There are two types of way people typically get into pools, oceans, or other potentially cold bodies of water: slowly, by dipping a toe into the water and slowly lowering themselves in, usually grimacing due to the chill, or all at once by jumping into the pool or an oncoming wave.
Yesterday John dipped his toe in the water. What I’m referring to is the stir he caused by making the absurd suggestion that the National League adopt the designated hitter so that NL pitchers would no longer be forced to bat. His position, shaped in part by Kyle Kendrick not understanding that his current job description actually requires him to participate in the offensive side of the game, is that pitchers should pitch and not hit, because they’re not good at hitting. There’s also an argument in there about congruity between leagues, which has merit as well. Simple enough reasoning, but much like the rule instituting the DH, flawed.
Rule 6.10(b) states, "A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers…" The principle behind this rule seems sound, positing that we should not subject ourselves to watching players who are awful at hitting, but provide a valuable contribution on the other side of the ball, regularly fail at hitting. Although failure can sometimes be entertaining, sport ought not be about shadenfreude. At least not predominantly, anyway.
Thus, if we stop forcing players who are terrible at batting from doing just that, substituting a hitting specialist, and allow them to concentrate on their non-offensive skills the overall quality of the game should improve. A Platonic ideal form of the Batter v. Pitcher confrontation, if you will, awaits if we just get rid of those highly flawed hitters. The problem is the DH doesn’t allow us to consistently do that. Imagine a game in which [Almost Anyone] is the starting pitcher and [A Phillies reserve infielder – Freddy Galvis/Jayson Nix/Michael Martinez/whoever] is the starting shortstop. In such a scenario, you’re forced to waste your DH on a batter who is probably not the worst hitter in the lineup. The DH discriminates against good hitting pitchers and awful hitting fielders. This is a problem if we’re trying to put the best product on the field
I have an unfortunate tendency to look for hard and fast precepts around which a set of rules can be based. This can lead to difficulty when operating in a world that is undeniably many shades of grey, but the notion that a set of first principles that guides later decisions is, I think, a sound starting place. With respect to the DH, this means that the first principle might be to come up with a set of rules that are as congruous between teams and leagues as possible and which allow for the best and most entertaining baseball possible to be played. One step in getting to such a set of rules would be minimize the number of times players are forced to perform tasks at which they stink.
An obvious solution, and the one I’ve come to prefer, is not the commonly suggested addition of the DH rule to the NL, but to do as I suggested in the comment section of John’s article:
Yup, I’m jumping headlong into the pool. Rewrite the DH rule entirely, expanding the use of designated hitters to include all position players, not just the pitcher. On its face this may seem like a drastic step, but it’s really not and has in fact been employed elsewhere:
Some success indeed.
A warning, conservatives, the arguments you’re about to proffer in opposition to this idea have likely already been made, typically in the 1950s and 60s by football "traditionalists." Speaking in 1953, Tuss McLaughry said of the NCAA’s decision to go back to a one-platoon system.
"The two-platoon system was like having a team of hitters and a team of fielders in baseball. Now we’ll go back to playing the game as it was played for seventy-five years—the way it ought to be played."
Unfortunately for ole Tuss, the NFL never followed suit and their supposedly-flawed version of separate hitters and fielders has seen, as schmenkman put it, "some success." The college game returned to a two-platoon system in the early 1960s and it also seems to have weathered the transition quite well.
Sure, some of the arguments against the DH in general do deserve a genuine response, thus I feel the onus is on the guy who wants 9 DHs to assuage those concerns.
I must first admit that I’m not swayed by arguments appealing to the "tradition" of the game. Truth is, this game has no sacrosanct traditions. Instant replay, a second wild card, realignments, constantly evolving roster construction, exhibition games deciding home field advantage for the World Series, the "steroid era," interleague play, the first wildcard, expansion of the playoffs, a World Series cancelled, bullpen specialists, season length changes, collusion, blackballing, the introduction of the DH, the raising of the mound, changing roster sizes, the advent of free agency, integration, playing at night, sliders, home run hitters, continually improving conditioning of players, and the evolution of equipment are just a few of the dozens of significant changes to the "traditional" game we’ve seen. Baseball has been fundamentally changing since Abner Doubleday never invented the damn game.
