If, in fact, there is no 2020 season, perhaps the only silver lining might be that the National League fans will be spared the indignity of seeing a designated hitter in their parks for at least another year. Those who are in the know, however, assure me that it is only a matter of time. Eventually the American League sin will stain all of baseball as it is now known and practiced.
This darkness won’t come because the fans desire it. In fact, National League fans are overwhelmingly opposed to it. But as I pointed out yesterday, the wishes of the fans are increasingly nothing to be concerned with. When the DH comes, it will be unapologetically shoved down our throats by the players, who covet those 15 extra “starting” positions. If you want a barometric measurement of how little we mean to the players, this is it. For marginally increased salaries for 15 players, they will happily betray the desires of millions and millions of fans.
With the DH discussion endlessly re-surfacing, it’s time that I laid out my case against it. I warn you at the outset that I am not exactly a traditionalist, so my reasonings may not align with other National League fans.
Honestly, strategy is not what I would lead with, but it is the most common refrain sung by the traditionalists. They say that the DH removes strategy from the game. Proponents say that it doesn’t, and have tortured various statistics in an attempt to prove their point.
They are wrong, of course. The DH does significantly lessen the strategy element of the game. Even in the daily decision of who to bat eighth and how to handle the opposing eighth-place hitter when he comes to the plate with runners on base – walking him is not an automatic decision.
But most of all, the pitchers presence in the lineup creates one of the few critical managerial decisions that baseball is capable of. Take the following scenario:
Arizona is in Los Angeles, playing the Dodgers. Madison Bumgarner is squaring off against Clayton Kershaw. As is his wont, Mr. Kershaw is twirling a masterpiece. Through six innings, Clayton has allowed just one hit, while striking out 10. Unfortunately, the one hit allowed was a home run. For his part, MadBum has allowed a few more hits, but no runs through five.
Now it is the bottom of the sixth, 1-0 Arizona. With two outs, the Dodgers put together a couple of singles, and Bumgarner walks the eighth place hitter, bringing up Kershaw. And here you have it. Do you hit for Clayton or not? There is no book here, no preferred way to handle this. Both options are fraught with indeterminate levels of risk/reward. If Kershaw bats, the rally likely fizzles and LA may not get another shot at Madison. Conversely, if they hit for Clayton, whether they score or not there are still nine outs to be covered by a sometimes suspect bullpen. Here, the manager is all alone – and if he makes the wrong call he almost assuredly loses the game.
There isn’t a moment to compare with this anywhere in the American League, so anyone who argues there is no loss of strategy that comes with the DH has little understanding as to what constitutes strategy in baseball.
And note that throughout all of this, no proponent of the DH has ever argued that the rule adds strategy to the game (it clearly doesn’t). They only try desperately to maintain that no strategy is lost.
I don’t lead with this, though, because in all honesty this incident is exceedingly rare. I would guess that, across the league, managers are put in this kind of pickle maybe a dozen times all year. Most of the time, if Kershaw has pitched six inning of one-run ball he will be holding the lead. And most of the time – unless the pitcher is one of the league’s recognized aces – six innings is about all you would get from that starter anyway. The decision to hit for him and go to the pen would be nearly automatic.
Don’t misunderstand. These are wonderful moments, unmatched by anything the American League can offer. They are the only thing baseball has that approaches the fourth-and-inches decisions that football coaches are frequently faced with. It just doesn’t happen often enough to be a principle reason for dismissing the DH. I would begin the conversation with a discussion of:
The Pitchers That Can Hit
The ability to retire major league hitters on anything near a consistent basis is a rare and very valuable skill. Likewise, the ability to hit major league pitching – at least to the level where you are a threat at the plate – is rare and valuable, too. Since the two disciplines develop vastly different skill sets, it’s doubly rare to find a player who can capably do both (which is the outstanding reason why pitchers are generally poor hitters).
That being said, from time to time a player does come along who is capable on both sides of the pitcher/hitter confrontation. Sadly, America doesn’t appreciate these athletes as they should. Nevertheless, pitchers who can handle the bat are an integral part of baseball lore. I’m going to take a minute to talk about four – although there are dozens of legitimate examples.
Don Newcombe – who passed away last year – was almost certainly a skilled enough hitter to have earned a living with a bat in his hands. Newk only managed a ten-year career, but he won 149 games and led the Dodgers to their only world championship while the franchise played in Brooklyn. He was 20-5 in 1955. He also hit .359 in 125 at bats that year, including 7 home runs and 23 runs batted in. He slugged .632 and OPSed 1.028. For his career, in 878 at bats, Don hit .271 with a .705 career OPS. He drew 87 walks over his career for a .338 on base percentage. This included an intentional walk in 1959 one of only 17 intentional walk that we know of given to a pitcher in history.
