Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Learning to Live With the Designated Hitter

In a poll on ESPN.com today, the question posed is about which change you would most like to see in sports.

The four options are:

Designated Hitter
NBA travel enforcement
NFL Overtime.

It's perhaps not surprising that the BCS is running away with the lead, with 79% of the very un-scientific vote, but the poll does bring up an interesting point--reminding us that the designated hitter was never embraced by everyone and still has its detractors.

I admit that until last season, I had never really given much thought to the rule.

The idea that one league had it and one league did not made enough sense to me--if I really cared that much, I could go and become a fan of the National League.

Then, on a hot day last June, I saw why the designated hitter could be a good thing. Had the Yankees been playing in an American League ballpark, Chien Ming Wang would have never had to run the bases and while no one can say for sure, it is certainly possible that Wang would have never injured his foot.

In the American League, I thought, this would never happen.

Never mind that my support for the DH rule, no matter how momentary, could cause me to lose all credibility as a baseball purist; a Yankee was hurt because there was no DH and this was a horror of horrors.

It even prompted this quote from Hank Steinbrenner:

"I've got my pitchers running the bases, and one of them gets hurt. He's going to be out. I don't like that, and it's about time they address it. That was a rule from the 1800s."

More than a few months removed from that event, however, it's easier to provide a clearer picture.

The designated hitter was introduced to the MLB in 1973, and it's now used in the majority of the world's professional leagues.

Surely, then, something so widespread couldn't be bad for the game, right?

I asked my friend, Steven Lord, a Mets fan, what he thought, and he offered this take:

I don't like it. I'm an NL person. I feel that if you play the field, you should have to hit. I feel that in the NL, pitchers have to think twice about going after a person because they know that they will have to stand in the box. I like the strategy involved with it: bunting, double switches...hell, even Tony LaRussa has added a new element to it with batting his pitcher 8th....it adds an extra element to the game.

From a sentimental point of view, that argument would hold a lot of weight.

It does make a manager have to think, it does mean that pitchers have to think before (intentionally) beaning someone, and it does mean that hitters need to be able to field, and fielders hit.

However, if you consider the years since the strike, you discover the following: Since 1994, NL teams have won the World Series in 95, 97, 01, 03, 06 and 08...six years out of fourteen, and in those years, they managed to win the World Series in less than six games just twice, in 06 and 08.

Meanwhile, the American League has won World Series in 96, 98, 99, 00, 02, 04, 05 and 07, and failed to do so in a sweep or five games only twice (96 and 02).

If we also consider the results of the All Star games since the strike and the composite results of interleague play (all time results are: 1387–1317, AL), it becomes fairly clear that the American League is the better league.

While the Designated Hitter itself can not be solely responsible for this, some of the consequences of its implementation are.

The most simple way of putting it is that theoretically the DH improves a team's offense, which means the team's opponent needs to adjust and improve its pitching, a backlash response, if you will.

Whether or not that is actually what happened is up for debate, but what is not is that the DH, when used, can alter the way a game is played. As the traditional narrative goes, if you like bunts, stolen bases and the running game, the National League (or the Anaheim Angels) are for you; if you like big home runs and lots of scoring, the American League is what you want to follow.

So is the DH a good thing?

It remains a question with no clear answer. From the perspective of safety for a pitcher, and for the caliber of hitting, it seems to be yes, but from the perspective of tradition and sentimentality-which, when referring to baseball cannot be understated-the answer is still no.


The Yankees have signed Nady to a one year deal which basically doubles his salary from last year.


  1. I actually have no problem with the designated hitter. I like the variety between leagues.

  2. Hahaha, i hope the DH stays in baseball, it's the only hope i have.