Barely two years into his term as Commissioner of Baseball, Rob Manfred has already set out to change baseball in numerous ways: On record as wanting to enforce, or implement, a pitch clock to speed up the pace of play, he’s embroiled in potential legislation on how much to pay minor league players, and now he’s hinting at eliminating the marketing program-cum-postseason affecting rule about the league which wins the All-Star Game earning home-field advantage. While these initiatives need attention from the Commissioner, Manfred should stop nibbling at the edges of the strike zone and work from the inside out: it’s time to implement the designated hitter throughout baseball – and end the farce of pitchers hitting.
To begin, let’s look at the list of great hitting pitchers in 2016:
Purists are already howling: the strategy of the game! The history! The double-switch! But those purists miss the point – many of baseball’s “problems” stem from this basic inequity between the leagues, and can be addressed by standardization. Given that interleague play is here to stay, the two “leagues” playing by different rules has become more and more absurd as the years pass. The American League introduced the DH in 1973 and 43 (going on 44) years later, the game stubbornly clings to the antiquated notion that the National League should be allowed to have its own set of rules. Balderdash. No one – I mean NO ONE – looks forward to the pitcher weakly waving at major league fastballs and curveballs. The automatic out that is the pitcher’s slot in the batting order has several second- and third-order effects on the game: pitching changes lengthen the game more than any amount of time taken between pitches, as do visits to the mound. The DH can be used to rest players with minor injuries, increasing the number of at-bats for a club’s best players and maximizing baseball’s star power, and marketing reach. And most importantly, offense increases interest in the game and the DH provides much more offense than weak-hitting pitchers waving weakly at baseballs darting into the catcher’s mitt.
No pitcher in 2016 had more than 100 at-bats. Giants ace lefthander Madison Bumgarner led the way with 86 – and he is considered one of the best hitting pitchers in the game. He even pinch hit during an NLDS game where he did not pitch. His .188 batting average was below the marks he posted in his previous two seasons – but was actually better than his career BA of .183 over 453 career at-bats. The best batting performance by a pitcher in 2016 was (arguably) Jake Arrieta’s .262 batting average in 65 at-bats. By contrast, a total of 98 National League hitters bested that mark in as many at-bats.
2016 also saw the retirement of the greatest DH of all time, Boston’s David Ortiz. The man known as Big Papi didn’t play much during interleague play on the road (read: in National League parks), participating in just one game and three at-bats as a first baseman. He did pinch hit 11 times, so fans who bought a ticket to see Ortiz play in San Diego or Colorado or Atlanta did get to see the big slugger come to the plate at least once. But did they get to see one of baseball’s best do what he does best? Hardly. At age 40, the Red Sox could not risk playing the aging DH in the field, so fans in National League cities either didn’t see him, or received a child-sized portion of Papi instead of a heaping-helping. Needless to say, keeping one of the marquee players in the game off the field, on the road, is a terrible way to sell tickets and promote the game.
Further, the DH was created to showcase players like Ortiz – big, lumbering, sluggers who may not necessarily field well (or at all) but can provide fireworks when at the plate. Game Two of the 2016 World Series put this issue front and center, as Chicago Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber made his postseason debut as a DH after being injured in April attempting (futilely) to play left field. Schwarber is a born DH – he has a great batting eye, powerful wrists, a big gut, and limited athleticism. He’s already lost one year of his career to an injury that did not have to happen; next year, he’ll be forced to again patrol left field, pantomiming what a fielder does without any skill or competence. Meanwhile, the Cubs will send pitchers to the plate for some 400+ plate appearance with the hope that those “hitters” will produce better than a .150 batting average.
Finally, we circle back to Manfred’s incremental changes to baseball, which include this report from ESPN’s Jim Bowden:
In our interview with Rob Manfred I got the strong impression that baseball is in talks with the Union to eliminate the connection with the All Star Game and home field advantage for the World Series. This would be a great change in my opinion.
Terrific idea. But how would home field be determined? And more importantly – which set of rules will the games use? National League teams don’t typically carry an Ortiz or a Schwarber; their bench players are selected to be versatile, able to play a multitude of positions so that the manager can double switch and pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot. Great National League managers are often judged on how few plate appearances they can provide to their weak-hitting pitchers. Meanwhile, American League teams build around their designated hitters; Ortiz, Mark Trumbo, and Edwin Encarnacion are just a few of the marquee names (and players) who appeared often for AL clubs. Yet, when those teams travel to an NL park, those players either have to be shoehorned into the lineup at an unfamiliar or ill-fitting defensive position OR they must be benched, and used as one-time-only pinch hitters. Thus, the Fall Classic doesn’t feature the two best teams, battling for a title using the team they built – it features one team playing as it did all season, and the other kowtowing to the rules of the host team.
And now, the host team will be determined by… best record in the regular season? Best record in interleague play? A year-to-year rotation? A coin flip?
This is just silly. No one enjoys watching a pitcher hit three times a game. Sure, if pitchers did not have to hit, we would not have this to laugh about:
But really – is the game a joke? Johnny Cueto is a good, maybe even a great pitcher. He is an embarrassment to the game with a bat in his hands. Every season, some AL pitcher gets hurt while taking batting practice. Some NL pitcher gets hurt by a hit-by-pitch or swinging for the fences.
Baseball can increase offense by implementing the DH in the National League. It can standardize roster building across baseball. It can eliminate the farce that is all but nine pitchers “hitting” below the Mendoza Line. It can ensure that fans who buy a ticket to see star players actually see those stars hit more than once per game. It can make the Fall Classic a true contest between evenly-matched teams – not a “who’s home?” charade of rules-based shenanigans. Commissioner Manfred can achieve several goals: increase scoring, cut down the time of games, and grow the sport via fan interest.
Why shouldn’t baseball implement the DH? Because of the double-switch? Because a hundred years ago pitchers hit for themselves? Because there is less strategy? All completely irrelevant, and spurious, arguments. The double-switch is a neat bit of trivia and strategy that would be missed by 1 out of every 100 baseball fans. Ditto history: Baseball needs to appeal to younger fans, not satisfy its aging demographic. And as for strategy – bullpen management and lineup construction will suffice. Meanwhile, offense will go up, game time will go down, and the World Series will feature two teams built for the series. And Kyle Schwarber won’t need to pretend to field anymore.