More recent are the exploits of Zack Greinke and the aforementioned Madison Bumgarner.
Zach hit .328 with the Dodgers in 2013, and is coming off a season where he hit .280 hitting three home runs with a .580 slugging percentage and an .888 OPS. Bumgarner won 119 regular season games and 8 more postseason games while being part of three world championships in 11 years in San Francisco. He has also hit 19 home runs and driven in 62 in about a season’s worth of at bats (594).
In between those pitchers was Cardinal icon Bob Gibson. Over 17 season, Gibson won 251 games, threw 255 complete games (including 56 shutouts) while striking out 3117 on his way to an MVP award, two Cy-Young Awards and two World Championship rings (during which he was named the MVP both times). Gibson also added 7 World Series wins in 9 starts (he completed 8 of those games). The seven victories, by the way, came in seven consecutive complete game efforts – and he may have made it eight straight if not for a misplayed flyball. His World Series wins are still the most of any National League pitcher, and only Whitey Ford had more – Ford won 10 times in 22 starts for the great Yankee teams. Gibson, in fact, has more World Series victories than any non-Yankee.
A nine-time gold-glove winner, Gibby was also a dangerous and respected hitter. In his last Cy Young season (1970), Bob hit .303 in 109 at bats with 19 runs batted in. For his career, he launched 24 home runs in regular season play and added two more in World Series play. His 13 career stolen bases is the most of any pitcher whose career began after 1903. His 144 career runs batted in are the most of any pitcher whose career started after 1950.
I know that there will be many out there who can’t fathom this, but I used to look forward to Gibson’s at bats. They were infused with this wonderful feeling that anything could happen. Part of his domination of the game was his ability to provide the clutch hit as well as most regular hitters. Lifetime, he was a .248 hitter (80 for 323) with runners in scoring position. This includes a .289/.279/.500/.779 batting line with the bases loaded. With that runner on third and less that two outs, Gibby hit a resounding .310 (22 for 71). His hitting exploits form a major part of his legend.
In point of fact, their hitting abilities added notably to the value of all of these pitchers. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of WAR (Wins against Replacement), but according to that system, 7.2% of Greinke’s total value derives from his hitting. Walter Johnson and Warren Spahn each derived 7.7% of their value with their bats. Hitting added 8.4% of Gibson’s value, 12.5% of Bumgarner’s value, and a whopping 22.5% (8.5 out of 37.7) of Newcomb’s value. Adam Wainwright – among the current Cardinals – swings the bat well enough for his hitting to account for 10.4% of his value.
These are skills that should be celebrated, not swept under the rug. This is the very essence of team sports – the thing that separates them from chess. In chess, all your pieces have exactly the same capabilities as your opponent’s pieces. In sports, the game is in those things your pieces can do that your opponent’s can’t do.
If your quarterback can run, then you’ve earned that advantage over the team whose quarterback can’t. Likewise, if your safety is an elite blitzer or your linebacker excels in man coverage. If your third baseman is a gold glover, then you have that advantage over teams whose third baseman is an immovable slugger.
Lorenzo Cain plays center field for the Milwaukee Brewers. Last year he was unremarkable at the plate (he hit .260 with 11 home runs), but was awarded a gold glove for the first time in his ten-year career. Among his abilities, Lorenzo has a remarkable knack for soaring above walls to snare fly balls that might otherwise be home runs.
How much, I ask, of Lorenzo’s value to the Brewers lies in this impressive skill? What if baseball took that away from him? Suppose baseball decided that any fly ball that would have landed over the fence would be called a home run whether or not Cain or anyone else had actually caught it. Before you dismiss this thought, consider that the arguments for this are exactly the same as the arguments against letting pitchers hit: it removes offense from the game and negatively impacts player salaries. Suppose Kris Bryant has a hefty bonus clause in his contract if he hits 40 home runs. Suppose he finished the season with 39. Suppose Cain on three separate occasions stole a would-be home run from him. Isn’t the players association as honor bound to defend Bryant’s bonus as they are to make sure 15 hitters who couldn’t win a regular job get paid like regulars?
I maintain that these separating abilities – these skill sets that distance players from their opponents – should be celebrated. Pitchers that are dangerous with the bat in their hands are one of the sport’s most fascinating subsets. And – unlike the strategy argument set forth earlier – this mini-phenomenon isn’t as rare as you might suspect.
