To DH Or Not To DH?

added 2/25/2010 by Bob Hulsey

I probably shouldn't admit this but I don't keep up with the American League all that much. As a fan of the Astros, I really only have to be concerned with the Junior Circuit during interleague play, something worthy of another rant for another time.

On the whole, I just don't find A.L. ball as interesting as I do the National League. In fact, if you gave me the choice between watching a Yankees-Red Sox game on MLB Extra Innings or a Padres-Nationals game, I'll choose the latter. I admit, when it gets to the final week of the regular season and then the post-season, I'll watch the A.L. if something's on the line because that's when baseball history is made and the A.L. games become compelling but, the rest of the time, it is hard to keep my attention.

Part of the reason for that is the Designated Hitter (DH) rule, a gimmick the A.L. tried in the 1970s that, like a computer virus, has now spread itself to most of organized baseball all over the world. Smug A.L. fans openly question when the N.L. will catch up and join the 21st Century. N.L. fans try to explain that they'd rather watch the managerial chess match that happens when pitchers are forced to bat.

Personally, I like to see the pitcher who can handle a bat well. It can be demoralizing for the opponents when the pitcher delivers a clutch hit and guys like Micah Owings, even Carlos Zambrano, are fun to see taking their hacks. Some pitchers even today have hitting incentives written into their contracts. Astros pitchers have been known to have contests among themselves as to who can deliver the most hits or successful bunts during a season. I've never liked the argument that "people don't want to see the pitchers hit". I do. They're often the most entertaining at bats because they aren't expected to do well so there's a certain surprise when they actually succeed, sort of like watching Michael Bourn go deep.

In the N.L., managers have to decide whether to pull the pitcher early because they need a big hit or leave the pitcher in and chance he'll tire and give up more runs. Games are won or lost sometimes by button-pushing managers who do double-switches with the batting order or who resist the temptation and are rewarded when the starter blanks the opposition another inning or two.

In the A.L., such decisions are not at issue - at least not because of their spot in the batting order. The DH stands in for the pitcher and takes over that place in the order all game long. All too often, the nine who started in the lineup finish there too. No point in bothering the guys on the bench at all. It's rarely true of an N.L. game, forcing teams to carry deeper benches with more versatile skills.

But it must be said that the popularity of the DH means it won't go away anytime soon. Two generations of pitchers have come and gone without having much need to grab a bat and their benches contain one or two guys who rarely have to wear a glove.

There's a continuum between specialization and enjoying the athlete who excels at multiple facets of a game. Each sport draws that line differently. The NFL would be quite different if Peyton Manning were forced to play linebacker as well as play quarterback. Conversely, it would minimize an NBA talent like Michael Jordan if he never had to play defense. He would simply enter the court when his team had the ball, make his shot and then go sit down until his team got the ball back.

Those known as "traditionalists" and "purists" hate the DH, sometimes with the passion of a Tea Party rally. Proponents of the DH sneer at the purists and imply that such backwards thinking shows an unwillingness to accept change and what they see as an improvement to the sport, sort of like how we might feel if one league insisted on playing without batting helmets because past generations did.

Commissioner Bud Selig is against the DH and went so far as to have his beloved Milwaukee Brewers switch leagues in 1998 so he could watch his old club play without it.

Unions are all for the DH because they care more that veterans get paid big bucks even when they're no longer capable of bending over to field a grounder cleanly. Hitting well is the only job requirement for a DH and teams will pay top dollar to have the best hitters. That ultimately means longer careers for some of the top hitting stars and more union dues flowing to the MLBPA.

There's another angle to consider. That is attendence and ratings. Chicks aren't the only ones who dig the long ball. Just as there are NASCAR fans who watch only for the crashes, there are baseball fans who only want to watch steroid-fueled gorillas hit the ball into the next county. It's no secret that when Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds were chasing home run records, attendance and ratings went up. Ironically, both were National Leaguers at the time but the A.L. also had more than its share of bashers to capture headlines for right and wrong reasons. Some of those spent their time as Designated Hitters.

The real reason baseball looked the other way when rumors of steroid abuse first began was because, frankly, steroids were good for business. More fans paid to watch and everyone made more money. For all the righteous indignation about steroid abuse, baseball leaders in both labor and management had financial incentive to pretend it didn't exist until it became too big to ignore. Players who looked like bodybuilders were mashing the ball out of ballparks everywhere and the DH was one place to put mashers who lacked much skill in the field. It's still true today even as steroids are better policed.

Some baseball fans find it maddening that the two leagues don't play by the same rules. Particularly when the World Series arrives, it seems an abomination to them that one side plays with a DH and the other doesn't. Each built their rosters to account for 140 some-odd game within their own leagues yet, on the biggest stage of all, they had to adapt to a different set of rules that came with different strategies.

One of my forum friends, nicknamed "sturt", began a thread recently about a solution he came up with that would act as a compromise. The "Descending Designated Hitter" (DDH) would start at a manager-chosen place in the nine-man batting order, then bat every tenth batter up. So, for example, if the DDH starts hitting in the seventh spot, the next time up he'll hit in the eighth spot then later hit in the ninth spot, then the first spot, etc.

It struck me as the sort of compromise neither side would like and the casual baseball fan might find too confusing.

Sturt often makes me think through my objection and it led me to a better idea: Keep both the DH and the pitcher's spot. Expand the batting order to ten batters with one spot each for the DH and the pitcher. This keeps the strategy intact that N.L. fans enjoy and combines it with the additional offense that A.L. fans want.

In addition, agree to expand the active rosters to 26 players which will insure the union won't interfere. The DH can be pinch-hit for with no penalty. No other modifications need to be made.

Baseball has a certain symmetry about threes and nines. There are nine men on the field for nine innings. Each base is 90 feet away from the next. There are three strikes to make an out, three outs to get out of an inning and a perfect game of "three up, three down" over nine innings makes a perfect three times through the complete batting order.

A ten-man lineup will upset that balance, if only a little. Instead of the pitcher being 11% of the batting order, he'll be 10%. Same would be true of every other hitter in the lineup, including the DH. However, a ten-man lineup would be the best way to put both leagues back on the same page of the rule book while eliminating some of the objections both sides have about the presence of the other's rules.

I doubt I'm the first one to think of this idea but I'm willing to take the credit or blame if it ever joins the official rule book. MLB could adopt the rule slowly by having a two-year study period in spring training and in AAA so any kinks can be worked out and pitchers can get some experience with the bat before having to confront it in league games.

The Designated Hitter has been around since I was a schoolboy and I've grown to ignore it most of the time because my team rarely has to play with one. But if the National League ever were forced to adopt it, this would be the format I'd like to see them try. It would be a shame if pitchers never hit. Had that been true 100 years ago, we'd be talking today about that Hall of Fame pitcher Babe Ruth who had zero career homers.