The Case For a Universal Designated Hitter

Does baseball really need to see more of this?
Does baseball really need more of this?

Baseball purists have had their rage ignited many times over the years, from interleague play and wild-card playoff spots to sabermetrics.  But nothing has polarized purists and modernists quite like the designated hitter.  Adopted by the American League in 1973, the DH is an extra player that bats instead of the pitcher.  Because pitchers are so focused on developing their pitch repertoire, they generally have little time to focus on hitting, and are often comically bad at it.  Sometimes it’s worth a laugh, like with Bartolo Colon above, but most of the time, it’s just pathetic.  The National League has held out for years against the DH, but I think it’s time for them to adopt it.

Possibly the most obvious benefit of the DH spot is that it can give more players a chance to contribute to team success.  I’m reminded of the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, who had one of the best outfield depth charts in the game, with Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Yasiel Puig.  Season previews of the team almost always focused on how they would use those four players with only three outfield spots.  Had the NL adopted the DH, there would have been no debate at all, because the odd player out could have been slotted into that spot.  The 2013 Dodgers had a strong season, winning the NL West and making it all the way to the NL Championship Series before bowing out in six games to the St. Louis Cardinals.  They lost Games 1 and 2 by a single run, and Game 4 by only two.  Maybe if they’d had one more bat in their lineup, they could’ve come up with some key hits that might have changed the complexion of the series and helped them clinch the pennant.  The DH could also provide a chance for young hitters to contribute earlier than expected as well, especially if their skills in the field leave something to be desired.  On the flip side, the DH has also helped extend the careers of players whose defensive abilities have been limited by age.  David Ortiz, Paul Molitor, and George Brett are just three examples.  Edgar Martinez might never have had a career in the first place without the DH rule, and he went on to hit .312 for his career with 309 home runs as a key contributor on several Mariners teams that knew how to mash the ball.

Most of the arguments against the DH’s use in the NL seem to amount to, “…but it’s tradition,” which to me is a weak argument.  Baseball was once somewhat unique in that the two leagues had small similarities and differences, but those days are largely gone.  The office of president of each league was abolished in 1999, and the leagues largely operate as one unit now.  To me, there’s something inherently unfair about asking AL teams to forego the DH and NL teams to adopt the DH in some games, because their rosters aren’t built for that.  Tradition is great and all, but when people have a death grip on it to the point that it prevents innovation, it can be harmful.

To a related point, the AL has a small advantage in the World Series since 1973, winning 23 to the NL’s 19.  Interleague play tells a somewhat different story, though.  Since its adoption in 1997, the AL has won slightly less than 53% of games.  However, the AL has dominated of late, winning more interleague games in every year since 2004, peaking with a 61% winning percentage in 2006.  This could just be statistical noise, especially since the DH is used by both teams only in roughly half of those games (when the NL team is the home team, both teams’ pitchers bat; the reverse is true in AL parks), and the AL was thought of as the stronger league talent-wise for some of those years.  I wonder, though, if there would be a little more competitive balance if the DH was used in all games.

The teams that have won the most games since interleague play began in 1997.
The teams that have won the most games since interleague play began in 1997.

Pitchers are often the most important players on each team, and putting them at the plate increases their injury risk.  General managers make huge monetary investments in pitchers, and the DH gives them a way to protect their investments a little more.  One need only look to Chien-Ming Wang, whose foot injury while running the bases in 2008 prevented him from ever being an effective pitcher again.  Wang had won 19 games with an ERA in the mid-3’s in the two years preceding the injury, but hasn’t managed an ERA under 4.00 since.  While he is an extreme example, other ace starters such as the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright have seen their seasons jeopardized or ended due to batting injuries.

Chien-Ming Wang was never the same after a foot injury sustained while batting.
Chien-Ming Wang was never the same after a foot injury sustained while batting.

Lastly, the DH makes for a better game for the fans to watch.  I’m saying this last because it’s arguably the least important argument; MLB shouldn’t make changes simply because it would make the game better to watch.  But offense has declined the last decade or so, and while dominant pitching performances can be fun for more hard-core fans of the game like myself, most people come to games wanting to see hits, runs, and most importantly, homers.  Baseball is often criticized for its slow pace, and I think a universal DH could do a little more to liven the pace of play.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has been sending mixed signals about whether or not the adoption of a universal DH is gaining steam.  For the reasons above, I hope he pushes for it.  It would make an already beautiful game even better.

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2 comments

  1. PLAY BALL! I liked this column. The two most compelling reasons for extending the DH to the National League are: more action in a game where a pitcher’s duel is not as exciting as some more stick. I also like extending the careers of some great players. In addition, the split between the leagues seems very odd. Only in ultra-traditional baseball would two leagues who face each other play under different rules.

  2. Good points all around. Of course, the AL pitchers having to bat in NL parks is another caveat of the strategy, but overall, seems like the DH rule as is favors the AL.

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