While most pitchers don’t attain the levels reached by some of the pitchers I’ve referenced here, it is not all that unusual for a pitcher to hit well enough to make a difference. Last year in the National League (of course) there were 15 pitchers with at least 20 at bats who hit .200 or better. Thirteen of these were predominantly starters. This total didn’t include either Bumgarner or Wainwright – neither of whom managed the .200 mark last year, but who remain very capable.
This number is fairly constant. For most years, there are between 10 and 15 starting pitchers – about one per team – that will give his club some advantage because of his hitting abilities. So, on average, about every fifth game some National League team will have earned some advantage over its opponent because its pitcher can do something that the other pitcher cannot.
This is a significant number of games. Enough to impact a pennant race. Enough not to be casually and thoughtlessly cast aside by the philistine phalanx that champions the DH in spite of its deeply flawed logic.
The Shallow Fandom and Jaded Reporters
While the ultimate threat is the union, they are spurred on by a pro-DH chorus of shallow fans who believe that any 15-13 game is automatically better than any 3-1 game. They, in turn, are joined by a collection of jaded journalists who have been professional baseball writers for so long that they have lost all connection to actual fandom. I pity this group. I can’t imagine the excruciating experience it must be for them to sit through a baseball game. Perhaps they dig their fingernails into their arms to keep themselves awake while waiting for the next home run.
At any rate, the shallow and jaded are not hesitant to fill the internet with arguments as shallow as they are simple. Their favorite is that nobody likes to watch athletes trying to do something that they are not good at. Pitchers (they say, ignoring the fact that many can hit) are not good hitters, and therefore shouldn’t even have the opportunity.
Back in 2018, the Cardinals tried to make Jose Martinez their starting first baseman. To say that Jose struggled in this role is a significant understatement. The plan was abandoned after 84 games and Martinez was returned to the outfield.
My question is, where was the outrage (other than from Cardinal fans)? Where from that great and enlightened army of DH supporters was any whimper of outrage over someone (Martinez) attempting to do what he clearly was not good at (playing first base)? Wasn’t this the point of always hitting for the pitchers? So that we wouldn’t have to suffer through their struggles?
The answer here isn’t as simple as saying that Jose should have been the DH. Over the last couple of seasons, the Cards have been “blessed” with several questionable defenders. In addition to Martinez, St Louis suffered through the exploits of Marcell Ozuna in left field. In a prior life, Ozuna had been a gold glove winner. In St Louis he got poor jumps, made bad reads, and displayed one of the weakest throwing arms in baseball. In front of him, the Cards frequently played Matt Carpenter at third. Matt’s arm has faded to the point that even average runners have an opportunity to outrun his high, looping throws to first.
In all this, no one made a peep. No one at all suggested that the gloves be taken off of their hands. However poorly they played, no one seemed at all offended.
The Cardinals, by the way, are not the only team with multiple defensive issues. Over the offseason, they traded Martinez to Tampa Bay in the American League where he could perform the DH function. The problem there is that the Rays already have a defensively challenged first baseman in Ji-Man Choi. One of these challenged glove men will have to man first on any given day for Tampa Bay. But if you are waiting for anyone to protest this obscenity, I hope you brought your lunch because it will be a long while.
Elsewhere in the Cardinals’ division, Ryan Braun in Milwaukee has been a defensive liability wherever he’s played virtually his entire career. In Chicago, Kyle Schwarber turns every fly ball to left into an adventure. None of this matters. The shallow and jaded don’t care about defense. You could send the eight worst fielders imaginable onto the field. No one would care – provided that they can hit.
And that’s just the defensive end of it. What about base-running?
In his younger days, Yadier Molina had a bit of spring to his step – he even stole 12 bases in 2012. Still an intelligent runner, 16 seasons and 16,327.2 innings crouching behind the plate have pretty much drained Yadi of anything resembling foot speed. Now, he is pretty much base-to-base, clogging the basepaths for everyone behind him. You won’t hear a sound from the no-one-should-do-things-they-are-bad-at crowd.
Sometimes managers will start players who are nursing injuries that inhibit their running. For much of the last half of last season, Anthony Rizzo started (and hit leadoff) for the Cubs even though leg miseries reduced him to a station to station runner. Do you think this disturbed the shallow and jaded? Not a bit (Rizzo, you see, hit 27 home runs).
This is easily the most irritating thing about the DH rule, as far as I am concerned. Nothing matters here but hitting. Defense and base-running? Please. Those are those boring, inconsequential aspects of baseball that the shallow and jaded have to struggle to stay awake through until they can get to the next home run.
And another thing. It’s apparently unendurable to allow pitchers to struggle at the plate, but there’s no problem with anyone else struggling? Yes a National League DH rule would have kept Jack Flaherty and his .185 batting average away from the plate, but it would have done nothing for Harrison Bader and his .205 average. Bader struck out 100 more times than Flaherty (117-17), but its Flaherty’s strikeouts that are too egregious to endure?
