The DH

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And here we go again.

Last week, Bartolo Colon got his first RBI hit since 2005. We all laughed and had a jolly time with it, celebrating how fun it can be when a blind squirrel finds a nut. For a moment, it seemed like there were worse things in the world than pitchers swinging a bat.

This week, Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals staff ace, was batting and hit a weak infield pop up. He stumbled out of the batters box limping. The moment I saw it, I knew it was an achilles injury. Wainwright, typically a decent hitter, is going to miss the rest of the season. Which is absolutely devastating for the Cardinals, their fans, and baseball itself.

Also over the weekend, Max Scherzer injured his thumb during an at bat. The former Tiger and now Washington staff ace is expected to miss a start or two. And with those two injuries, lines are being drawn in the dirt again.

First of all, both of these injuries were flukey to say the least. Waino took a swing and on his first step out of the box, his back ankle just gave out on him. He could’ve done the same thing jumping off the mound to field a grounder or covering first base on a ball to first, or walking out of the dugout for crying out loud. And I’m sorry, but Scherzer’s is pitiful. Dude can’t swing a bat without straining his thumb? That’s weak.

It was Scherzer who really ignited the DH argument though, having this to say:

“If you look at it from the macro side, who’d people rather see hit — Big Papi or me? Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper? Both leagues need to be on the same set of rules.”

Apparently Scherzer wasn’t aware that by taking more money from the Nationals he would have to pretend to bat a couple times each start. Nevertheless, he has ignited again the argument all baseball fans have had a million times at this point: DH or no DH? 

And where do you lie? Power-thirsty AL fans want the DH to be universal because everyone wants to see more home runs and higher scoring games, right? Strategy-loving NL traditionalists want pitchers to keep hitting .089 and balk at the fact that a player would get paid to only play half the game because everyone wants to see a pitchers dual, right?

You probably already know where I stand, but if you don’t, I’ll remind you: I align myself with the NL fans, and for a few different reasons.

Yes, I’m a Royals fan, and I enjoy trips to #DongTown just as much as the next guy, but I grew up a Cardinals fan and was taught that baseball is primarily a mental game. It’s strategy and fundamentals over the course of a marathon season. Call me a traditionalist if you want, I don’t care, but baseball is a game of 9 players, and the beauty of it is that all 9 players play both sides. At its core, the DH goes against the game.

Interestingly, since the DH was introduced, pitchers have slowly hit worse and worse. Over the past 40 years, pitcher batting average has dropped consistently – from .150 in 1975 to .089 so far in 2015.

This shouldn’t be shocking. Sports are different now. When pitchers know they won’t have to hit, they can specialize in in pitching and ignore the other part of the game. Everybody has to specialize these days.

In middle school and high school, the pitcher is typically one of the most athletic guys on the field. They play both sides and they play both well. But these days, when players graduate high school and get drafted into professional baseball, they quit practicing half of their game and focus on improving their pitching.

Well, no wonder their production at the plate has plummeted over the years – they quit swinging the bat the day they get signed! Today, young pitchers can bank even more on the fact they might not have to bat ever! The less they care to work on their swing, the worse they’ll look at the plate.

However, some pitchers, Madison Bumgarner for example, take great pride in their hitting and work hard at it. Bumgarner has two career grand slams and I still can’t stand the guy for what he did in October, so forget what he thinks anyway.

Still, is there anything more rewarding as a pitcher than “helping your own cause,” as they say? When you can put up runs and produce on the mound, that’s a special night. Like many of us, I think of Zack Greinke when I think about pitchers hitting. I bet he would’ve loved to take some hacks during those 2007-09 seasons with Kansas City. If a pitcher can hit better than the opposing pitcher, it’s a huge advantage for a team.

It also holds pitchers like Jeff Samardzija accountable because they themselves might get plunked. Think twice next time, says Kelvin Herrera.

That said, I agree – pitchers are generally terrible hitters. In the pros, they have never been and will never be great. They were better before, no doubt, but still mostly bad. And now they are worse than ever. Yet it only happens two or three times each game, and if they’re strategic with it, pitchers can make productive outs to advance the baserunner by bunting or just putting the ball in play. So don’t hear me wrong -I’m not trying to argue that pitchers are good hitters here (though they were better, once upon a time). 

Okay but enough about pitchers. Let’s go at it from another angle. Specifically, the DH angle.

