An Emotional Diatribe Against the Designated Hitter in the National League
I sort of knew it was coming. The increase in number of interleague games after the Astros move to the American League next year all but assured it. It’s at times like this when I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous utterance, during his legendary debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
I have a very good friend who believes strongly in the ethic of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, and that the true sovereignty of government rests with the municipalities and the states. I’ve long derided his view as outdated and naive, and when he pressed me for a reason why, intrinsically, his 18th-Century states’ rights ethic was inferior to the centralized and (ultimately, but coincidentally) communitarian politics I favor, I was only able to offer the following: “Because you lost the war.”
Friends, I come to you today in a moment of great historical import, because, if Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci is to be believed, baseball has reached its “house divided” moment: the designated hitter is coming to the National League, and soon. And in the face of overwhelming evidence not only of its inevitability but of its potential benefit to the game, I find myself clinging to an antiquated and childish ideal, having lost the war.
Conservatism, Change as Progress, and Replacing Your Dead Cat
“Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”
–Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790
Using the word “prejudice” the way Burke does, to mean “tradition” or “established practice,” we confront another change in the way we conceive of baseball. Up to a point, we can think of change as progress. Integrating the game, for instance, flies in the face of prejudice in both the common and Burkean conception of the word, and yet it was undoubtedly the single most positive step taken in the history of the sport. Similar positive judgments can be made about the internationalization of the sport, the statistical revolution, the democratization of baseball writing through the internet, medical and physical fitness advancements, expansion to new markets, the evolution over time of stadium design, and countless other innovations that have changed the game of baseball from the child’s game it was 200 years ago to the intellectually stimulating, all-engrossing, multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is today.
But even granting that change is usually synonymous with progress, can we say that change is always or even (to avoid creating a straw man) almost always beneficial? Does new almost always equal better? I would say no, at least, not often enough to accept any change as an improvement over the status quo without questioning it.
The designated hitter has been an important factor in increasing offense over the past few decades. Considering the offensive advantages it grants the American League compared to its rival, it is possible (though having no empirical evidence to support this theory, I’m inclined to say it’s unlikely) that the designated hitter is responsible in part for the dominance of the American League over the National League in interleague play. So are these the embittered ramblings of a fan of the National League’s best team, upset that an imbalance in the rules has prevented his team from getting the respect it deserves? Hardly.
What bothers me about the designated hitter is that it was a gimmick. The DH was instituted for the first time in MLB in 1973, as a gimmick. It was a response, by the American League, to ramp up offense in what was, at the time, the weaker league. Remember, this was around the time that the Oakland A’s were subjecting the world to Herb Washington, to say nothing of uniforms and facial hair that made Carnival look like a production of The Crucible. This was the age of Disco Demolition Night, and artificial turf, innovations that seem as antiquated to us now as Saturday Night Fever and Logan’s Run.
What sets the designated hitter apart? It’s a gimmick, as Verducci notes, that’s become tradition. There are practically no players who remember life before the DH. As the DH enters its 40th season, there are precious few writers, coaches, and managers who remember what life was like before baseball existed, to paraphrase Lincoln, half DH and half free. The designated hitter, a clumsy solution to a phantom problem, has become the subject of Burkean prejudice, as not only the American League but almost literally every inferior league in North America, from high school to the organized minors, adopted the rule as gospel.
Baseball changed fundamentally, with surprisingly little thought given to more than a century of established practice, in response to a set of circumstances brought about through its own propensity to overreact. After the offensive explosion of 1961, highlighted by Roger Maris’ 61 home run season, baseball expanded the strike zone, and thanks to a bumper crop of star pitchers, the next 10 years became the Dark Ages for scoring runs. We all know the stats: Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, Don Drysdale’s 58 2/3 inning scoreless streak, Denny McLain’s 31 wins, and Carl Yastrzemski winning the batting title with a .301 average, all in 1968. Even if you accept that higher-scoring baseball is better baseball (which I don’t), or even more entertaining baseball (which I also don’t), the prudent thing to do would have been to return the strike zone to its previous state and police the height of the pitchers’ mound, which, to their credit, MLB did, starting in 1969.
