchers were at least a bit of a threat at the plate. In 1972, when offense dipped so low that the American League instituted the DH for 1973, pitchers hit .146. In 1962, they hit .150. A decade before that, they hit .162 and actually had an OBP of .202, which means they were at least getting on base 20 percent of the time. This year, their collective OBP is .111. A pitcher getting on base now is more an accident than an act of skill.
This may be true — and in fact, the .202 OBP way back when was nothing to brag about. Heck, no team right now might benefit more from bringing the DH to the NL tomorrow than the Dodgers.
But the decline in pitcher hitting is not an inevitability, as some have positioned it — it’s a choice. Preserving the pitcher’s spot in the batting order preserves the opportunity for teams to seize an advantage, the same way that teams in the past have seen opportunity in accentuating defense, power or baserunning.
If Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, two of the best pitchers in the game, can avoid being automatic outs at the plate, why can’t anyone else? That it hasn’t happened for more pitchers doesn’t mean it can’t or never will.
But even if pitcher hitting continues to decline, it doesn’t mean a change is in order.
Calcaterra — whose work I have great respect for — has come in hard on the idea that it’s crazy to prefer seeing a pitcher hit than someone like Edgar Martinez. But this places the question of “should pitchers hit” in the context of a Home Run Derby or NBA three-point shooting contest. If I were watching someone take batting practice, I’d prefer Martinez over Kershaw. But in the context of the game, it’s no more crazy to prefer seeing a pitcher bat for himself than to want to see any other player do the same.
No ballplayer is perfect. No class of ballplayers is perfect. Part of what makes sports so great is that they showcase both the strengths and weaknesses of the participants. Pitchers are particularly bad at hitting as a group, but how that hurts the game overall, I fail to see.
How bad is “intolerably bad” for pitchers hitting? It’s an arbitrary decision, much as the pro-DH crowd would argue that we have objectively crossed the line.
The “NL is the more strategic league” argument is overrated.
“Pitching around the eighth batter to face a worse hitter is no-brainer territory for managers, as are most decisions to pinch-hit for a pitcher when behind in the game,” writes Jaffe. “The decision to have a pitcher bunt is in lieu of actually having a strategy. It’s basically the ‘quick, look busy, they’re watching us’ of managerial practice. The bunts wind up creating near-automatic outs and lowering run expectancy.”
As with some of the other writers, I so rarely disagree with Jaffe that I really paused to consider his argument carefully. But I can’t find it anything but flawed. Regardless of how often a manager decides to have a pitcher bunt, it’s no less strategic than how sure we can be that a DH won’t bunt. (And don’t pretend that managers are putting on hit-and-runs for DHs left and right.)
As for pitching around the No. 8 hitter, I see approaches go back and forth on that almost every night — it’s highly situational-dependent.
Meanwhile, although it’s become trendy to dismiss decisions about when to pinch-hit or double-switch as non-events, the fact is that they are the subject of debate at any remotely close game. Would that be so if fans weren’t invested in the choices?
You’ll often read people say that “I don’t pay to see managers manage,” which makes sense on the literal level, but not when you step back. Putting aside those like my kids, who are almost entirely interested in the food, I think most people go to a baseball game … to see a baseball game. And short of playing pickup ball, managers are a part of that show. Not a huge part, but one it would be weird to dismiss.
If you only come to a game to see good hitters hit, well, honestly, you’re going to be disappointed much of the time.
The anti-DH crowd is stubbornly clinging to ill-conceived tradition.
This is about as self-serving an argument for the pro-DHers as it gets, and no more grounded in fact than if I were to say that, “Everyone pushing for the DH is a radical, hell-bent on change for the sake of change!”
The fondness — whether intellectual or emotional — that many of us have for NL baseball is genuine. I don’t think there are very many fans who are avoiding the DH solely because it would mess with tradition. Most of us have heard the arguments, and we’re simply not convinced — any more than the pro-DH crowd seems to be by ours.
While I believe the game is better without the DH, I’m not pushing to ban the DH in the AL. For one thing, that would be incredibly futile. But mainly, it goes back to the idea that two styles of ball serve the sport well. Heck, if Charlie Finley had succeeded with the yellow baseball because it was easier for hitters to spot, and AL fans enjoyed it, who am I to tell ’em not to?
How much diversity there should be in the rulebook is certainly debatable — but I don’t see any kind of clarity that DH ball is a superior brand. And in the absence of any real crisis, other than “It bugs me to see pitchers make outs 89 percent of the time rather than 69 percent of the time,” I don’t think I’m a reactionary conservative to suggest that things are fine the way they are.