by Paul West
Since its inception in 1973, the designated hitter has been a controversial topic among fans of Major League Baseball. In the ensuing decades, some of the game’s more popular and game-changing hitters have occupied the position. In 2014, Frank Thomas (aka “The Big Hurt”) was the first Hall of Famer who was primarily a career DH. Hall of Famers Jim Rice and Paul Molitor had their careers extended by the designation, as did Harold Baines, recent HOF inductee Jim Thome, and one-time AL MVP Don Baylor. Edgar Martinez, mysteriously absent from the Hall, was one of the best hitters of his era and a centerpiece of the fearsome 116-win Seattle Mariners team of 2001 (an aside: the annual award for the AL’s most outstanding DH is named after Mr. Martinez, rendering his absence from the Hall more puzzling). “Big Papi” David Ortiz, almost certain to be enshrined at Cooperstown, was one of the most exciting, charismatic, and prolific hitters of his time; he, too, spent most of the latter part of his career at the position. One could reasonably argue that without the DH, baseball fans would have been deprived of Thome, Martinez, Thomas, and Ortiz at their best.
Lately, the level of controversy has increased. MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark–whose career was also extended by solid hitting after his defensive skills had wanted–says the idea of bringing the DH to the National League is “gaining momentum” among players. Self-anointed ‘purists’ have dug in their heels against a rising tide, as evidence continues to mount that the benefits of both leagues using the DH far outweigh the drawbacks.
First of all, for the pitching enthusiasts: the DH allows a team’s starting pitchers more wiggle room within each start.
If you’ve watched enough National League baseball, you’ve seen this sort of situation unfold: in the middle innings of a pitcher’s duel, a strong outing is cut short by a pinch-hitter–whose manager reasonably supposes something like, this might be our best chance to score a run. In this sort of instance, pitcher’s duels might be extended by the presence of a DH, because the pitcher trailing 1-0 in the sixth might not exit after 75 pitches because their spot in the order comes up. Instead, maybe they try a sacrifice or squeeze bunt–the sort of ‘small ball’ which is a centerpiece of the anti-DH argument–and turn the lineup over.
Relatedly, there’s the fact that pitchers currently hit worse than they have in years and strike out more than ever. This is likely due to two factors: first, pitchers across the board throw harder than ever, often with outstanding secondary pitches. Secondly, pitchers only hit about once a week, and are mainly paid to spend their time cultivating almost everything but hitting. Moreover, there’s the risk factor of pitchers risking the extremities on which their value is largely based, for the sake of a relatively low-percentage occurrence, namely a pitcher-produced run. Per Stats LLC (via the Wall Street Journal), NL pitchers have been on the disabled list for 17 percent more days than AL pitchers since 2010; this is related to injuries incurred while batting or baserunning, as well as warming up more often in games where pinch-hitting is more frequently plausible. For all the talk of the beloved NL-style strategy, it was an AL team–the Kansas City Royals–who helped usher in the practice of controlling the second halves of games with a stacked bullpen. Unlike the NL, however, an AL reliever doesn’t have to warm up multiple times in a game before entry (or, sometimes, not even being used that game), since the bullpen phone doesn’t ring as a precautionary measure every time the bottom of the order approaches. Warming up multiple times in a game, whether or not one appears in said game, would obviously contribute to the wear and tear a pitcher’s arm experiences.
A National League DH should also be espoused by the ‘pace of play’ crowd, as it would eliminate the ho-hum at bats pitchers so often produce. Yes, moments like Bartolo Colon‘s first career homer or Michael Lorenzen‘s power surge are thrilling, but are they worth the experience of hoping your pitcher can get a bunt down–or that they just strike out instead of grounding into a rally-killing double play? Moreover, the DH allows defensively challenged sluggers, and not just aging or injured ones, a chance to provide excitement and offense without bringing down the level of defensive play.
There’s certainly precedent for situational specialists in other major sports. Basketball has “D and 3” players and rim protectors; football has nickel package defenders, third down specialists, and goal line backs; hockey has fourth-liners who play on the top power play line, and even volleyball has defensive specialists like the libero. Baseball is structured as a matchup-driven sport, so why shouldn’t there be room for a player who’s a much better hitter than defender? You could argue that it’s the offensive equivalent of a specialized reliever, except–once again, for the ‘make the game more exciting’ folks–they infuse the game with more run-scoring and power.
I confess to having been ambivalent on the matter for some time, but I’ve come around: it’s time for the National League to adopt the designated hitter.