I’m a cat owner. I love my cat, even if she doesn’t love me back, but such is life. If, God forbid, something were to happen to her, I’d be very upset. I’d probably be sad for quite some time, but I’d try to adjust. If, after a sufficient mourning period, I still felt lonely or lost without a cat, I’d get another. Now imagine that, upon the improvement of my mood, I decided that more pets would make me feel even better.
I’ve never owned a dog. Now, I can believe that, over time, I might grow to love a 150-pound slobber machine. Maybe give him an ironic name, like “Tinkerbell,” and enjoy his jowly company. But I’m not sure my life would be better off. I do know that, over time, I’d forget what life was like when it was just me and a cat that ignored me.
The designated hitter is Tinkerbell, the Neapolitan Mastiff who eats four cubic feet of Kibbles ‘n Bits each week, thinks he owns the couch, and likes to sit on your head when you sleep. The designated hitter is a gimmick designed to fix a problem that 1) was caused by an overreaction by organized baseball in the first place and 2) probably would have cycled itself out over time. The only difference is, it’s been around long enough for us to learn to love it.
Debunking the Strategy Argument
“It’s the American League! They have the DH! How hard can it be?”
–Little Big League, 1994
Verducci, like me, doesn’t like the DH. But I don’t think I’d go as far as he does when he says: “There is no question that the style of NL baseball is more interesting and nuanced than AL baseball. Yes, it’s a better game, the way chess is a better game than checkers.” In the end, baseball with the DH isn’t all that different from baseball without the DH. It’s not like the American League is playing with a square ball or anything. In fact, in 2011, the AL posted a collective OPS only 20 points higher than the NL.
So failing the complete dissolution of pitching and defense in the American League, how does strategy differ? Well, there’s almost no double switch with the designated hitter, which eliminates a fun, if sometimes chaotic, arrow from the quiver of the manager when it’s late and close. With that said, I’m not sure that I could live with myself if I were the kind of person who wanted to reverse 40 years of baseball evolution to increase the number of double-switches. Eliminating the need to pinch hit in late innings makes it easier for an AL manager to manage his bench. And perhaps one might alter one’s strategy during a rally knowing that the pitcher’s spot is coming up. But you also eliminate a big ol’ mess of sacrifice bunts with the DH, the positive effects of which can hardly be overstated. The sacrifice bunt is to baseball as hitting your point guard’s toe with a ball-peen hammer is to basketball.
Objectively, and taking the DH as a thing that is, and not as a band-aid that overstayed its welcome, I think the strategy argument is the strongest argument in favor of scrubbing the DH. With that said, it’s not that strong an argument. We still see strategic decisions in the American League, and given the propensity of field managers to meddle until they can meddle no more, more managing doesn’t necessarily mean better managing.
Ultimately, I’d compare National League baseball to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, and American League baseball to Philip Kaufman’s excellent 1983 film adaptation. In the book, you get more detail, more nuance, but sometimes it drags. You lose some of that detail in the film, but no so much that you miss it a ton, though sometimes having a story visualized for you takes the fun out of it. And let’s say that eliminating the sacrifice bunt is like the movie adding one of the greatest soundtracks in film history (and yes, I know Bill Conti ripped off Holst).
That’s quite enough of that. Moving on.
Why the DH is Good
“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.”
–Crash Davis, Bull Durham, 1988
The most common argument against the designated hitter (apart from the cranky old man argument I’ve been making: I just don’t like it and I want things to stay the way they are) is that not requiring pitchers to hit somehow diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers. This is total nonsense. Not requiring pitchers to hit diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers just as much as not requiring infielders to pitch diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers. On Monday’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, NPR’s Mike Pesca argued that pitchers are like placekickers in football: specialists whose skills in one area excuse them from being required to participate in other aspects of the game. All this makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t want to watch Matt Prater try to play boundary corner for the Broncos.
