Recently my compatriot Jeff Mount published his thoughts on why he thinks the National League should adopt the designated hitter now that Bud Selig has ceded control to Rob Manfred as commissioner. It was a rousing statement, quite convincing. After all, why should pitchers have to hit? By and large they’re terrible at it and it usually leads to an easy out. Unless you’re me playing MLB The Show, then the pitcher goes 3-for-3 with a double because I get lazy and lob sliders up over the middle. After considering all Jeff’s points, I came to the conclusion that baseball should regulate this across both leagues. But unlike Jeff, I say toss the thing wholeheartedly. It’s time to abolish the DH.
Unlike a lot of anti-DHers out there, I grew up watching American League ball, both my comparative local teams the Red Sox and Yankees and of course the mighty Indians. The designated hitter was normal to me, and I still remember being confused the first time I went to Shea Stadium as to why the pitcher was hitting. I didn’t get it – where was the round guy that only ever hits? Designated hitters were commonly my favorite players – after all, who doesn’t like seeing fat guys succeed at a sport? It’s exciting, and likely the reason powerlifting will become more popular in the coming years. Seeing Mo Vaughn rumble around the bases or Prince Fielder somehow go first to third on a single without unseating people and shaking the foundations is amazing. Plus Mo was a mountain late in his career at first – just a big, big man.
But there comes a point where it gets ridiculous. I feel like baseball is the type of sport where you should be able to do more than just one thing well to stick around, as a regular player anyway. When the DH was first introduced it was basically a place for older, fading stars to ride into the sunset, still contributing despite shot knees or they lost their glove or whatever. But the last 20 or so years, really beginning in earnest with Edgar Martinez if not before, has seen the rise of young guys who only DH. I don’t like that. A 26, 27 year old should be able to do something at least remotely athletic on the field. They’re in the prime of their physical life, and we take away the need to move. Billy Butler is a perfect example of this – since he hit the league as a regular player at 23 years old he’s been almost exclusively a DH. When he was younger he was surely at least somewhat competent at first or left field, one of the positions teams hide bad defense. But all this time not doing those things has caused his skills to atrophy, now he’s just Country Breakfast. If he’d been placed in the field every day that would have forced his hand and at least maintain some level of competence. Look at his division-mate Miguel Cabrera. He’s by no means a brilliant fielder, but he does do it. He even played third last year. His defensive skills, or lack thereof, were a big piece in the last two year’s MVP arguments between him and Trout.
What I’m saying is, I want players that can play baseball, not just hit. I love offense, I love high arcing shots to the bleachers that scrape the mesosphere. They titillate the senses, they excite. The sound off the bat is tremendous and it’s cool to see it go a long way and make a pitcher cry. But phasing out the designated hitter doesn’t mean less action or less bombs. The biggest power threats in the league play the field anyway. After a breaking-in period like what we’re going through with defensive shifting, a new wave of talent would rule the league. It would mean more triples, more hustle doubles, hit and runs and stolen bases. Action on the basepaths, that’s what I crave. And who doesn’t love a TOOTBLAN? By getting rid of the most plodding guys out there, the Adam Dunns and Butlers and Kendrys Moraleses, you open up roster spots for athletic, multi tool players. Organizations wouldn’t be able to go for guys that have a bat and nothing else in the draft. the game would speed up. Defenders would be more skilled, flashier plays and more daring baserunning would ensue, the stolen base would come back in vogue and knucklehead managers with no grip on how to do anything but call in a reliever would disappear.
As for the pitchers hitting, it’s tough to watch, I can’t refute that. It’s generally so ugly you’d rather they just take the out and be done with it. Unless it’s Bartolo Colon, that’s a national treasure. It’s not like they’re going put the work in to become solid hitters though especially since they don’t have to half time. The act of pitching takes such a mental and physical toll on you, daily conditioning and throwing programs and scouting reports and tape watching, there’s just not time for the batting cage and all that comes with it. It’s sure great to see a pitcher hit a homer though – Madison Bumgarner has done it two times already this year, grand slams no less.
Having the pitchers hit in both leagues might change somewhat how teams develop and draft though. A pitcher who can post a 110 OPS+ in addition to a solid outing once every five days would be huge for teams, and it lends itself to finding more diamonds in the rough. It could change the way we define the ace. More facets to the game is always a good thing. If it means more work for the front office types, but that’s fine with me. The last 40 years or so they’ve had that cushion to lean on. Even NL front offices at least could move a guy who didn’t fit to the other league for a nice return. But if that option is off the table then in the long run everyone, particularly the fans, benefits. Station to station base cloggers will be gone and speed, smarts and all fields hitting will rule the day. The hit and run would be less a curiosity and more a weapon, pitchers could put more pressure on the defense than just rolling a bunt up the baseline, and that means more money for them too. Baseball is a game of static actions – it needs a dash of dynamism to capture the imagination and create excitement. And you know what? Sometimes I like a bunt. Sure they’re not “valuable”, but they pressure the defense to make a play, and I love seeing the third baseman with one of those falling over, bare handed scoop-and-throws to first.
Realistically, this will never happen. The MLB Players Association would never let some of their highest paid members cast aside like that, and the loss of a starting roster spot just means less money in the player’s hands. But the DH also takes away from players that could have otherwise made it – players in the Mike Trout mold rather than the Miggy mold, guys who do a lot of things pretty well rather than just dominate one facet of the game. That breaking in period I mentioned? That would be ugly, low scoring and boring and might force the hand of the Commissioner’s Office before the changes can take effect. The DH is likely to take effect in both leagues before the end of the decade, there’s too much money in pitchers and the player’s union is too strong to let 15 unclaimed roster spots just sit there for too much longer. Plus with constant interleague play there’s little reason or attraction to having the difference just for tradition’s sake. Still, just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s the best idea. Something to think about.