To those who claim that strategic decisions will be eliminated, that’s not necessarily the case at all. First, however, I feel it’s necessary to point out that given the state of managerial decisions, I’m not sure giving coaches more opportunities to hoist themselves on their own petards is necessarily something we need to keep in the game; do people really go to baseball games to watch a well laid but strategically moronic sacrifice bunt? That said, things like roster construction, bullpen construction and usage, batting lineups, rotation setups, sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, etc. will all still be part of the game. I’m not proposing we turn baseball into some foreign sport, I just want the best hitters to hit, the best pitchers to pitch, and the best fielders to field exclusive of each other, if that’s how the talent falls. Imagine the different types of offensive lineups that teams may wish to field. There’s no reason some teams wouldn’t try to field a club full of speedy, high OBP guys, for those who prefer that style of baseball to the three true outcome style. Going to a designated offense doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has a walk rate above 10% and hits 30 taters. That just won’t happen.
There is another claim that we’ll lose the excitement of moments like these:
Perhaps. But pause for a moment, and ask yourself why were those moments so exciting? They were amazing moments in Philadelphia sports because something unusual and quite unexpected occurred which helped the Phillies win the game/series/championship. And that’s great! The key element here is that the excitement was due not to the mere fact that those were pitchers batting, but that the outcome of that situation was quite unexpected. It’s the surprise more than anything else, and with the two-platoon system of baseball you’ll still have plenty of high leverage, unexpected moments, they’ll just be different kinds of unexpected moments, just as entertaining because those events, whatever they happen to be, will also be timely and surprising.
Finally, there’s the claim that the game is already too long and adding better offensive players will only lengthen it. A valid concern, but I’m not saying the expanded DH is the only rule that can be implemented. If, for example, you want to also implement a pitch clock and a batter clock, go for it. Banish the Phanatic to the stands during the game, if you must. I have no objection to speeding up the game, and there are plenty of reasonable ways to go about doing it, I’m simply not addressing that concern here. I'm merely focusing on the designated hitter concept, trying to formulate a system that is fair for both leagues and at the same time improves the product on the field.
There are a few other added benefits to this proposed two-platoon rule, in addition to a better quality product on the field, more value should flow to the best all-around athletes. Players who can save their team roster spots by excelling on both sides of the field would certainly command more than staid power hitters with no defensive value whatsoever. And the players union should love the suggestion, seeing as it adds hundreds of major-league level jobs. Anything that pulls more players out of the exploitation factory that is minor league baseball has got to be a net positive, no? (I'll ignore, for the moment, the probable result of more players ending up in the minor leauges, as their rosters expand accordingly)
Will this happen? No, not for a while, if ever. The NL will eventually adopt the DH, because the incongruous system in which the AL uses a DH and the NL does not is, in the current era of continuous interleague play, too flawed. Senior circuit teams are at a disadvantage when it comes to roster construction and find themselves on the outside looking in when guys like Jose Abreu hit the market. Hell, the only reason the NL doesn’t currently have designated hitters batting for pitchers is because Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter was fishing during the vote. Owners will almost assuredly be against such a proposal, as it means they’ll have to spend a bit more money in ancillary costs (lodging, insurance, transportation, etc.), although the luxury tax should ensure that total salary expenditures don’t much change. Of course, a proposal that the owners are universally against is probably a point in favor of said proposal.
Sport fandom is a funny phenomenon. We invest emotion, countless hours, and significant sums of money in rooting for players in one uniform to beat players in another uniform because those guys in the first uniform are paid to represent the city with which you associate, only to be ultimately let down the vast majority of the time, seeing as there’s only one team out of 30 that can possibly win the championship. Yes, we’re entertained, but only because we’ve been conditioned to allow ourselves to be entertained by this frivolity. I say this to acknowledge that following sports isn’t necessarily a rational endeavor, and so I’m well aware that appeals to reason are unlikely to sway strongly held opinions on a topic which is inherently irrational to begin with. I just ask that you open your mind to the possibility. If we’re going to do the DH thing, and I fear that part is inevitable, let’s at least go all out and do it right. Dive on in, the water’s fine.