During the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career, shortstop Ozzie Smith hit just .235/.306/.293/.599. Last year, there were 7 pitchers to register a higher OPS than that. But the DH can’t apply to shortstops – even if the starting pitcher that day is a better hitter.
During most of Gibson’s best seasons, his shortstop was a gentleman named Dal Maxville. In 11 seasons in St Louis, Maxy hit all of 6 home runs in 3087 at bats while carrying a .559 OPS. In 1969 Dal hit .175 with a .492 OPS (Gibson hit .246 that year with a .584 OPS). The next year, Maxville improved to .201 with a .510 OPS. That was the year Gibson hit .303 with a .751 OPS.
Gibson was clearly a better hitter than Maxville, and a rule adjustment that truly was geared to artificially augment offense would have allowed Gibson to hit and have the designated hitter replace Maxville’s bat. But the DH rule isn’t flexible enough to allow that. The DH rule can only target the pitcher – regardless of how proficient he is.
This silliness will reach its height in Anaheim this season (if there is a season). After missing a season on the mound due to Tommy John surgery, Shohei Ohtani is expected, finally, to be a fixture in the Angel’s rotation. But when he pitches, he won’t be allowed to hit – or at least if he does, Anaheim will have to abandon the DH advantage for that game. The stupidity here is that when Ohtani is not pitching, he will be the Angels’ designated hitter.
Now, even the fuzzy-thinking denizens of the shallow and jaded club can’t look at that situation without realizing that something is screwed up with the DH rule.
Let me add one more argument. The starting pitcher in a National League game usually accounts for two plate appearances or less before his spot in the lineup is filled with pinch-hitters. Between their home games and their road appearances in NL ballparks, the Cardinals (including playoffs) had 161 games in which their starting pitcher was written into the lineup. In 132 of those games (82.0%) those pitchers managed no more than two plate appearances.
The fact is that even if you’re starting pitcher for the day was the worst hitter imaginable, you would be logically better off replacing the next weakest bat in your lineup with a DH, enduring two plate appearances from your starter, and then bringing on the pinch hitters. This strategy would give your better hitters (on average) six of the eight at bats otherwise given to the two weakest hitters in your lineup.
But you can’t do that with the DH. Under the dizzyingly illogical DH rule, you have to hit if you play shortstop – even if you struggle at the plate; and you can’t hit if you’re the pitcher – even if you are one of the game’s best hitting pitchers. Even if you are Shohei Ohtani.
The question here isn’t how anyone can oppose the DH. The question is how can anyone support it. The only way is if you don’t think about it. At all.
All But Eliminates the Bench
[All of the other sections of this rant were written on June 5, several weeks before the season started. This addition is added after watching the Cards play 5 games with the designated hitter.]
American League teams and their fans are probably already inured to this insidious issue, but one of the first things I’ve noticed is how useless your bench is when you are saddled with the designated hitter. Five games into the 2020 season, Cardinal bench players have had all of 7 plate appearances (about 4 percent of the at bats). Players who didn’t start the game have come to the plate just 3 times so far.
Last year – under the weakest definition for what constitutes your bench – the Cards saw their bench players take 12.4% of the plate appearances. And Mike Shildt has less use for his bench than many managers. For Mike, basically, unless the starter is in the hospital he will be in the lineup. In Tony LaRussa’s final season, of the 6242 plate appearances the Cardinals had (including playoffs), players who didn’t start the game accounted for 530 of those plate appearances (8.5%), and Tony’s bench as a whole accounted for just a shade below 20% of all plate appearances (1247).
This is not just a Cardinal thing. In 2019, National League substitutes had 7295 plate appearances – with 4303 coming as pinch hitters. American League players who didn’t start the game managed only 2881 plate appearances – just 1367 of them as pinch hitters (and I would be willing to bet that about a fourth of that activity occurred in the handful of games where the AL had to play by NL rules).
There is a loss of strategy here. Yes, at some point the NL is going to start hitting for its pitcher. That point is obvious. But the question would then be which pinch-hitter. In a universe where that hitter only gets one shot it becomes another strategic element for the National League manager to decide who gets which opportunity.
Beyond the strategic element, baseball where the pitcher hits forces involvement from the bench. Poor Rangel Ravelo hadn’t been to the plate for a solid week since the end of summer camp, and he suddenly gets put in to hit against soft-tossing lefty Rich Hill? Thanks a lot, Mike. In real baseball, Ravelo would have had two or three pinch-hitting appearances during the first four games.
