Forty-one years ago, a group of desperate men made a desperate decision. The American League lagged far behind the National League, in terms of average attendance, perceived quality of play and number of star players. In those days, Bud Selig had not yet made the Commissioner a god among men. The leagues maintained separate offices, separate umpiring crews and separate supplies of baseballs. This meant that the AL could scarcely even draw on the NL’s success as a model, let alone as an actual resource, but it also gave them some freedom to experiment.
The experiment they chose was the designated hitter. The pitcher would no longer bat, and in his place, each team could choose their best spare batter and have him do nothing but hit each time the lineup rolled over.
They had two goals in mind:
- Increase offense, and therefore, boost fan interest.
- Claim experimentation and excitement as the AL’s territory, leaving hidebound, traditionalist baseball to the National League.
It’s worked, perhaps better than even the DH’s inventors could have ever imagined. The AL scores at roughly a five-percent higher rate than the NL. It’s considered the far superior league in terms of total quality, and by any measurement of star power, the AL outshines the NL.
The NL never has hopped onto the DH gravy train, though, and over time, the institution of the DH has lost its historical mooring. The DH is now the only significant difference between the two leagues, which are (finally) of equal size, employ the same set of umpires and play with balls bearing Bud Selig’s signature. As such, the DH has been cast as an intentional, fundamental differentiator. Its absence is treated as the NL’s sacred acknowledgement of its longer history, a bastion of purity in a game gone commercial.
Again, though, it really began as a last-ditch effort to bring balance to an unbalanced baseball universe. It’s needed again, in that capacity. This time, it needs to save the National League.
Let’s get the aesthetics arguments out of the way, because there is merit on each side of that issue, but the issue itself is going to be washed out momentarily. So:
Pros and Cons of the DH, Aesthetically
|Because the pitcher’s spot doesn’t gobble up a player or two per game via pinch-hitting, teams can better accommodate platoon and other players with value beyond playing every day.||The role of bench players is diminished, within games, because all nine players (presumably) will take their turns each time through the lineup.|
|Sacrifice bunts, a lame and often wrong-headed strategy, are far, far less common, and the decision to deploy them is more nuanced.||Bunts in general, which lend the game a greater sense of team play and can result in exciting plays, are more rare when everyone in the order can handle the bat.|
|Starting pitchers, the most significant characters in any game, never get lifted simply because their spot in the batting order is due.||Pitchers who can hit, one of the game’s most delightful small things, have no value, since they never do bat.|
|The hideousness of most pitchers batting is removed from the otherwise beautiful game. Great hitters with hardly any defensive value have an extra chance to fit into a lineup. Players are asked to do mostly the things they do well.||Being one-dimensional is less damaging, which allows a lot of not-so-well-rounded players to get regular playing time.|
Again, you can make valid points in favor or against the DH, on aesthetic grounds. Personally, I adore pitchers who can hit. I think it signifies admirable all-around athleticism and commitment, and I love the games such pitchers play with the minds of their opponents. When pitchers pinch-hit in Hour 5 of an extra-inning slog, my heart melts.
No article of enjoyment or amusement, though, can overwhelm the competitive damage the imbalance has done to the National League lately. Here’s a list of all the ways the DH’s presence in the AL, and absence in the NL, creates a competitive gap that can’t be ignored, nor easily fixed:
- Beginning in about the early 1990s, baseball really embraced the idea that a first baseman can be as plodding, stone-handed and disinterested as he wanted, so long as he could hit the tar out of the ball. Most teams still prefer a guy who can at least present an athletic target and stretch to grab slightly errant throws, but first baseman have been selected purely for offense for two decades now. That means that, with the DH in place, the AL has two such slots in the lineup, while NL teams have just one.
- There are at least two corollaries to that issue. One is that, because the DH slot provides a margin for error, American League teams can better afford to take the risk of signing a free agent (or a high-school draftee, for that matter) who fits only at first base, if that. The other is that American League teams, with their longer lineups and an extra spot to store power hitters, can better afford a first baseman who fields his spot exceptionally well, but lacks in either on-base or power skills at the plate.
- Broadening the positional and defensive implications, American League teams can better afford a glove-first shortstop, or catcher, or center fielder. One hole in a lineup can be worthwhile, if the defensive gain is great enough. Two is a death sentence, most of the time. The National League has a built-in lineup hole.
- As mentioned in the table, American League teams can better carry platoon players, pinch-runners and guys who may need a day off or more per week, because the lack of a pitcher’s spot gives the bench more flexibility.
- Alternatively, an AL team can afford to carry fewer bench players in the first place, adding an extra, fresh arm to the bullpen.
- Since there are no pitchers providing easy outs in the middle of rallies, AL teams require higher-quality pitchers to do the same work. Again, a value imbalance arises.
I could go on here, but you get the idea. Having the DH in one league, but not the other, creates an inefficiency in the market, and not the fun kind. At the dawn of the DH era, that wasn’t a huge deal, but with the birth of free agency, NL and AL teams had a forum in which to compete for the same pool of players. Ever since, the AL has made slow, inexorable gains in relative strength, many of them stemming from the DH’s impact on gameplay.
Of course, this could all be used as an argument to do away with the DH altogether, as well as one for using it in both leagues. I prefer the latter solution for the following reasons:
- The slow erosion of innings pitched by starting pitchers. Not only does that guarantee programmed pinch-hitting later in games, but eliminating the DH would accelerate the move toward shorter starts—since many NL pitchers are lifted when their spot comes up, not when they really run out of gas.
- Pitchers are actually getting worse at hitting. Their collective OPS in the early 1970s hovered around .370. It’s now more like .340. You feel that difference. Their at-bats have gotten more unwatchable even in my 15 years as a baseball fan.
- The MLBPA would certainly be more open to adding DHs than to eliminating them; the latter could be seen as a cutback, and would shorten some players’ careers considerably.
- Baseball today needs more offense, not less.
It’s a tangled mess of an issue, with lots of nostalgia and subjectivity to weigh before making a decision. At this point, though, I don’t see the half-and-half approach as viable, and the games is better with the DH than without it.Next post: MLB Power Rankings: A Word Per Game Played
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