Why Should We Designate a Hitter?

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One of the greatest things about sports is the way rules change as human participants evolve into faster, smarter, and stronger athletes.  While we are all creatures of habit and have an appreciation for tradition and nostalgia, it often ends up working out in that we can’t fathom why the game was played by different rules way back when, when it seems so much better and more logical now.

Take basketball, for example.  At some point people said, “Hey, you know what?  Guys just holding the ball for the entire length of the game is boring.  Let’s put in a shot clock!”  And yea, verily, a shot clock was implemented, and now nobody can imagine a game of basketball without a shot clock.  Ditto for camping in the lane (thanks, Wilt Chamberlain) or goaltending (thanks, Bill Russell).  Then you have football…I don’t even know when they started allowing forward passes, but can you imagine a game of American football where you don’t have a guy like Joe Montana throwing bombs into the end zone?  I can’t.

Rules protect players, too.  Eventually people realized that it was probably a good idea to protect the brain, so now you can’t watch any professional football, hockey, or baseball game where a player isn’t protected by a helmet.  Even MLB pitchers are starting to get options to protect their heads from line drives up the middle.  MLB pretty much banned collisions at home plate.  You can’t prevent all injuries from happening all the time, but you can at least take action to reduce the likelihood of injury.  This is why MLB also started setting up FAQ pages for pitchers to stay healthy in response to the rising number of arm injuries.

Not all rules are universally accepted.  Heck, many fans are still annoyed with football being “pansified” these days because defensive players can’t hit the quarterback as viciously anymore.  In baseball, fans are frustrated with the fact that runners can’t railroad the catcher anymore.  And then, you have the designated hitter…

Oh LAWD the DH!  Never has humanity been so divided since the Yooks and the Zooks went to war over which side to butter bread on.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about…

But this has less to do with Dr. Seuss and more to do with what’s right and just in the world, because the DH is the Devil, right?  I mean, check out our Facebook threads…

With the injury to one of the games best pitchers, is it time for the National League to consider the DH?

Posted by World Series Dreaming on Sunday, April 26, 2015

There’s also this one, referencing Craig Calcaterra’s article:

If you think we are off our rockers for thinking the DH is coming to the NL at some point, here is another

Posted by World Series Dreaming on Sunday, April 26, 2015

And you wonder why people are always fighting wars! But again, I digress.  The main reason this is again a big deal is because of injuries to Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer suffered while batting.  This has apparently generated some sound bytes from Scherzer:

“If you look at it from the macro side, who’d people rather see hit — Big Papi or me?” Scherzer said. “Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper? Both leagues need to be on the same set of rules.”

Let’s use this as a segue because I think this is an important point.  Getting away from all the strategy and tradition and who is a “real baseball player” etc., what DO fans want to see?  What IS being recognized as legitimate MVP-caliber accomplishments in the grand scheme of things?  For that, let’s turn to recently-retired defensive wizard, John McDonald.  McDonald played for 16 MLB seasons across a number of teams, and was primarily known for his glove.  He barely hit enough to stay relevant, but was such a good defender that he was worth having around.  But despite racking up something like 11 wins on defense, he’s still not a Hall of Famer.  And the reason why is because of offense.

Fans crave offense.  The baseball writers LOVE offense when it comes to things like voting for the MVP award or to elect players to the Hall of Fame.  And front offices, in particular this one under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, have built their franchises on offense because offense is scarce.  Offense is action.  Offense drives fan interest, so much so that the new commissioner was willing to consider banning defensive shifts to try to increase offense.  Obviously that’s not going to happen, but you can see that offense is a big deal.  Even managers who prefer the “NL style of play because it’s more strategic,” such as Brad Ausmus, understand what the fans really want, even if the fans won’t admit it…

While Ausmus declined to take a stance one way or another on abolishing the pitcher hitting, and he actually prefers the NL style of play “because it’s more strategic,” he acknowledges fans tend to enjoy the designated hitter more because it adds offense.