The carry-over for this is the DH himself, who doesn’t take the field with his team. What is there for him to do while the rest of his team tries to keep the other team from scoring? He’s not truly a bench player – but in the truest sense of the word, neither is he a starter.
Since time immemorial, baseball players have had the opportunity to make plays in the field, so that they are contributors even if they don’t get a hit on a particular day. Yesterday (July 29), Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman were both 0-4, among several hitless Cards in their 3-0 shutout loss. But most of these players were able to take their gloves to field and help prevent the other team from scoring. Ravelo (who was 0-2) and Matt Carpenter (0-1) who assumed the DH duties late in the game have only their failures to show for the evening.
In recognition of the unnaturalness of the position, there was some early discussion about denying designated hitters admittance to the Hall of Fame – since they made no contribution on defense. It’s as though the entire world understands that this is wrong, but lack the will to do something about it.
After almost 50 years, I am sure that all American League teams have developed a thick callous to the damage done to their teams by this ill-conceived gadget, but the fact is that the DH rule is very bad for your bench, and possibly worse for the DH himself.
A Structural Violation
The root cause that links all of these problems together is structural in nature – and not terribly difficult to understand.
There are two basic structures for participant sports. They can be two-way games (where the participants are expected to contribute both offensively and defensively) or they can employ a platoon concept. Basketball, for example, is a decidedly two-way sport. Like baseball players, basketball players have varying levels of proficiency. Some are better as offensive players than they are on the defensive end and others vice-versa. It is the coach’s job to weigh each player’s strengths and weaknesses and deploy the lineup that offers the best chance of success.
In this construct – in baseball as it is in basketball – you live with the trade-off. If you want Schwarber’s bat in the lineup, then you have to accept his defense in left field. If Harrison Bader is going to make miracle catches in centerfield for you, then you are going to have to accept his .205 average and 117 strikeouts. And, if you want to profit from Jack Flaherty’s gifted right arm on the mound, then you will have to find ways to maximize his at bats (with bunts and so forth). This simply is how two-way sports work.
Two-way, of course, is not the only viable design. To date, only football has embraced the platoon structure, but you cannot make the argument that football isn’t better with this system. As a platoon sport, football is a much better game now than it could otherwise be.
Imagine that Kansas City is playing New Orleans – it is Patrick Mahomes vs. Drew Brees. Of course, both of these prolific offenses would be expected to do considerable scoring. But now, imagine if both of those quarterbacks were forced to play free safety as well. Imagine Brees trying to stay with Travis Kelce over the middle or trying to deny Tyreek Hill the deep middle in zone coverage. Imagine Mahomes similarly disadvantaged trying to defend against Michael Thomas.
Even worse, imagine Mahomes coming up to make a tackle on Alvin Kamara – or Taysom Hill – and not getting up after the play.
Even players who could play both ways (and a guy like Nick Bosa, I think, could) wouldn’t play as well at either position as they do playing just the one. Unquestionably, the platoon system is the way to go for football.
Could baseball embrace a platoon system? Easily. Instead of the half-baked and ill-conceived DH, let me put my 9 best bats in my batting order – regardless of whether any of them might play the field; and let me put my 9 best gloves in the field – regardless of whether they are listed in the batting lineup. Allow me to nominate standing pinch-runners for any batters that I fear might be negative baserunners.
Imposing this model on the 2019 Cardinals, we could have both Martinez and Ozuna in the lineup without having to put them in the field. Rather than deciding between Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter, we could probably find room for both in the lineup. Bader could reign in centerfield without having to bat – but he might be the pinch-runner for Molina.
Here is the actualization of the thing the DH only leans toward. All hitters (in this model) are professional hitters, all fielders are the best fielders I’ve got. Nobody running the bases embarrasses himself or clogs the bases for the runners behind him.
Would baseball be a better game if it embraced a full platoon concept? You could make a fairly strong argument that it would.
I am not supporting this idea. I am perfectly fine with the full two-way version of baseball. I’m just saying that if you’re going to platoon, don’t just pick unfairly on the pitcher. Go all the way and platoon. Not speaking for the traditionalists, I will say for myself that I could reconcile myself to this concept of baseball easier that I could swallow the designated hitter.
I get that some of my arguments are too esoteric for the shallow and jaded who are yearning for those two or three extra home runs a game. To appreciate these concepts you have to have a deep feeling for the game – an attachment that has grown progressively weaker in the SportCenter highlight era.
So I will end coming full circle. Whether the shallow and jaded can begin to fathom why we in the National League like to see our pitchers hit, the fact is that we do. By an overwhelming majority.
In a just world, that should be all the argument needed.