Playing Devil’s Advocate on the Universal DH

I’ve always had an annoying tendency to look for both sides of an issue. (That sounds like a humblebrag, but I mean it — I know it’s annoying, to others and to myself.) The tendency follows a bit of a bell curve, with my need to see Side B growing as more and more people embrace Side A, until it becomes clear that Side A has consensus because it’s actually correct. For example, I don’t bother looking for the good in Hitler, because whatever positive points he might have had can’t come close to making up for the negatives. I use Hitler as an example for a reason: to get the jump on people who might be tempted to compare me to him when they read the rest of this article.

You see, even though I grew up a fan of the National League and its style of play, and even though it feels wrong on so many levels … I’m kind of in favor of the NL adopting the designated hitter.

Word came out yesterday that the universal DH is one of the change that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association are discussing (along with a three-batter minimum for all pitchers). Immediately, baseball purists (or, more accurately, National League purists, because the DH has been around since before I was born, and I have gray hair) began shouting and ranting. I get it. It’s my instinct, too. But when I look at it rationally, I have to admit that I’m in favor of it. (Note: I am not saying that all rational people have to agree with me; I’m simply saying that all of my objections to the DH were based more in emotion and nostalgia than anything else, so when I looked at it rationally, those objections fell apart.)

This really isn’t even a “devil’s advocate” position (whoever wrote the headline for this article is a moron), at least not anymore. It probably started that way, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that it would be better, for me as a fan, if the NL had the DH.

Here are a few reasons:

The extra “strategy” in the NL kind of sucks

By far the most common argument against the DH is that it removes so much strategy from the game. It’s absolutely true. American League managers never have to double-switch. They sacrifice bunt much less often (in 2018, the NL had 564 total sac bunts, while the AL had 259 total sac bunts — and 13 of those came from pitchers in interleague games). Yadda yadda etc etc.

Here’s the thing, though: Pretty much every instance of “increased strategy” in the NL involves a manager trying to decide if it’s worth it to make his team play worse. For example:

  • A sacrifice bunt gives away one of the three precious out in that inning. When a manager chooses to let his pitcher bat and has him sac bunt, his team is worse off than if a good hitter had batted instead.
  • Pinch-hitting for the pitcher puts a better hitter in the game, but it often removes a good pitcher from the game. I’ll touch on this more in a bit.
  • A double-switch brings a player into the game who wouldn’t be in the game otherwise. Essentially, a double-switch is the same thing as pinch-hitting, except the pinch-hitter has to play defense, too. That means that you are often sacrificing either offense or defense.

Every time a manager employs “strategy,” the strategy is “which move will make my team less worse?” I’d prefer more decisions along the lines of “which move will make my team more better?”

Which brings me to my next point…

I hate when a pitcher comes out of a game for non-pitching reasons

In 2005, Roger Clemens was the best pitcher in the National League. Unfortunately, he got no run support. In nine of his 32 starts, his Houston Astros teammates scored zero runs. In 20 of the 32, they scored three runs or fewer. That meant that nearly every game was close, so when his spot in the lineup came up late in the game, Astros manager Phil Garner had to make a terrible choice, aka “got to use some good old-fashioned NL strategy.” Eight times, Clemens was removed for a pinch-hitter despite having allowed zero or one earned runs and thrown fewer than 110 pitches. In four of those, he hadn’t even hit the 100-pitch mark yet.

Would Clemens have stayed in all eight games if the Astros had scored more runs? Probably not. But he would have stayed in three or four or six of them. Instead, Astros fans got to see Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls and Mike Gallo. No offense to those guys, but as a fan, I’d rather see the guy with an argument for Best Pitcher Ever.

When a pitcher comes out of a game, it should be because the team stands a better chance of success with the pitcher who replaces him, not because his offense is lousy. And speaking of lousy offense…

Pitchers are terrible hitters

Bartolo’s beautiful swing. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

In the live-ball era, there have been exactly two pitchers who were at least league-average hitters according to OPS+: Micah Owings and Wes Ferrell. Owings had a 106 career OPS+, which is the only reason his career lasted as long as it did. Ferrell was exactly league-average at the plate, but he was also an excellent pitcher. (He’s also the only player in history who was a significantly better player than his Hall of Fame brother. I sometimes wonder if the Veterans Committee thought Rick Ferrell was actually Wes.)

And that’s it. Those are the two pitchers who have managed to be even average hitters. Every other pitcher you want to name was a bad hitter. Bob Lemon, whose 37 career homers are just one shy of Ferrell’s record for a pitcher: 82 OPS+, the same as Mark McLemore and Mark Lewis. Don Drysdale hit 29 career homers; he also batted .186/.228/.295 for a 45 OPS+. Bob Gibson? OPS+ of 50. Zack Greinke? 53.

What about Madison Bumgarner? His career OPS+ is 49. Even since he became a “good” hitter, his OPS+ is only 78.

So if Madison Bumgarner, who clearly has very good power and a decent idea what he’s doing at the plate, can only manage to be 22 percent worse than average at the plate, what chance do other pitchers have?