A fact that is universally accepted now, and that primarily catalyzed the implementation of the DH in the American League in 1973, is that pitchers suck at hitting.  This is why they’ve hit ninth for the most part (unless they’re Babe Ruth).  Even in “A League of Their Own,” Dottie’s sister hit ninth because she sucked at hitting, though she was a great pitcher.  Many fans suggest strategy as the reason the DH shouldn’t come to the NL, but if you think about it…

It’s true!  The pitcher DOES NOT HIT in most key situations after the fifth or sixth inning because the manager, the pitchers themselves, most of the fans and even the broadcasters will openly state that it’s an extremely bad idea.  Multiple times this season, key situations where runs were likely to have scored fizzled out because Jon Lester was at bat, and as you know, Jon Lester has yet to record a single hit in his career (he did walk once!).  If you look at other pitcher at-bats, like this one from Santiago Casilla, THEY DON’T WANT TO BE THERE. (Incidentally, in a later at-bat, Casilla hurt himself running to first base.)

The whole point of NL “strategy” is, “How can I squeeze six or seven innings out of my starter and get a lead so I can start pinch-hitting for the pitcher’s spot?”  If you’re talking about strategy in terms of double-switching, the double-switch is often used to make sure the pitcher doesn’t bat for as long as possible.  If you’re talking about strategy in terms of pinch-hitting, then that doesn’t even work because surprise surprise, even American League teams will pinch-hit.  Heck, they’ll pinch-run too!  The Kansas City Royals did it a bunch with Terrence Gore and Jarrod Dyson on their way to the World Series.  They’ll even double switch, although that double switch may not happen at the pitcher/DH spot.  A double switch doesn’t always have to involve the pitcher, either.  Look at any random AL box score and you’ll see instances of pinch-hitting, defensive substitutions, etc.  It may not be as prevalent as in NL games where the pitcher’s spot is continually substituted for after the fifth inning or so, but it’s there.

On Anno’s timeline, there were many interesting points about the DH and whether it should stay or go.  You’ve also seen the Facebook threads above.  I talked to Andy about this, and while he is a staunch proponent of pitchers hitting due to tradition and the above-mentioned strategy, he does concede that offense is a big deal, and it needs to be fixed.  He won’t go as far as to demand a DH (none of us really are), but he does suggest enforcing the rulebook strike zone as a start to normalizing offense.  I would go a step further and say that, in order to generate more offense, maybe it’s a good idea to remove a “hitter” who will make outs nearly 90% of the time.  And as Scherzer himself says:

“Those kids, they want to see V-Mart hit,” Scherzer said, pointing out a group of children on the field at Marlins Park. “Those kids don’t want to see me hit. No one want to see a pitcher hit. No one pays money for that.”

I know the Wainwright and Scherzer injuries (and the Casilla injury I referenced) are considered red herrings or whatever, but I do recognize that they could’ve injured themselves any number of ways while pitching or covering a base.  Wainwright himself has injured his elbow a few times before his potential Achilles injury the other day.  I agree with Calcaterra here:

And certainly isn’t worth it when you think about the risks. About how the two favorites in the National League this year just lost pitchers to injuries that never needed to happen. Injuries that, yes, could’ve happened to a position player hitting. Or could’ve happened to Wainwright and Scherzer while they were on the mound. But injuries which, in those cases, wouldn’t have been sustained in the pursuit of a pointless exercise. In an effort to keep a couple of 117-for-622 hitters on the field and to keep the tradition of 19th century baseball intact.

I think people keep talking about the cost of the DH, given how much it costs to pay guys like David Ortiz and Victor Martinez to just swing the bat (and maybe play first base in NL parks here and there), but that was before full-year interleague after the Houston Astros switched to even out both leagues.  I’ll bet the Los Angeles Dodgers don’t care about DH cost since they have a quarter billion dollar payroll.  The Chicago Cubs probably won’t either since they have bat-first prospects like Dan Vogelbach and a money machine that’s about to gain major momentum.  If you were an objective fan, ask yourself this: would you rather see Vogelbach smash baseballs, or would you hope against hope that Jon Lester would finally get his first career hit?

When I first learned about baseball, I gravitated towards the National League.  I thought the pitcher hitting was cool.  But after high school ball, pitchers don’t work on hitting anymore.  Even National League minor league affiliates use the DH.  In spring training, the DH is used to give position players at-bats even though franchises know that their pitchers eventually will need real game work at the plate.  Nobody cares about pitchers hitting, not even people in charge of NL teams.  It makes me sad, because I like thinking that baseball players should be able to play both offense and defense, but that’s simply not going to happen.  Not anymore.

Given that, why bother anymore?  The designated hitter isn’t the gimmick anymore.  The gimmick is in forcing pitchers who either aren’t prepared, or who don’t want to, to hit.