Others trumpet the DH as an injury prevention method for pitchers. After A.J. Burnett broke his face while trying to bunt last week, and after Chien-Ming Wang suffered a career-altering foot injury while running the bases in 2008, advocates for universal adoption of the designated hitter came out in droves, saying that for the sake of player safety, we should take pitchers off the basepaths and out of the batter’s box forever. I’m not sympathetic to this line of reasoning at all. Baseball is intrinsically dangerous. Batting is dangerous, even for experts. Ask Tony Conigliaro, or David Wright, or even Chase Utley. Baserunning is dangerous. Just ask Justin Morneau.
Moreover, pitching is dangerous. In addition to the innumerable soft tissue injuries to arms, shoulders, backs, and every other muscle, ligament, and tendon that goes into the incredibly violent motion of throwing an overhand pitch, there’s the danger of the line drive back through the box. Such an incident ended Dizzy Dean’s career. A Roberto Clemente line drive broke Bob Gibson’s leg in 1967. In 1998, a Sandy Alomar line drive nailed Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina in the nose. In 2000, Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie, in one of the most graphic baseball injuries of all time, was defenseless when Ryan Thompson lined a ball back through the box, leaving him sitting on the mound with multiple facial fractures and bleeding that looked less the product of a baseball play than a scene from Hobo with a Shotgun. Then there’s the 2005 line drive that caromed off of Matt Clement‘s head and nearly into the seats by the left field foul line.
The point is, I have a hard time believing that implementing the designated hitter in the National League is really about player safety first and foremost. Preventing injuries to guys like Wang or Burnett by adopting the DH is no more of a solution than putting a screen in front of the mound to prevent injuries to guys like Mussina or Florie. From a player safety argument, it’s just not worth the hassle to prevent a major injury once every three years. There are dozens of innovations, from mandating the Great Gazoo-style batting helmet to padding all outfield walls to biometric analysis of pitcher mechanics that will make the game safer without significantly impacting the way the game is played.
The real argument, which I heard for the first time from ESPN’s Keith Law on the Baseball Today podcast last year, is that it’s just no fun to watch pitchers bat. To combine his argument with Pesca’s, would you find an NFL game more exciting if placekickers had to play offense or defense? Why not restrict the competition to those who specialize in a certain field, be it hitting, pitching, or punting?
I’m probably in the minority here, but I actually do find it fun to watch pitchers bat. And for the record, I think it would be very interesting to see how NFL strategy changed if placekickers were required to play on offense or defense. I imagine a generation of soccer players becoming combination placekickers/slot receivers. But that’s not the point.
While I concede the point that watching someone come up to the plate almost guaranteed to make an out can be disappointing sometimes (or when you’re watching Michael Martinez, all the time) I can’t follow that logic all the way to being convinced that universal adoption of the designated hitter is a good thing. Again, I’m something of a traditionalist on such issues, so your mileage may vary.
Caveats aside, the fish-out-of-water element actually appeals to me a great deal. It’s the same reason that seeing Wilson Valdez pitch in person last year was the greatest live fan experience of my life. When a pitcher hits a home run, or even reaches base, the rarity of the even makes the payoff all the greater when it happens. When a pitcher, particularly a good one, happens to be anything other than a catastrophic incompetent at the plate, every plate appearance is cause for excitement and anticipation. The Phillies, in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, happen to have two such players. What Phillies fan doesn’t remember Joe Blanton‘s home run in the 2008 World Series with fondness? Letting the pitcher bat adds an element of chaos to a game that can, from time to time, be a little too orderly.
Why Good Baseball is Bad Baseball
“[B]aseball is supposed to be played by young guys who can run, rather than old fat guys who can hit home runs.”
–Bill James, The New Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001
We all know the stereotypical Moneyball player by now: a guy who gets on base, and ideally can hit for power, batting average be damned. All things being equal, it’s better to have the .250/.400/.500 guy than the .300/.340/.430 guy. This is not, of course, the be-all and end-all of sabermetrics, because, like all baseball analysts, stats guys would rather have the guy who does everything well, including speed and batting average. The Phillies, who won a World Series in large part because of the contributions of Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell, two men whose mobility is measured on a geological scale, know this well.
