Lott: It’s time for the National League to embrace the DH, or the American League to do away with it

RA Dickey
Photo Credit: John Lott

In his classic 1930s baseball story, Babe Ruth Visits Lake Wobegon, American humorist Garrison Keillor takes a sidelong swipe at the designated hitter rule. As Keillor recites the yarn, the Babe was sick on the autumn day he brought his barnstorming team by train to Keillor’s apocryphal Minnesota town. Too sick to take the field against the local team, which, naturally, unsettled the capacity crowd.

So some folks got the bright idea to change the rules for this exhibition game. If the Babe couldn’t play in the outfield, then he could at least take his hacks.

“He could bat for the pitcher!” came the cry. “It wouldn’t hurt anybody. People here want to see him bat.”

But the majority overruled that notion.

“This was a different time in our history,” Keillor intoned, “when a man did not pick up a bat unless that man was willing to pick up a glove.”

It was a bedrock principle as sacred as loyalty and patriotism, Keillor declared. Let a man bat without playing defence and societal decay was sure to follow.

That has forever been the position of the National League, notwithstanding that the American League, desperate for more offence, adopted the DH rule in 1973. More than four decades later, Major League Baseball is the only professional sport that blithely allows its games to be played under two separate sets of rules, most notably in the World Series, its most important games of the year.

So MLB – which is fond of invoking “the integrity of the game” at the slightest provocation – sabotages its own integrity by continuing to do something no other sport would even consider: different rules for different locations. Depending on the venue, you either gain or lose a hitter. Either you have a DH or you don’t. Either your pitcher hits or he doesn’t (and even if he does, he usually doesn’t).

And nobody seems to bat an eyelash at the irrationality of it all.

So we are left with games like the Blue Jays played in San Francisco on Wednesday, when one pitcher (R.A. Dickey) pinch-hit for another pitcher (Jesse Chavez) and couldn’t get down a sac-bunt in three tries. And we have Gavin Floyd, with five hits in 75 at-bats, forced to bat for himself so he can keep pitching, which is his primary job and which he did exceedingly well.

That the Blue Jays lost that game is irrelevant. It was, however, a game that underscored the contrasting realities of MLB’s two leagues. In the AL and NL, rosters are built differently, because MLB happily sanctions the comingling of two sets of rules for its two leagues.

On a day-to-day basis, there is no way to gauge how this bizarre contradiction affects the outcome of pennant races. But it is inherently unfair and dishonorable. And it is high time for sense and sensibility: either put the DH in both leagues or get rid of it.

***

Imagine: your favourite NBA team has a terrific big man who scores a tonne from the field but can’t hit a free throw if his life depended on it. Wilt Chamberlain was like that.

The designated hitter rule is like letting someone else take Wilt Chamberlain’s free throws,” Boston pitcher Rick Wise said in 1974.

So, after all these years, why hasn’t the NBA followed the example of MLB and let teams appoint a designated free-throw shooter?

Because the notion is so ridiculous that no one in his right mind would ever consider it.

You can appreciate why Rick Wise might be a tad cocky. First, his comment came almost half a century ago, not that far removed from Babe Ruth’s fictitious trip to Lake Wobegon. Second, Rick Wise once pitched a no-hitter and helped win it by hitting two home runs.

But Wise’s career batting average was .195, which is close to 50 points above the average for a major-league pitcher in this century, but still pretty underwhelming. Bartolo Colon hits a home run and everyone gets excited. Colon’s career average is .090. Madison Bumgarner comes to bat on Wednesday, and the Blue Jays’ TV announcers make him sound like the second coming of Barry Bonds. Bumgarner’s career batting average is .180.

Starting with Wednesday’s games and going back to 2006 on a yearly basis, MLB pitchers collectively batted between .122 and .146. Raise your hand – better yet, add your comment below – if your eyes light up when a pitcher comes to the plate, especially with two outs and a man on second and your favourite team at bat.

Maybe raise your hand too if you like watching your favourite team strike out. (If your team is the Blue Jays – second in MLB in strikeouts – you must really be having fun.)  In every year since 2006, the strikeout rate in MLB has increased, from 16.5 percent that year to the current rate of 21.1 percent.

