Change is generally a good thing, particularly a change in leadership. Aside from politicians, the new guy will generally keep all of the good ideas of his predecessor, but will be willing to look at old problems in a new way. So when Rob Manfred became the commissioner of baseball, I was optimistic that he would keep some of the Bud Selig innovations that I have liked (expanded playoffs, better revenue sharing) and ditch some of the ideas that have never appealed to me (the whole All-Star/home field thing).
Actually, my first impression of Manfred is that he is not a boat rocker, so I think his tenure is likely to be one where radical changes are rare. This may be a good thing; there has been more change in the past twenty years than in the previous century, so it may be time to sit back and take stock for a few years, figure out what has worked and what hasn’t.
I sat down to give Manfred a to-do list – all the things Selig has left hanging, plus the screw ups that need to be fixed. Let’s see: finish the season by October 20, less interleague play, do replay without challenges, structure revenue sharing so it doesn’t reward teams that aren’t trying to win. There, that doesn’t sound like much. Call us when you’re ready for the hard stuff, Rob.
Just as I was finishing up, the DH popped into my head, and I realized that a change in leadership is an ideal time to get this thing resolved. When the DH first came into existence, I hated it. It was a gimmick designed to prop up attendance in American League cities, when the real issue was that AL teams had been behind the curve on integration. A pitcher not hitting seemed like having somebody come off the bench to shoot free throws every time Dwight Howard got fouled. It just didn’t seem right. Players who had developed all facets of their game were being penalized.
As time went on, I became more neutral toward the DH and felt that the most important thing was to have both leagues playing under the same rules. AL teams like the Indians were at a big disadvantage in the World Series, and later in interleague play, when their pitchers faced live pitching only a couple of times a year. For a while I didn’t care which way they decided, just stop playing two different games.
Well, over the last year or so I’ve come full circle in favor of the DH. It’s not so much that I’ve undergone a philosophical change as that the game has evolved. Pitchers don’t hit in college, and they don’t hit in the minors. So, the best case scenario is that a rookie pitcher in the National League who bats is facing live pitching for the first time since high school, and odds are that the guys he faced in high school didn’t have Clayton Kershaw’s stuff. Once these guys are in the majors they spend 98% of their time honing the craft that will make them ten million dollars – let’s face it, Johnny Cueto’s bunting is not going to be mentioned in his contract negotiations. So the result is that, whereas in the 70s and 80s there were enough decent hitting pitchers that you could debate the strategy of letting them hit, now they pretty much all suck. There are 73 pitchers in the National League with at least twenty at bats this year, and only two of them – Madison Bumgarner and Travis Wood – have an OPS above .600, a figure which would get most position players sent to Triple-A. Only five other pitchers have an OPS above .500, so almost 90% of the pitchers in the National League basically have no chance whatsoever to do anything productive when they come to the plate. Compare this to 1974, when ten pitchers had OPS above .600 and twelve more were above .500, and you can see that this has evolved toward something about as exciting as one hand clapping.
It is one thing to see players struggle; it is something else entirely to witness utter futility. When you are paying serious money to attend a game, it is ridiculous to have to watch people try to hit who simply are not competent. Unless something goes utterly wrong, the starting pitcher will usually bat twice before the game reaches a point where the strategic aspects of pinch hitting come into play. The innings in which these at bats occur are generally the best time to go have a snack, as the odds of the score changing are significantly less than in other innings (about one third less, according to Baseball Reference). There is still the late inning strategy of whether to pinch hit, but that isn’t really a decision anymore; the option of letting the pitcher hit isn’t really an option. You send up a pinch hitter, then the other manager changes pitchers to get a better matchup…it’s not exactly a surprise when it happens.
So let’s do this. It’s not as difficult as abolishing the DH would be, since you don’t have to worry about what to do with guys like David Ortiz. National League teams should easily be able to tweak their rosters to get one more bat in the lineup; most of them probably already have a candidate. Once we get this resolved, we can move on to the hard stuff.