Some people argue that the entertainment value of pitchers hitting and running the bases makes it worth it. That argument does nothing for me. The fact that Bartolo Colon once hit a home run doesn’t come close to making up for the 298 times he got out (166 of them by strikeout). I mean, I’m on record as hating the condescending Bartolo faux-worship anyway, but I’d feel the same way about anyone with a .084/.092/.107 career batting line.

Los Angeles Dodgers fans love Rich Hill‘s two-strike approach, where he chokes way up on the bat and slaps at the ball. But he has still batted .090/.107/.100 and struck out in 42 of his 106 plate appearances as a Dodger. Hill’s baserunning became a thing of legend in 2018, specifically because of this sequence:

Hill reached base on a good bunt. Then he went to second on a wild pitch and third on a passed ball, both of which any player in the big leagues (or Little League) would have done. Then he got thrown out by 15 feet on a potential sacrifice fly to end the inning in a close game with Justin Turner on deck — and this is evidence that him running the bases is a good thing? I appreciate the effort as much as anyone, but in that situation (and every other situation), I’d rather have someone who knows what he’s doing out on the basepaths.

Pitching and hitting are two entirely different skillsets. There’s a reason most pitchers look goofy when they run — their body type is different than other athletes, and they have honed and strengthened different muscles in different ways. It’s possible to be born with the ability to both hit and pitch — just look at Babe Ruth! But the reason Ruth stopped pitching is the same reason guys who were great hitters and pitchers in high school always end up being good at one and not at the other: because it’s nearly impossible to remain good at both. Will Shohei Ohtani remain great at both? The odds are against it.

With interleague play, different rules don’t make sense

Back when the only time an AL team met an NL team was in the World Series, it wasn’t a huge deal that the leagues had different rules. Now that every team plays 20 interleague games per year, that’s 12 percent of the schedule that one team or the other isn’t playing by its regular rules. Do you sit David Ortiz on the bench or make him try to play first base? Which of the guys on your NL team who isn’t good enough to start should you play at DH?

Interleague play is here to stay; the leagues should have the same rules.

The arguments don’t work for me

There are a lot of common arguments against the DH. We’re seeing it today from a voice as prominent as MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, who is tweeting the common refrain about strategy. As we talked about, the strategy almost always makes the actual playing of the game worse. The other reported change that is being considered, the three-out minimum for pitchers, might do a bit to replace the lost strategy. As Mike Petriello tweeted:

I don’t think the raw amount of strategy makes something better or worse. At the end of the day, I pay money to see baseball players play baseball, not to see managers make decisions. When I pay money to see Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom, I’m paying to watch them pitch. I’ll tolerate their at-bats, but they are always met with either relief (oh, good, the pitcher is coming up) or dismay (aw, man, why does it have to be the pitcher’s spot?). Do I get excited when they beat the odds and actually provide value to the team? Absolutely. In fact, one of my favorite baseball moments was watching Kershaw hit a home run on Opening Day 2013 to break a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the eighth inning. But a) those moments are very rare compared to the much-more-common strikeouts and sac bunts; and b) we were one manager’s decision away from that moment never happening anyway. Don Mattingly didn’t let Kershaw hit because he thought “I think Kersh has George Kontos‘s number”; he let him hit because he didn’t want to lose him on the mound. And a lot of the time, we do lose a great pitcher on the mound because the team needs offense.

If I pay money to watch world-class athletes do things, I want them to do the things at which they are world-class. That means Rich Hill pitching, not lumbering around the bases and costing his team potential runs.

I’ve seen arguments today about “Millennials” and “ADHD” and countless other misguided arguments trying to make the case that the DH is meant to coddle the short attention span of today’s youth. I think that’s as wrong about this issue as it is about pace-of-play initiatives. The DH is going into its 47th year of existence. Chase Utley, who just retired after being called “Grandpa” by his teammates for a few years, was born six years after the DH was implemented. Jackie Robinson was still alive when the DH started. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were still playing. Heck, when the DH was first suggested, Babe Ruth was six years old. It’s not new, and it wasn’t any more about attention span in 1973 than it is today. The DH was added to the American League to boost offense. The same reason applies today, along with the added benefit of creating jobs for defensively challenged players (and it’s telling that it was the players’ union that suggested it this time around).

It’s easy to blame things we don’t like on people we don’t understand. Old people have been blaming young people for all their problems since the first time someone lived to age 50. But like most easy arguments, it’s not correct.

As I said in the beginning, most of the arguments are emotional, and they boil down to the fact that we National League fans have grown up (and often grown old) feeling a smug superiority because our brand of baseball requires more brainpower. If we take away the double-switch, we’ll be no better than … shudder … football fans! But the DH didn’t ruin the American League, and it won’t ruin the National League. The “lost” strategy will be replaced, and it won’t be missed.

Again, I feel dirty saying all this. It goes against my core belief that NL baseball is fundamentally better than AL baseball. But I’ve finally admitted to myself that the league where pitchers pitch until it benefits the team to have someone else pitch, where every guy who comes up to the plate is in the majors because he has demonstrated at least some ability to hit a baseball … well, that appeals to me.

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