Some Things to Ponder Before Making the Designated Hitter Universal

Within the past few weeks, it was acknowledged that the National League had discussions about the possibility of changing its rules to allow for a designated hitter to be used in all of baseball, not just the American League. Commissioner Rob Manfred has openly discussed the possibility of a change, and in the past this subject has rarely come up at that level. The designated hitter has been used in American League games since 1973 and has been used by National League teams in AL parks since the start of interleague play in 1997. While the use of the designated hitter in all of baseball has been considered since its inception, the chances of the NL going to the full-time use of it always seemed unlikely. It is also part of what separates National League baseball from almost every other game of professional baseball. As of this point, the only professional baseball leagues that do not use the designated hitter are the National League and Nippon Central Baseball League of Japan.

The reason the DH was initially suggested in the American League was because the league as a whole was not generating as much revenue as the senior circuit. Attendance was down and this gimmick was put into place in the hope of getting more fans to the ballpark. Initially, teams used this position for their top pinch hitter, as a way to get them more at-bats in a game. Some teams used the DH as a way to keep an injury-prone player on the field, such as Minnesota Twins outfielder Tony Oliva and Chicago White Sox outfielder Carlos May. Other teams used power hitters like Frank Robinson (California Angels) and Orlando Cepeda (Boston Red Sox) as a way to prolong their careers. It also worked for Tommy Davis (Baltimore Orioles) and Alex Johnson (Texas Rangers). By the end of the 1973 season, the Oakland Athletics had acquired Deron Johnson to play the same role and the Kansas City Royals had put Hal McRae in as their full-time DH.

Within the next couple seasons, the American League saw greats such as Al Kaline (Detroit Tigers) and Hank Aaron (Milwaukee Brewers) extend their careers by serving as designated hitters. By this time, all AL teams were interested in using this position to lengthen their lineups. In other words, the DH generally was not a number-nine hitter who would have normally been just a bench player. Designated hitters were batting third, fourth, and fifth — right in the middle of a team’s lineup. At this point, the “gimmick” was over. Once this happened, it became a staple of the game as well as a part of the identity of the American League. Throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, the AL was the league with the DH. McRae, the Angels’ Brian Downing, the Brewers’ Cecil Cooper, and others gave the position an identity. Others who dominated the game at other positions used the DH to lengthen their careers as well, such as Dave Parker (Brewers and Athletics), Don Baylor (Red Sox, Twins, and Athletics) and Jack Clark (Yankees, then Red Sox in the 1990s).

Edgar Martinez had a tremendous impact during his ten-plus years as a designated hitter (1995-2004), enough to see him get a strong backing to get into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. David Ortiz is retiring after the 2016 season and profiles as a legitimate Hall of Fame player. If he gets in as a primary DH, it may change the perception of many who overlook the accomplishments of those who just bat while not playing the field regularly.

Why would anyone be against the use of the designated hitter? The game is about entertainment and pitchers, and with a DH the pitchers are forbidden to hit. The game used to be different. When Eli Grba pitched for the New York Yankees in 1959 and 1960 and for the Los Angeles Angels from 1961-1963, he took regular batting practice. He also took hitting just as serious as he did pitching. There is no coincidence in the fact that he hit over .200 with four home runs during his MLB career. Wes Ferrell was the best-hitting pitcher not named Babe Ruth to ever play in the game. He hit .280 with 38 homers while winning 193 games in his 15-year career from 1927-1941. Madison Bumgarner has hit nine home runs over the past two seasons. Both Ferrell and Bumgarner have been used as pinch-hitting weapons to extend their team’s bench. Eliminating the DH will forbid a pitcher from ever batting.

The problem is not the embarrassment of the pitcher batting. It is the utter disregard in the development of the pitcher-hitter. That change started with the rise in slot bonuses for top high school and college pitchers. Because of this, the emphasis of the baseball organization has been on the pitcher’s development and has led to a complete disregard of the training necessary for them to become a hitter. What we see now is the result: pitchers who embarrass themselves whenever they step up to the plate. Rather than add the DH to the National League, how about a better effort to train pitchers to become better hitters? Throughout the history of baseball, pitchers have proven to be some of the best athletes on the diamond. Because of the lack of emphasis on pitchers hitting, it has fallen by the wayside.

If there was a designated hitter as early as the 1910s, Babe Ruth would have only been a pitcher and baseball would likely not be the same. The stories of Smoky Joe Wood and Rick Ankiel mean less to the average baseball fan, but they too would become obsolete. And the young athletes of tomorrow would have to make an earlier decision whether to be a pitcher or a hitter. That could lead to the better athletes not pitching at all, instead becoming full-time position players.

Several opponents of modern National League baseball claim that not only does facing the opposing pitcher make it easier to pitch in the NL, but a traditional lineup is easier to navigate through because of the weakness of the eighth place hitter. One fallacy that needs to be clarified is that of “multiple” easy outs in a typical National League lineup. While the point is well taken on the ability, or lack thereof, of the modern pitcher to hit, NL teams are to blame for the additional player(s) in an everyday lineup that are below replacement level in regard to hitting. Who forces an NL organization to have an eighth-place hitter who cannot hit? It should be the opposite. If a team has a pitcher batting, would it not be in their best interest to have a more potent one through eight? That is the fault of National League organizations. If you want to criticize the pitcher for batting, that is fine. It is time for radio show and television show hosts to stop using the weak eighth place hitter excuse.

One of the things that has been missing over the last several years is the in-game strategy. There are few decisions a big league manager has that can determine the outcome of a game. Most of his decisions are made for him by the front office in terms of analytics. Spray charts, blatantly pointed out computer generated stats, and other factors that have changed the way a manager controls a game. If the pitcher is taken out of the lineup, it is one less thing for a manager to think about as a game goes on. No reason to see who is coming up in the next inning, or whether a pitcher may have to come out of a game early. Double-switches will become a distant memory. And who would need to have a bench except for replacing an injured player or a occasional day off?

The decision to make Major League Baseball a full-DH league has many positives. Employment of full-time hitters who do not play the field would increase by 100 percent. Salaries for those players would rise and the demand for such a player would raise the earning power for the designated hitters in the game today. Scoring would increase and with that is the possibility that the game will generate more interest from fair-weather fans. And fantasy baseball will probably change its utility player to being a player that served as a DH a certain number of times in the previous season. What happens to the pitcher who wants to hit? What about the pitcher who is a very good hitter? And what will be the implications on the younger athletes who will be the stars of tomorrow? Not to mention the continuation of the stripping of the power of the modern MLB manager. Soon, even he may become obsolete. It already looks like the game is being run by a robot.

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