But don’t worry, Cubs (and National League) fans.  Rule 6.10, aka the designated hitter rule, allows managers leeway to decide whether or not they want to use the DH.  And every now and then, AL managers will forfeit the DH when they don’t have any other choice.  For example, remember when Joe Maddon had to bat Andy Sonnanstine third because he screwed up the lineup card?  Now THAT was fun!

I bet for the most part, though, if you gave the manager a choice, they’ll take the smart one to build the best offensive lineup.  Even if it’s offensive to our traditions.


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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

9 Replies to “Why Should We Designate a Hitter?”

  1. I’ve been a fan for nearly forty years and seen thousands of games. I’m a Sox fan and love Papi. I’m also a fantasy player who owns Scherzer (He’s only “lost” for a couple of days, incidentally). I’ve coached Babe Ruth ball, high school and men’s league. I love strategizing. Sacrificing, squeezing, hitting and running, etc…are all great. That said, I’ve always been a huge dh guy. Here are my reasons: I want to see a better hitter at the plate if given the choice. In the age of the eight figure contract for pitchers, there’s no justifying one getting hurt at bat. Also, if it takes the average MLB pitcher five years to make the show from high school, he hasn’t likely swung a bat in that entire time. Not sure Miguel Cabrera could go five years without swinging a bat and immediately be expected to be a competent hitter. Next, Double switching is frankly not that riveting. Finally, We’re living in post ped baseball (unfortunately. My thoughts on peds can be discussed later though). Thus, runs are at a premium. A 25-90.290 season is now a borderline MVP season. Maximizing offense and fan interest simply outweigh the ‘strategy’ argument. The DH will come to the NL, sooner than later, and like same sex marriage we’ll one day marvel at the idea that we ever even had this debate.

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  3. While pitchers hitting may not be the most exciting thing, adding the DH still dumbs down the game. Teams using the DH no longer have to choose between lifting a pitcher (like Lester) to score runs or leave a great pitcher (like Lester) in to prevent the opposition from scoring.

    The DH prevents the manager from ever having to make a difficult decision with regards to who should be on the field. That’s a big part of the appeal of the NL way of playing. The PED era killed small ball in baseball. With pitchers becoming dominant again, small ball isn’t the worst idea. Pitchers in the box can play a big part in that.

    • I think not having the DH unnecessarily handicaps the manager for essentially the reasons you described, but I think at this point we are simply arguing a preference using the same rationale. Based on what the Commissioner said this weekend and Joe Posnanski’s not-so-scientific poll it seems NL fans are the voice and they don’t really want the DH anyway, so even if inevitable it’s probably not going to happen next year, but maybe the year after when they renegotiate the CBA. Thanks for the awesome comment!

    • “The DH prevents the manager from ever having to make a difficult decision with regards to who should be on the field.” Exactly. The 1949 AL pennant, for example, hinged on Joe McCarthy’s decision to take Ellis Kinder out for a pinch hitter (see: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA194910020.shtml). Episodes like that are fascinating to the thinking fan. Two other points:
      1) As many other fans have pointed out, all ballplayers should have to run, field, and hit.
      2) A pitcher’s hitting ability provides an interesting subtext. Jim Palmer wasn’t a great hitter, but he was better than average for a pitcher. I once heard him comment he didn’t like the introduction of the DH because it removed an advantage he had over most starting pitchers in the AL. It’s interesting to me that part of his mindset as a ballplayer was the realization that, for example, Earl Wilson had a hitting advantage over him but that he had a hitting advantage over Joe Horlen.

      • In a later blog I talked about how it might be possible to extend the designated hitter towards a fielder who is great but can’t hit. The goal of the pro-DH crowd isn’t to dumb down the game per se, but to ensure that the best offensive team is allowed to go to bat within the current constraints of the game. AL managers still pinch-hit and pinch-run all the time, just obviously not for the pitcher.

  4. There absolutely should not be a DH rule in either league. If you can’t put on a glove, then you can’t play, period. If your bat is that good, then some team somewhere will find a place to play you in the field, and the defensive shortcomings of these players will generate more offense anyway. If you’re in favor of designating a player to hit, then go watch the women play softball. Sick of hearing this shit.

    • Honestly if it came down to it, I’d rather just not have the pitcher hit, and roll with an 8 man batting lineup than have a DH. If you’re not taking the field, you simply should not be allowed into the game.

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