The DH

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.

The Royals sign DH Kendrys Morales for $17M over 2 years.

Kendrys-Morales_20130830151708371_660_3201

After a patient week at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, the Royals finally made a move to improve their club by signing switch-hitting power DH Kendrys Morales to a two year, $17 million with performance incentives up to $18.5 million. With the addition of Morales the Royals have addressed one of their three major needs.

Morales played with the Angels from 2006-2011, joined the Mariners from 2012-2013, and he chose to turn down his qualifying offer entering free agency prior to the 2014 season. Mistake. No team wanted to surrender the draft pick to add Morales and he remained a free agent until finally Minnesota picked him up in June. He played 39 games with the Twins before being sent back to Seattle to help a Mariners playoff push that never came to fruition.

With such a tumultuous offseason, it’s not surprising that Morales’s 2014 production dipped significantly from his 2012-2013 campaigns. In fact, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2014 hitting .218/.274/.338 and only 8 HRs in 98 games split between two clubs.

Thus, the primary question we’re all asking of Morales is whether 2014 was an anomaly or the start of a legitimate decline in ability.

Personally, I’m willing to look past his 2014 campaign. I don’t know what missing Spring Training and the first 2 months of the season can do to a baseball player physically and mentally, but it certainly isn’t ideal and is an easy explanation for such a decline. Sure, Morales is 31 and probably past his peak athleticism, but a drop that significant seems to be an obvious result of bizarre contract circumstances. He hit .280/.333/.480 from 2006-2013. To me, that outweighs 2014 enough to sign the guy called upon to replace Billy Butler.

The Royals chose to let Butler leave for free agency rather than picking up his $12.5 million option for 2015. Dayton Moore was quoted yesterday as having some regret for not bringing him back. It seems the DH market was thinner than anticipated which is likely why they ultimately seemed to panic and sign Morales to a somewhat pricey contract. That amount – $17M over 2 years – seems a bit high, but the Royals likely didn’t have much choice. With such a thin DH market, they were likely going to have to overpay no matter what. It’s the market they were presented with, unfortunately.

Everyone wants to compare Billy to Kendrys, and I’m no different. Billy gets on base more often (.359 vs .324 OBP), but Kendrys hits more homers (18 vs 25 HR/162 game avg). Billy is three years younger. Morales grounds into almost as many double plays as Billy does. Neither are fast. Both can play first base if called upon.

So, yeah, Billy Butler scores out as the slightly better player, and his contract in Oakland ($30M over 3 years) reflects that as would his contract in Kansas City had they decided to pick up his 2015 option.

Except the primary beef on Billy over the years has been this: for a DH he lacks power. Some of that is due to playing in an expansive Kauffman Stadium, but at this point we all know he’s a singles hitter with the occasional double to the gap. So before we get too far down the “why did we let Billy go, he was this team’s savior” road, let’s not forget that Ned Yost benched Billy down the stretch due to his lack of production, and we were all begging for Dayton Moore to ship him away at the trade deadline. Just because the dude had a few key hits in the postseason and took out a full page “thank you” ad in the KC Star on Thanksgiving, don’t let that cloud our eyes from our past frustrations about Billy. Fans have always had a love/hate relationship with Billy Butler, and I’m sure our relationship with Morales will be the same. I think relationships with DH’s are just like that – they have one specific job (hitting), and when they’re good at it, we love them, and when they’re bad it at, we don’t.

Kendrys Morales can drive the ball – specifically fastballs from the right side of the plate – and he can drive them farther than Billy Butler can. He just doesn’t do it quite as regularly. So it’s a trade off: OBP vs HRs. We needed a power bat and the DH was one of our primary needs. It’s not a sexy pick up, and Morales doesn’t solve all of our problems in a single player, but assuming he has even the slightest bounce back from 2014, he helps this team maintain it’s DH production from a year ago (which, we also can’t forget, wasn’t anything to write home about anyway).

And just because he’s not everything that Billy Butler was, we’re saving $3.5M this season by adding a player in Morales who is very close to Butler in OBP and exceeds him in HR. This seems like a lateral move overall, and that’s what this team needs to do. I’m fine with it.

Which means that $3.5M can be used elsewhere.

Remember that scene at the beginning of Moneyball when Billy Beane and his old school scouts are all trying to figure out how to replace Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen? They didn’t need to replace each one individually, they simply needed to replace their collective value. We need to do the same.

Butler had a WAR of -0.3 in 2014, but averages 1.6 over his career.
Aoki: 1.0 in 2014. 2.5 career.
Shields: 3.3 in 2014. 3.0 career.

Interestingly, they all had down seasons in 2014 (even Shields compared to recent years). For consistency’s sake, that means we need to replace a cumulative 4.0 WAR from 2014, but maybe closer to 7.2 WAR for their careers.

Morales had a WAR of -0.3 in 2014 – same as Billy, amazingly – and has a career average of 1.2 WAR. Added power. Lost OBP. So what we’d like to be able to find is two guys whose cumulative WAR is in the 4.0 to 5.0 range and we’ll come out ahead and we have more power to show for it with more money to invest in it.

Easier said than done? Of course it is. Looking strictly at the numbers makes the whole game seem like cake. But my point isn’t to solve the equation as much as it is to offer the equation itself.

We still need pieces, and it’s possible when all is said and done that the addition of Kendrys Morales will look just fine in conjunction with a right fielder and a starting pitcher (and I might even throw in a utility man who can add value off the bench…or in place of Omar Infante if the Royals happen to find any suitors).

One small caveat here before I wrap this up: I am a bit confused as to how this signing happened after all the conversation about the Royals utilizing a flexible DH spot in 2015 to get Salvy and others a few days off in the field. To me, adding a RF/DH hybrid was what needed to happen to provide that sort of fluidity, but alas, looks like we’re stuck with Salvy’s catching another 150+ games in 2015.

What I’m saying is that Morales is only one piece of the offseason puzzle. Hopefully my optimism in Morales bouncing back is not misplaced. There are still more moves to come, so calm down, Kansas City. The offseason is long – it’s December 11 and we have until early March to make moves – and Dayton Moore is not done adding pieces for 2015.

Stay the course, and let’s all revisit the Morales deal in March when the roster is set and in October when the Royals take the crown.

-apc.

Photo here: It’s All About the Money