And since the start of the 21st century, scoring in big-league baseball has decreased by 21 percent.

***

Unless they are stuck in Lake Wobegon, fans who favour letting pitchers continue to hit are likely to face incremental disappointment.

“A look at the state of pitcher hitting as a developmental objective suggests that the universal DH could be just around the corner,” according to an October 2015 article in Baseball Prospectus by Brendan Gowlowski. “More and more, pitchers coming into the league haven’t swung a bat in anger since puberty, and teams generally place little more than a cursory emphasis on helping their personnel improve. There’s little evidence to suggest that the next batch of pitchers will hit much better than what we’ve seen over the past decade.”

AL pitchers, of course, conjure up their high-school days when they take batting practice and figure it’s like riding a bicycle. It isn’t. With apologies to Bartolo Colon’s lightning in a bottle, watching pitchers hit is an event best viewed through cupped hands.

Exceptions have emerged. In 1988, Rick Rhoden of the Yankees actually started a game as the DH, the only pitcher ever to do so, which speaks sadly to the state of the Yanks in those days. He batted seventh, ahead of Rafael Santana and Joel Skinner. He grounded out and hit a sacrifice fly before giving way to a pinch-hitter.

But Rhoden had some cred. Over his 16-year career, he hit .238 with a .576 OPS, nine homers and 75 RBIs.

Even though they’re in a different league, perhaps NL owners cling to the memory of Rick Rhoden, who spent most of his career in their environs. The last time NL owners took a vote on the DH, it was 1980. There were 12 teams. Four owners said yes, five said no and three chickened out by abstaining. No votes have been taken since.

Let’s make this simple.

Baseball needs offence. One of its leagues insists on batting a weak hitter eighth and a non-hitter ninth. A universal DH would change that inequality.

And when it comes to the World Series, and the regular season too, logic dictates that every game be played under the same rules.

Personally, I don’t care if MLB keeps the DH or not. What’s important is that universal rules apply.

Or maybe you think having a designated foul shooter for your favourite NBA team makes eminent sense.

  • Barry

    The different sets of rules made sense (or at least, made less nonsense) before interleague play. With interleague play, it’s ridiculous.

    Then again, this is the same MLB that has no problem with weighted scheduling that results in teams who compete for the same playoff spots having different schedules. “Fairness” doesn’t appear to be a priority.

    For the most part, I don’t care what the NL does. I prefer the DH because I don’t buy the “strategy” argument that says we need to have a crappy hitter in the lineup just so we can use strategy to avoid having them hit. I can think of a ton of ways to bring more “strategy” into the game if that’s what someone really wants. But if the NL wants it, fine … I just don’t like having to see my American League team suddenly stick its DH on the bench and send an easy out to the plate. (I’d feel the same even if R.A. Dickey could lay a bunt down.)

    Of course, I’d probably feel differently if my favourite team were in the NL.

  • Matty

    Get rid of pitchers hitting and adopt the DH rule league wide or get rid of interleague play. This mixing and matching has to end. The NL has a huge advantage when played under NL rules.

    Did the giants have to add another position player to play the Jays? The Jays had to add a player because they were heading to the NL and drop a pitcher.

    Pitchers hitting is so boring since the outcome is basically defined already. Get out or attempt a bunt.

    I hate bunting!

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    “Starting with Wednesday’s games and going back to 2006 on a yearly basis, MLB pitchers collectively batted between .122 and .146”

    I think that’s good for batting 6th in the Jays’ lineup. What’s the problem?

  • Rob Ray

    Agreed. I could live without pitchers batting and never miss it. I have been watching baseball for 50 years and the pitchers who could hit have been few and far between. I believe Dave McNally hit a grand slam for the Orioles in the 1970 world series. Ken Brett (George’s brother) was an excellent hitter. Ken hit a home run in four straight starts for the Phillies in the summer of 1973. For his career, Ken hit .262 with 10 home runs and 44 rbi’s.

  • Neil S

    I’d add that at least one prominent voice has been railing against the irrationality of different rules for each league – Tom Tango has been complaining about this for years.

    He also came up with a pretty ingenious solution, I think, which is as close as you’ll get to making everyone happy. Rather than force everyone to use the DH or eliminate it entirely, he suggests giving the home team the option to invoke it. The home team would decide, at a certain point prior to every game, whether there will be a DH for *this* game.

