The Designated Hitter
One of the most polarizing arguments within the baseball world revolves around the designated hitter. Created in 1973, this position is the only distinguishable difference between the two different leagues, with the American League incorporating the position. While this discrepancy between the two leagues does not seem to have a large impact on the game, it gives the AL advantages over the NL in nearly every aspect of the game. With this inequality between the leagues, the Commissioner has two options to balance things out, remove the advantages or universally allow them. In other words, the Commissioner needs to decide whether or not to allow or abolish the designated hitter from the game. With respect to the traditional history of the game, it is in everyone’s best interest to fully integrate the designated hitter.
As may have been noticed in the recent off-seasons, most notably with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, AL general managers use the DH as a lucrative bargaining chip when attempting to sign high-value free agents. Under the current system, AL GM’s are able to offer longer term contracts to these players, knowing full well that there will be a sharp decline in player performance. However, general managers also know that they can stash aging hitters in the DH role when the time comes (a position that limits the appearance of deteriorating player abilities). That’s not to say that these long-term investments are/or aren’t wise, that’s the basis of another argument, but it does display the thinking of American League GM’s, which for the Angels, has lured two of the best hitters to Anaheim in the last two off-seasons. The incorporation of the designated hitter into the NL will remove the AL advantage of signing top-tier hitters, an adjustment that would most likely have left Pujols in St. Louis.
Managers also appreciate the DH because they are given greater flexibility in their lineups. In the AL, coaches are able to stash one more powerful bat or speedster on their bench, even if that bat comes with a defensive liability. They can also use it to keep their bench involved in a manner far more inclusive than the current NL pinch hitter. If a manger chooses to rotate through a couple bench DH’s, these players will continually see game time reps, reducing the amount of rust they develop on the pine. The DH also allows managers to give players more frequent rest by having players play one side of the ball, while still contributing to the game. This helps to maintain player health and allows injured players to have another stepping stone in rehab when they return from injury.
While some may argue that the expansion of the DH will kill the “small ball” style current used in the National League, consequently rendering the manager useless, the opposite appears to be true. If anything, the manager’s role is expanded with the addition of an additional hitter in the lineup. More emphasis is placed on lineup creation, as different DH’s can produce different results. High OBP/power guys can help create run production, while speedsters will be able to do the “small ball” moves typically done by an NL pitcher in the nine hole. However, when comparing the speedster to your standard pitcher, the speedster poses a stronger threat, with his ability to beat out throws in the field and on the base paths. Thus, the elimination of the “small ball” style of play is not in the hands of the commissioner and his handling of the DH, but rather rests with the mangers and their use of the DH position.
Players will appreciate the full incorporation of the DH because it offers job security with the longer contracts listed above, and more ability to rest and/or recuperate. That’s not to say all players will approve of the incorporation of the DH, as pitchers will see their stats rise. However, this can more appropriately be called a normalization. Under the current use of the DH, pitchers in the AL are forced to face one more bat in the lineup, and this additional hitter results in higher ERA’s, lower IP, and higher WHIP’s. These numbers do have some weight in contract negotiations, and when AL pitchers are compared to NL pitchers, it leads to questions regarding the quality of the pitcher. However, if the designated hitter were expanded to the NL, pitchers in both leagues could be evaluated on a more level playing field, as this discrepancy would be eliminated. Furthermore, pitchers would no longer have to worry about developing injuries in the batter’s box or on the base paths, resulting in improved long term health.
While pitchers might disapprove of the uptick in offensive production, fans would not be opposed to the greater possibility of home runs. This offensive uptick will not entirely remove pitcher duels, or pitching gems either. In fact, 7 of the last 10 perfect games occurred in the American League. Thus, while there is an increase in offense, which can result in a greater fan experience, it does not eliminate the possibility of great pitching matches.
While the designated hitter breaks off from the traditional understanding of baseball, it serves to improve the baseball experience for all parties involved in the game. If something were to improve the game of baseball in such a way, why shouldn’t it be incorporated?
David Ortiz is an example of the type of player who has benefited from the DH rule.
Why shouldn’t the DH be incorporated? Because not only has it limited innovation and strategy, but it gave birth to the steroid era and glorified those that were ruining the integrity of the game. With the switch of the Houston Astros to the American League and the change in schedule so that Interleague play takes place throughout the course of the season, the next step is to institute a DH in both leagues. However, the DH represents everything the game of baseball should be moving away from, and should it be instituted in both leagues, will make managers and strategy a thing of the past.
The DH is bad for the game because the steroid era was bad for the game. Monetarily, the owners made a killing with the renewed interest from fans interested in the home run races, but when it came out that these former heroes were just cheaters, the game was forever tainted for many fans. While the DH was first instituted in 1973 and many of the steroid users were in the National League, the DH characterized a change in what baseball was about. It put power over drawing a walk or stealing a base. Individual glory over that of the team. The DH characterized all of these traits because it showed that you could make a living playing baseball as a power hitter and nothing else. You didn’t have to field, you didn’t need to know situational strategy. If you could hit home runs, teams could find a place for you in their order. And is it any coincidence at all that about 25-30 years later baseball endured its worst scandal in its history? Is it any wonder that these athletes acted selfishly and took PEDs to give themselves more power? Baseball players grow up idolizing the players that came before them. Kids watch the pros and want to be just like them. So when the switch over to the DH took place a whole generation of young players grew up under the “new” version of the game. The version that rewarded power over everything. The version that showed players making the big bucks for hitting homers. And when it came down to it, young players were willing to do whatever it took to up their numbers and their glory.
From an owner’s standpoint, the designated hitter makes sense. He doesn’t have to risk the health of his pitchers by making them run the bases and bat and ticket sales go up by advertising towering home runs and more scoring. But for the true fans and the students of the game, the DH is not much more than a cheat code. The DH allows a manager to just insert a hitter that cannot field into every lineup. It also means that late in the game, there is less intrigue or strategy, as it erases the need for double-switches or pinch runners. The players on a bench are changed from defensive specialists and runners to utility players that are there to give the normal starters a rest. In essence, a manager can draw up his lineup card, and then not make a single switch for the entire game.
Another argument for the DH is that it allows teams to give older players contracts with less risk, as they do not need to worry about defensive liabilities that often develop late in a career. The players’ union likes the DH because older power hitting type players like David Ortiz and Adam Dunn can still get big contracts and stick around for longer. This argument is valid, but there is a way to get around it…
My alternative: Raise the size of active roster from 25 to 26 players. Not only does this allow for managers to have one more guy to fit their style of managing, be it a speed specialist or an extra reliever, but it also makes the players’ union happy since they get to have more players in the majors making money. With an expanded roster, teams would still be able to have that extra power hitter if they chose, but he may be relegated to a late-inning pinch hitting role instead of getting 4 at bats a game. If anything, this will actually increase the possibility of late-inning heroics and fans will get their intrigue while TV stations get their ratings. Most happy with this change will be the managers, as most managers live for the matchups and substitutions that they can make late in a game to give their team the best possibility of winning.
The designated hitter should be done away with altogether and an increased importance placed on all aspects of the game. This is not football where there is an offense and a defense. Baseball players are athletes and must be able to play all parts of the game. That is why baseball is the hardest sport and why it is the best.