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The DH is the devil, or is it?

July 29, 2013

Tony Lenahan

The designated hitter is celebrating its 40th year in existence this season and I'm going to come out and say it. I hate the designated hitter. Hate it, hate it, hate it. And I'm not a hateful person. But to threaten the designated hitter to my beloved National League is going too far. Yes, there are rumblings inside Major League Baseball that the DH is coming to the NL within possibly 10 years.
I'm also what you would call a baseball purist. Not only is the designated hitter a horrible idea, gimmick, whatever you want to call it, but I would also like MLB to push the fences back to at least 350 feet down the lines, 390 in the gaps and 425 to dead center. That means no more cheap home runs. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against home runs, I just think it should be harder to hit them. And yes, I would rather see a 2-1 or 1-0 game than a 10-9 game. But back to the designated hitter.
The DH was implemented in the American League in 1973. The AL was struggling in attendance and wanted to put more offense in their game, especially after the year of the pitcher in 1968 when the MLB earned-run average was 2.98. St. Louis' Bob Gibson sported a 1.12 ERA, the Tigers' Denny McClain won 31 games and Boston's Carl Yastremski led the AL with a .301 batting average in 1968. The season after, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 and the DH came four seasons later.
Both runs and attendance improved between 1972 and 1973 and instead of being a three-year trial period for the DH, it became an American League institution, unfortunately. The five years before the DH, the American League had an ERA of 3.37, allowed 3.8 runs per game and a .243 league batting average. In the five years after the DH, AL ERA raised to 3.76, along with batting average (.254) and runs per game (4.24). There were only three teams (Boston, Chicago and Detroit) which had over 1 million in attendance in 1972. The the first year of the DH resulted in eight of the 12 teams reaching the 1 million mark. So yes, the DH did what it set out to do and it stayed.
My biggest beef with the designated hitter is it changes the most fun part of the game of baseball – the strategy. Replace the pitcher with the DH and there is basically no need for the double switch. With no double switch, where's the strategy? The sacrifice bunt pretty much goes out the window. You'll still have some light-hitting players still sacrificing, but it won't be near the same. Throwing the DH in there changes the game of baseball.
Tony LaRussa coached in both the American (Chicago and Oakland) and National Leagues (St. Louis) and had this take on the DH in an article years ago from Coach and Athletic Director.
"The designated hitter is obviously the biggest one," LaRussa spoke on the difference between the AL and NL. "The fact that the pitcher is in there, as opposed to the DH, it does a lot to impact at least a third of the innings. And when you are making decisions, you're always conscious of where the pitcher is and when he is likely to come up. You use your bench differently. You use your bullpen differently. You have the double-switch, which is an important play in the National League. I think it's a healthy way to play because the entire game is showcased in the NL and there are pieces of it that never appear in the American League. Also, you're forced to involve your overall roster. In the AL, you kind of get lost there for a while."
Bill James added this in The New Historical Baseball Abstract: “[B]aseball is supposed to be played by young guys who can run, rather than old fat guys who can hit home runs.”
But, it seems the more people I talk to, the more the DH is favored. Whether it's for the fans, those who want to see a more offense anyway, or if it's for a pitcher's health, the DH is gaining momentum. Also, it will be really tough to take 15 jobs away from the American League should the DH lose out.
"I like it," Benton baseball Coach Mark Balisterri said of the DH. "I think it would help baseball. Right now, about 98 percent of the pitchers, when they get up to bat, they're an automatic out. The only time it's not an automatic out is a bunt situation, and half of them can't bunt when they're trying to bunt. I think it will help the game of baseball. People want to see the best players perform. When somebody pays to watch Cliff Lee (Benton), they're not paying to watch him hit. It would be a definite positive if you could put somebody, like if [Ryan] Howard gets to a point, to use him as a DH on his night off instead of having him completely out of the lineup. I can see it being a big plus for the fans."
Bryant baseball Coach Kirk Bock favors the DH for pitcher safety.
"I think it would be good," Bock said of the DH moving to the NL. "I think it's another way you can protect the pitcher. If you ain't got that guy, you ain't winning, I don't care who you are. I think adding the DH in there is just another way, in professional ball, that you can protect the pitcher. You get him off the plate and off the bases, two more opportunities for him to get injured. You're probably not as apt to throw at somebody if you know you're coming to the plate the next inning."
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Coach Mike Scioscia said the DH is gaining support in a Jayson Stark (ESPN) article recently.
"If you were born in 1970, the DH is something you grew up with," Scioscia said. "It's just part of baseball. If you were born in 1950, the DH is a curse. … But I think right now, there are more people who have wrapped their arms around the DH than people who haven't. I think more people [support the DH] now than have ever before in history."
Stark, who tackled the DH issue at it's 30-year mark in 2003 really argues against it.
"The game is simply way more interesting without the DH than with it. Period," Stark said. "Ask any manager which is more strategically challenging — managing a game under NL rules or AL rules. It's no contest. It's baseball's cerebral side that separates it from all the other games ever invented. And the game is way more cerebral with no DH than with it. That's one thing that hasn't changed in 30 years."
That's what we're going to miss people. Adding the DH to the NL will change the game forever. Yes, the DH will lessen the risk for National League pitchers by taking the bat of their hand. Yes, there will be more offense and with more offense, better attendance. And yes, the DH will provide 15 more jobs on the NL side by providing another position. But lessening risk, getting better attendance and providing jobs was not what baseball is all about (well didn't used to be anyway). Baseball came about because it was a fun way to get exercise. The DH goes against that in every aspect. The DH doesn't get any exercise on the bench watching his teammates in the field.
I think Crash Davis (Kevin Costner in Bull Durham - 1988) said it best: "I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter."

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