The Houston Astros have a crucial three-game series this weekend that will decide their playoff fate. Baseball’s biggest surprise team currently holds a tenuous grasp on the second American League Wild Card spot. They are just a half-game ahead of the Los Angeles Angels as they head to square off with the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix. Unfortunately for the Astros, there is a distinct possibility that slugger Evan Gattis will not find his way into the lineup, or will be reduced to a late game pinch-hitter.
Is Gattis injured? Nope. In fact, the “speedster” legged out his 11th triple of the season in last night’s victory.
Gattis will not be in the lineup due to the fact that Major League Baseball continues to play with two sets of rules. When Gattis and the Astros head to Arizona to play in a National League park, manager A.J. Hinch has the pleasure of deciding whether or not the pop in his 6’4″, 260-pounder’s bat makes up for the fact that Gattis is a black hole in the outfield. Hinch has used Gattis in the outfield only 11 times this season, and El Oso Blanco has delivered -1.8 dWAR. Against an Arizona team that features a loaded lineup and a fairly spacious outfield, Gattis cannot be used in the field. If playing Gattis in the outfield sounds like a good idea, ask the Texas Rangers and Mike Napoli to help straighten you out.
When interleague play was instituted, it was a way to spice up a few weekend series in the middle of a 162-game slate. It was never meant to be played year-round. The presence of the designated hitter in one league but not the other skews the way rosters are constructed. It was for this very reason that Gattis was no longer all that attractive to his first team, the Atlanta Braves. He is not good on defense, but there will always be a place for a player capable of sitting on the bench and hitting 30 home runs while taking a turn at bat every three innings in the American League. The Astros have him on their roster to serve as the designated hitter because that is what the rules allow. It would be foolish for them not to construct their lineup this way because he is useful to them in virtually every game in the 162-game grind to the finish.
Originally, interleague play would never have impacted the postseason picture, at least not in any meaningful way. With its introduction to the schedule year-round, two teams must cross leagues at all times. The league has not dealt with a situation yet in which an American League team fighting for a playoff berth finds itself on the road in a National League stadium on the final weekend of the season.
It’s easy to sit back and say that the Astros should have taken care of business in the weeks leading up to this series, and that is certainly true. However, the fact remains that the Astros are an American League team playing for an American League playoff spot. Should they hold onto their position above the Angels, they will play the New York Yankees in a Wild Card game where American League rules will govern. To get there, however, they will play by National League rules. Hinch will have to manage by a different set of rules for a few days and could be without one of his best hitters at a time when scoring runs means even more. If he decides losing Gattis is too much for his lineup to handle, he can sit on pins and needles every time a fly ball is lofted to left field. Clearly, the scheduling gods have not done the Astros any favors.
Baseball is still the only league that plays by two sets of rules, and it has become increasingly silly. Left tackles are not eligible to run pass routes in the AFC or the NFC in the NFL. The Eastern Conference has the same shot clock as the Western Conference in the NBA. Goalies don’t get a bigger stick when they play in different NHL arenas. Baseball has blurred the lines between its leagues even more with year-round interleague play, but refuses to give them the same set of rules. Giving the American League and the National League the ability to govern themselves dates back to the turn of the 20th century when multiple professional baseball leagues existed. There is only one league in 2015.
This should be viewed as an issue for more reasons than the Houston Astros losing Evan Gattis for a crucial series. An entirely different set of rules and processes governs the way a general manager builds his team in the American League. A few times a year, that whole way of doing business flies out the window because baseball fans cannot come to a collective decision on the right set of rules by which the game should be played. Half the league’s fans like to see pitchers hit and utility players come in as part of a double-switch. The other half likes to see plodding sluggers take the spot of a typically automatic out.
It’s a fine argument to state that the rules are what they are, and managers and teams must play by them. Those who would make that argument are not wrong, and at the end of the day, the Astros must go out and win more games this weekend than the Angels. Hinch could make three perfect double switches and Gattis could hit a pinch hit home run. That should not change the way the rulebook should be viewed. These rules must be questioned if baseball is to continue growing as a sport.