    Personally, I can’t stand watching pitchers hit. I can tolerate great defenders who are awful hitters because they’re still capable of hitting so some limited degree. But nearly every pitcher is a completely useless hitter. I’d much rather watch someone who can swing a bat.

    • ThePowderedWhig

      Maybe I am overlooking the obvious, but why would any home club NOT select the option they’re already used to? Why would Toronto ever elect to have pitchers hit at Rogers Center? Why would the Dodgers WANT to pitch to Edwin when they could face Estrada 2-3 times instead?

    • Matty

      “He also came up with a pretty ingenious solution, I think, which is as close as you’ll get to making everyone happy. Rather than force everyone to use the DH or eliminate it entirely, he suggests giving the home team the option to invoke it. The home team would decide, at a certain point prior to every game, whether there will be a DH for *this* game.”

      If that were the rule, Ortiz would only play at home, or he would have to play 1st. Since he is the best DH in the league the other team would be at a disadvantage and would always chose the pitcher matchup to even the playing field.

    • Barry

      That strikes me as potentially a very bad solution. It would enable teams to decide whether or not to use the DH based on the strength of their DH options vs. the strength of their opponents’ options. I think it would put too much power into the home team’s hands, giving them the ability to tilt the playing field somewhat.

  • ThePowderedWhig

    I agree that this is exacerbated by the continued use of interleague play. If the Blue Jays are in the division race come August imagine the baseball fan’s excitement (!!!) over seeing…the Cincinnati Reds come to Toronto. Go back to balanced schedules and do your best to play the majority of intradivision games at the back-end of the season, which I believe the NFL did a few years ago. I’m not suggesting the last 30-days be nothing but AL East, but I also dont want to see 9 East games out of the final 30.

  • b4 the windup

    I’m halfways in the minority on this. Maybe cuz I grew up on the Expos but I always liked that the manager had to consider what to do when in the (say) sixth inning, his pitcher’s been doing well, it’s a 1 – 1 ballgame, they have two men on base with two out and … it’s the pitcher’s turn to bat. Plenty to think about, to decide on. I’m an AL fan these days and the DH is fine and all but I still like that strategy angle that the NL has to work with. There’s just something natural about it for me.

    • John Lott

      If it feels natural, that’s because it is. Up until 1973, that’s the way major league baseball was played, day in and day out. It’s the DH that’s not natural. But if anything changes – and I suspect it won’t – it will be to make the DH universal. The players’ union wouldn’t let MLB take jobs away from the aging sluggers whose careers are lengthened because of the DH in the AL.

  • Bad Dabbler

    I have a much simpler reason for hating the NL rule

    I enjoy watching the best players play the most innings

    Without the DH , the pitching changes and double switches result in Emilio bonafacio types getting in the game at some point over more talented players

  • Designated For Assignment

    One League one set of rules. An idea whose time has arrived.

    With size and strength baseball is now a much faster and specialized game.
    Pitching has evolved more than hitting. Pitchers, long before the DH and long before TV, was one position, one player. That pitcher stayed in the entire game or was replaced by one other player, who was often another position player. In the modern era there are now four type of pitchers starter, middle man, set up man and a closer. Fresh arms, harder throwers. No one cares if a pitcher can hit a home run, they care if he can strike out 300 batters a season, or close out a one run lead. Batting has not changed that much, save for bigger, stronger players who can hit a ball far into the bleachers. A good number , but not all of these guys get to play as Designated Hitters.

    Taking away the DH is like taking away closers and set up men. That’s not going to happen. Time for the National League to embrace the change.

  • JasonTrent79

    Keep in mind that baseball likes it oddities and everything being different. Imagine each basketball court had slightly different dimensions. Or the 3 point line was in different places on different courts. Yet with baseball stadiums, no two stadiums are alike. You have short right field porches, gaping alleys, launching pads, you name it. Each team inherently can maximize its home field advantage by building a lineup that plays to its stadium. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.

    • Barry

      This is an excellent point, and while I could take this point and reconsider comments I have made, I would rather hold on to my own views and instead use your valid point to assert the following:

      Fenway Sucks.