With the Houston Astros headed to the American League, and the attending equalization of the split between the AL (15 teams) and NL (15 teams), we’re going to see interleague play throughout the season in 2013. The net increase in interleague games is relatively small, but the fact that interleague will be in our collective face all year will probably bring the distinction between the two leagues into greater focus.
And that means a debate about the designated hitter rule.
For whatever reason, that NL designated hitter debate flared up yesterday, sparked, it seems, by an article by Yahoo’s Anna Hiatt. The gist of Hiatt’s piece:
Don’t pay attention to decades’ worth of howling from baseball purists. The DH doesn’t ruin America’s national pastime. Forcing pitchers to hit is essentially just adhering to tradition for tradition’s sake. When the AL succumbed to reason in 1973, the rule change — which takes pitchers out of the batting lineup and replaces them with a designated hitter who doesn’t play in the field — did baseball a world of good. Batting averages rose. So did attendance. The games were far more exciting. Baseball became less a battle of managers and more a competition of athletes.
Essentially, the AL game is a better game, argues Hiatt.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that, though I prefer pitchers batting, I don’t believe the National League’s rules in this regard are objectively better. Indeed, when I take my personal preferences out of the equation and look at the matter rationally, I cannot escape the logic of the DH in today’s game and the futility of pitchers batting.
The game is not played by all-around ballplayers anymore. Pitchers are just dreadful at hitting and, increasingly, are unable to even bunt particularly well. The strategy and gamesmanship my NL friends like to talk up is rather contrived when one thinks about it. Really, these machinations are more about the avoidance of pitchers batting than taking advantage of it. The whole dance in which managers spend so much energy to optimize minor matchups, often costing them their best pitchers and best hitters runs counter to the idea of my best nine playing your best nine and let’s see who wins.
Again, the thrust of the argument is that pitcher’s batting is no fun, making NL games less enjoyable than AL games. Craig’s right, by the way, that the presence of the pitcher in the lineup leads to tactical discussions about how best to operate with the knowledge that a crappy hitter is coming up after the next two hitters. Is that more or less fun? It’s probably debatable.
The decided weight of the punditry that I have observed, however – or at least those who have chosen to weigh in over the last year or so – is in favor of the NL picking up the DH, for a variety of reasons. Among them: (1) pitchers are terrible hitters; (2) the game is higher scoring and thus more fun to watch; and (3) pitchers risk injury by batting.
The opposition to the DH in the NL is generally some variation of “TRADITION!,” shouted with neck veins emerged and pulsing. The thing on that one, though, is that, as each year passes, it becomes harder to rely on “tradition” when the tradition on the other side – the AL DH – is now 40 years old. The DH is now pretty traditional. (And, for the record, I used to be a traditionalist, myself … I guess I’ve just grown weary of watching pitchers flail away or sacrifice bunt. I hate sacrifice bunts, except in extremely limited circumstances. So, I guess I’ve become biased. But that’s not why I changed my stance … )
I think both sides miss the greatest point, and it is one that cuts heavily in favor of expanding the DH to the NL.
While an AL team is able to dedicate a roster spot to finding the purely best hitter it can find, and then deploys that guy when the AL and NL square off in interleague games and the World Series, the NL team is left to pick a guy off of its bench when in AL parks. Because pitchers as hitters – whether AL or NL – are roughly equal in performance, the fact that the AL team has a dedicated DH puts the NL team at a decided disadvantage in half the games. I am not OK with this. Ironically, it is because I’m an NL guy at heart that I think they probably should adopt the DH. I can’t stand the unequal footing.
Since the DH ain’t going away in the AL, the only way to even things up is going to be the DH coming to the NL. And you purists should probably resign yourselves now to the idea that it is coming: with the DH being a player who makes a whole lot more money than a random bench guy, the possibility of 15 additional high-paying jobs is going to be enough to get the MLB Players Association on board with adding the DH to the NL. That’s 50% of your fight right there. Get a few NL owners on board, and things can change very rapidly.