Burrell and Howard are two men who played the field because they had to. Given the opportunity to remove one or both of their gloves from the field, it’s likely that the Phillies would have done so (I’m ignoring Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs DHing during the 2008 World Series). One of the most attractive aspects of expanding the DH to both leagues, from a player union perspective, is that it extends the careers of, as James put it, “old fat guys who hit home runs.” That’s 15 more full-time jobs for the likes of Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, both relegated to spot duty and pinch-hitting on National League teams. And with big power numbers and big RBI totals come big money.
From a team’s perspective, Verducci mentions in his article, it takes some of the risk out of giving long-term, big-money deals to guys who either have only patience and power as virtues (Prince Fielder) or guys who will have only patience and power as virtues (Albert Pujols). If you can provide nothing but walks and home runs, and you don’t have to play the field, you can still be quite valuable, provided you produce lots of walks and home runs, as I’m sure Fielder will, well into his lunar phase.
If you’re manning a DH spot with someone who walks and hits home runs, and you’re judicious about your basestealing as a team, that’s smart. And while the DH makes it easier for fan favorites like Manny Ramirez and Thome to stick around, which is nice, allowing such players to extend their careers is the most underrated negative impact of the designated hitter.
Saying this borders on sabermetric apostasy, but from a spectator’s perspective, walks and home runs are spectacularly overrated. I’d much rather see close plays on the bases, singles, doubles, triples, stolen bases, spectacular defensive plays, all the things that slap-and-run speed merchants can do but full-time DH types can’t. I like a tape measure blast as much as the next guy, and the ability to turn a game on its ear on a single pitch with a three-run bomb is…well…titillating.
But what’s the cost? Last season, Jim Thome came to the plate 324 times. He produced no triples and no stolen base attempts, and he hit 15 home runs, drew 46 walks, and struck out 92 times. That’s 324 times to the plate, and 153 of those (47.2 percent of his plate appearances) resulted in one of the three true outcomes. The defense might as well go pee and get some popcorn when Thome comes up. Put another way: it takes at least 10 men on the field at one time to play baseball, more if you’ve got baserunners. But in nearly half of Thome’s plate appearances, at least 70 percent of the men on the field were doing bugger-all. That’s an unacceptable amount of inactivity, even for baseball.
Consider Thome’s Twins teammate Ben Revere. Revere came to the plate 481 times in 2011, and posted an OPS more than 200 points lower than Thome’s, though as a center fielder, Revere was worth about the same as Thome above replacement, at least on a per-plate-appearance basis. Revere was hit by two pitches, drew 26 walks, struck out 41 times and did not hit a home run. By contrast, he hit five triples and attempted to steal 43 times. The defense was inactive when Revere batted only 14.3 percent of the time. When Revere hits, everyone plays. When Thome hits, everyone watches.
Considering Revere’s defensive ability, I’d rather watch him play than Thome, regardless of how much Jim Thome makes me wish I had a genial Uncle Gus who took me trap shooting on weekends and made his own hot sauce for fun. For my money, the most exciting (and only truly electrifying) baseball player of the past 20 years has been Ichiro, a guy who never walked, but was tons of fun to watch on defense and slapped and ran his way to a Hall of Fame career. Not only are strikeouts boring and fascist, but so are walks and, to a lesser extent, home runs. Baseball is at its most fun (if not at its optimal strategy) when stolen bases are attempted often and with reckless abandon, when fly balls and line drives are dived for, and when the extra base is taken. With every team that adopts the DH, another lead-footed retread takes a job away from a potentially exciting (and usually new and young) player.
Divided We Fall
Forgive me for being reactionary, traditionalist, and anti-intellectual, but if baseball is once again to be united under a common flag, it should be a flag under which pitchers bat. The DH represents everything that’s wrong with baseball: the sedentary, the path-dependent, the risk-averse.
I accept that the designated hitter is coming to the National League, and I’m resigned to that, because, considering how old the Phillies are getting, it might benefit them. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The designated hitter is, and always will be, a gimmick solution that no one had the presence of mind to reject as short-sighted and ham-fisted. And it’s the only form of baseball our children and grandchildren will ever know.
I don’t expect anyone to be persuaded by this little outburst, and I don’t really care. I just really hate the designated hitter, and everything it represents. And I thought y’all might like to know.