You want to talk about the embarrassment that is pitchers hitting? Fine. Then let’s also talk about the embarrassment of designated-hitters fielding and throwing. Just like I wrote in my bit on Billy Butler last week, designated hitters are, at maximum, two-dimensional. They can hit for power and average. They’re professional hitters. They are not ballplayers.

I think much more highly of an all around ballplayer than a two-dimensional slugger. They’re more fun to watch and make the game beautiful.

I also think the DH does an injustice to these fundamentally sound defensively versatile guys like Josh Harrison or Daniel Descalso or Don Kelly or Ben Zobrist – guys who can go out and play multiple positions, and field them all well hit for decent average too. These guys don’t have the WAR value that pure DHs do, but how would they? Designated hitters are only expected to do the one thing they’re good at! They aren’t demerited for their lack of defensive ability or arm. Today’s culture values offense and devalues defense, and it’s an injustice to guys who can provide flexibility to a lineup.

They also don’t get paid for their skills the way DHs do, which is a shame.

Granted, these are just four random players who can play multiple positions, but they all have different stories based on their abilities and league. Descalso and Kelly both come off the bench in opposite leagues (well, until Kelly went to Miami this offseason). Descalso ends up playing nearly every day in the NL – 1380 plate appearances worth 1.1 WAR in 5 years with the Cardinals (with Colorado now). He’s very comparable to Don Kelly, but Kelly has only seen 1157 in his 6 years with the Tigers, worth slightly less: 0.8 WAR.

Harrison and Zobrist are both starters in the NL and AL, respectively, who play multiple positions. Zobrist has been in the league much longer, and Harrison is just entering the prime of his career, but both provide so much flexibility for their teams. Zobrist, with the Rays/Athletics, has played every position but pitcher and catcher. Harrison, with the Pirates, has played every position but catcher, centerfield and first base – he even pitched 1/3 of an inning in 2013.

All that to say, both of these guys provide serious flexibility for their teams, and are extremely valuable especially in a National League lineup. When Zobrist was a free agent this offseason, I heard fans of every team across baseball wish they would add a Ben Zobrist – his versatility would make any team immediately better. Meanwhile, Billy Butler had about 4 teams who needed a guy of his…caliber. 

And the luxury for Clint Hurdle, the Pirates manager, to be able to pinch hit for any position player is so helpful because it allows Harrison to shift over. I mean, the primary reason Harrison has never played centerfield is obvious: you never hit for Andrew McCutchen.

But in the American League, there’s no need for flexibility. You just go out there and play the game in the same spot in the lineup in the same position every inning. It lacks creativity and limits ballplayers’ versatility. And to me, that’s way less fun.

The DH is the definition of inflexibility.

I’ve been playing a lot of Strat-o-matic with the 2014 Tampa Bay Rays lately, and Zobrist is such a weapon. His defensive versatility allows for so many options. He can play 2B, SS, LF, RF and CF, and he plays them all well. You can bring in stronger hitters off the bench at any position and Zobrist can easily shift fill in admirably wherever needed. That added value doesn’t show up in his own WAR, but is consistently putting his team in a better position. How much team WAR has been added over the years by Zobrist’s ability to move around, I wonder? Of course, Zobrist is an AL player who has been used by Billy Beane in creative ways, but my point is that flexibility is an underrated value in baseball these days.

Which is what I think is so great about baseball: it’s a team sport and each ballplayer may bring various strengths and weaknesses to a club, but ultimately each of them plays both ways.

So that’s a lot about the flexibility – or lack thereof – that the DH provides.

Finally and ultimately, I dislike the DH because it eliminates a lot of strategy in the game. I love the double switch when the pitcher gets pinch-hit for in the 7th. I love watching pitchers lay down a sacrifice bunt. I love how pitchers batting allows more bench players to see game time and play a role.

A few years ago, I was at an extra-inning Cardinals game where they pinch-ran with Joe Kelly, the fastest player still on their bench. Reminder: Joe Kelly is a pitcher. He scored from second on a Rafael Furcal single and the Cardinals walked off because of his speed.

You don’t see that in DHville. Instead, you’ll see a position player come in to pinch run for the bumblingly slow DH after his last at bat because his only contribution is over with. AL managers rarely get creative because the lineup never has to change and the manager never needs to adjust.

In the NL, the manager actually makes in-game decisions. In the AL, he just sets the lineup and makes the occasional pitching change.

