On The DH

Posted by timahuwe on November 29, 2015 at 10:10 PM

As people look for things to talk about when baseball takes a few days off, the bi-polarity of the DH came up in a few places recently. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in just over a year. While the length of the season, integrity of the game, and draft issues might take center stage, normalizing the designated hitter ought to get more play than it does. However, it won't. As much as I don't like it in theory, the DH belongs in both leagues.

The common defense of the DH is 'tradition'. While I respect the idea, many traditions have gone away. Outhouses were a tradition, as were horse-drawn carriages, along with women being treated as property. When is it time to bid adieu to a tradition? One of the reasons to stop doing something is when it puts you at a competitive dis-advantage.

I can still remember watching the game in 1985. Rick Sutcliffe, who prided himself as a good hitter, hit one to the left side of the infield in a game in Atlanta. Respecting 90, he ran the ball out, taking that long last aggressive last step. His hamstring gave out, and he was never the same. It's well and good hearkening back to the days of Ferguson Jenkins being a good hitter. However, few pitchers are good enough hitters to justify the swings they take.

To be a good pro hitter, the most logical way to advance is to take hacks in Short-Season Ball. Then, move to A-Ball, Advanced A-Ball, then Double-A, and Triple-A, learning at each step how to be a better hitter. Pitchers don't hit as pros in many levels. They watch as hitters DH for them. The Northwest League employs the DH, as do the Midwest League and the Carolina League. It makes sense for multiple reasons.

As the goal is development in those leagues, development is best represented by a designated hitter getting in four at-bats in a game. The swings are what keeps them getting better. In some cases, they are most of the swings a guy gets in a week. It makes managing far easier, and it protects bull pens. The manager doesn't have to wrestle with burning his last outfielder in the tenth inning, hitting for a pitcher, just to see his CF pull up lame in the 14th inning. From a development standpoint, having a pitcher, who will likely never pitch in a big league park, hit seems rather a waste.

By this realization, players who have their career based on if they can hit, get the at bats.

Of course, in Double-A Ball, pitchers start to hit again. After a string of levels where they don't bat. A few years back, the Smokies went until August before they got a hit from a pitcher. Which really helped in their development.

American League teams have a huge edge when it comes to using the DH. Their pitchers are just that, They pitch. They don't run the bases. They don't hit. They pitch, and play defense. They don't blow out their hamstrings trying to reach on an infield hit. That is left to hitters. Rosters in the AL tend toward having an extra hitter. Even though the offenses are better, the pitchers don't have to worry about getting lifted for a pinch hitter. Therefore, they can pitch until they are done, one way or another.

The American League front office gets a huge edge when it comes to acquiring talent, with the DH. For instance, in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, NL squads have to use combinations and permutations. "How many wins will it cost us to have this guy that can't hit very well on our bench?" "Is it worth hiding this pitcher in the bullpen, when he might cost us a few games every season?"

In the American League, the thought process is a bit different.

"I don't really care about the last spot on our bench. We're in the AL. He wasn't going to play much anyway."

That is a rather large concession.

American League teams can grab guys with limited current contribution ability. An AL team figures they can make a roster move as needed to disable a veteran hitter, if needed. The "Rule 5 guy" won't play much anyway. The game can go 14 innings in the World Series, and the team will only use two or three reserves. Why would they use any more in a regular season game. 

Jose Bautista ended up with the Pirates for a few years, but eventually, the weight of his roster spot became too heavy. He was dealt to Toronto, in part, beacuse Toronto was in the American League. He wasn't going to be needed every day. Then, when the light went on, at long last, the Blue Jays could use him every day. The Pirates had Robinzon Diaz for just south of 150 plate appearances.

Tradition is fine, until it starts interfering with what's important. College baseball uses a DH, and most pitchers don't hit. Many overseas leagues use the DH. The AL doesn't want to give it up. Why should they? It gives them an edge.

Yeah, it's kind of nice when the Cubs are in the field, and a lousy hitting pitcher comes up. It's traditional. That tradition is costing the NL. 

Tradition is day games in Wrigley. Tradition is the bleachers being half-empty. Baseball and society have many good, and bad, traditions. To make a case for retaining the DH, defenders really ought to admit that retaining the tradition of the designated hitter is costing the league competitiveness. It's making the game less desirable for consumers who want to watch good hitters swing, not watching pitchers try to hit. Or bunt.

Roll with whichever opinion you want. The National League is disadvantaged by having players not good at hitting or running the bases, hitting or running the bases. Those at-bats burned on pitchers in Iowa could instead be used by hitters who need extra swings to be better at their craft. Very rarely do I hear defenders of pitchers hitting note the following.

I'm glad we only have three available players left in the twelfth inning. And they're all pitchers.

Baseball games will continue to go extra innings. In the American League, it will continue to not matter. In the National League, front offices will conitnue to have to account for it. And the better hitting talent will tip toward AL sides in situations that involve Rule 5 players, or those in options jeopardy. But some will continue to fight the fight for tradition's sake.

Tradition only makes sense when no newer better way has been developed.

I don't like the DH, but it's here to stay. Like inter-league play, the transition time will  be very short. The NL ought to push to adopt the deisnated hitter. The American League hopes they won't, for competitive balance reasons. Being competitively equal trumps being traditional, in this instance. Whether the player's association calls for it or not, the NL should push for the designated hitter.

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