I understand it’s not “fun” to watch pitchers hit, but again, it only happens two or three times per game and even those plate appearances can be productive at bats. The ability for pitchers to utilize a bat has plummeted over the past 30 years since the addition of the DH. But home runs aren’t the only thing fun about baseball.

Utilizing the bullpen becomes more challenging too to avoid the pitcher spot in the lineup. If you know your pitcher is leading off the next inning, you might think twice about taking out the current pitcher so you can pinch hit for him. This may even lead to poorer matchups in the short term simply in an attempt to conserve arms. Is it possible* that the NL sees a slight spike in HRs against the bullpen because the offense is getting better matchups? Hmm.

* – Somebody find me those stats. I’m too lazy to look it up right now. 

It is fun, at least for some of us, to watch teams make decisions with their bench and bullpen. Suddenly, having an intelligent manager makes all the difference. Baseball is a game os strategy, and the DH has eliminated so much of that portion of the game I love.

Anyway. The long and short of this discussion, I think, is that being able to have the argument between DH and P hitting is about the only thing that separates the AL and NL anymore. It used to be that you never saw anything of the other league except the All Star Game and the World Series. And then you’d root for your League because it wasn’t just about your team, but your League having the upper hand over the other one.

But everything has changed now. The AL/NL competition doesn’t exist anymore. The All-Star game means nothing (or should mean nothing, but does, in fact, determine home field advantage in the WS). Interleague play has the Royals traveling to Wrigley Field next month, and to St. Louis every year. There’s no mystery between the leagues and there’s certainly no more loyalty.

At this point, the designated hitter is the only point of contention. So my last reason for supporting no-DH in the National League is purely that – to maintain something different between the two so we have something that sets them apart. The AL will never get rid of the DH – there are too many multi-million dollar contracts being paid to guys who would suddenly be out of a job – and despite what people are saying, I don’t think the NL will adopt the DH anytime soon either.

They haven’t voted on it again since 1980, and those voting bodies don’t even exist anymore. It’s not going to change, and I’m very happy about that.

In the end, it’s a difference of opinion based on what baseball fans enjoy watching. Which is why I hope the status quo remains – fun for all.

Now that I’ve said my piece, all you power-thirsty AL fans can fire away. You won’t offend me if you think my perspective is archaic or under-evolved. I think the DH has caused the game to devolve in the wrong direction, personally. The game adjusts and changes for the better every season on its own. Look at defensive shifts just in the last few years – makes the game better. No need to make a drastic sweeping change to the fundamental structure of the game in order to continue to make baseball better. It was already a great game.

But, whatever. Go ahead and throw your stones.

-apc.

Photo cred: Getty Images, accessed here.

2 comments

  1. I think to frame the DH argument as people just looking for more home runs is too narrow. People want to see good hitting. They want to see professionals. And as you acknowledge, 99% of pitchers are no longer professional hitters. It isn’t fun to watch. Sure they can still be relatively productive with a bunt–which is still an out. And just because it only happens a few times a game (which added up is a lot of time given to essentially watching an amateur against a ML pitcher) doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth changing.

    I don’t really find the “strategy” argument compelling either. Yeah double-switches and bunts and extra-inning games running out of actual pitchers. It adds a type of “complexity” to the game, which is often called strategy. There is nothing more infuriating then watching a team intentionally walk the #8 hitter (even to load the bases) so that the pitcher can flail a wet newspaper and maybe come through .089% of the time. That is strategy, but not the kind of strategy I want to watch.

    Versatility may be an under-rated tool, but it applies whether you have a DH or not. Teams that have a hit-only DH are penalized for it, especially late in the game. It’s very limiting (i.e. Billy Butler). As more teams are moving away from the hit-only DH, they are giving position players a sort of half-day off. And those teams have more versatility because of it. It’s strategy.

    You admit the game has devolved in this direction. I would agree with that. I wish that pitchers had continued hitting (relatively) well and that it was still a part of the game. But times have changed. Difference for difference sake is not enough. Adding the DH makes baseball games much more watchable. We pay to see professionals play the game well. Even if it is a low-scoring game because a pitcher is dominating–good fans will want to watch that. We want to see people do things well, not pitching around professionals to get to the worthless pitcher holding a wet noodle.

    But I don’t expect to convince you. Just stating some of the other side.

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