I have been a fan of the National League style of play for as long as I can remember. At first, it may have been prompted solely by my choice in favorite team (I’ve been a Cubs fan since 1989, when I was 10 years old). But, over the years, I have grown to appreciate the National League style as a style that incorporates more of what the game of baseball is supposed to be. National League teams tend to be grittier, more willing to press and grind out runs by any means necessary. Meanwhile, American League teams are more frequently the kinds of teams that are waiting for the 3-run HR trot. There’s nothing necessarily right or wrong with either style of play – it’s a personal preference. And, let’s not forget that there are exceptions to these rules of thumb – I love watching the Kansas City Royals, because they play much more like a National League team (Eric Hosmer‘s dash for the plate in Game 5 of the World Series will be forever etched in my memory).
That being said, I believe one of the contributing factors to the difference in styles is something that should never have taken place – the Designated Hitter. When you look back at the history of it’s use, you’ll find that while it had been discussed for decades, it only gained real traction in the late 1960’s. However, if you consider the kind of pitching that was going on in that era (Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title in ’68 with a .301 batting average), everyone was struggling at the plate. This wasn’t just a “pitchers can’t hit” issue. So, in an effort to increase offense around the league, the DH was put in place in 1973, on a trial basis. And, baseball was forever changed.
Fast forward 40+ years to today (though, you really don’t have to go that far forward to find these results). Now, we look at a guy coming up to the majors who has some power. But, he’s not very good at fielding any position on the diamond (not even first base). So, instead of treating him like a baseball player should be treated – instead of making him work to hone the craft of catching and throwing the ball the way he should – we say, “well, he’ll make a good DH in the American League one day.” In other words, let’s not worry about getting a player to play all of the game, as long as he’s good at one part. Instead of being interested in a 5-tool player, we’re now satisfied with a 1-tool player. As a result, we have more and more Evan Gattis‘ – a guy who is a detriment to his team in the field, is sub-par at getting on base (.294 career OBP as I’m writing this), will strike out at a high rate, but can hit some home runs (averaging 23 per year). Since he can’t do but one thing well . . . let’s make him a DH.
Fans of the DH will point to the likes of David Ortiz as their hero. First of all, believe me when I say that Ortiz is the exception. 2015’s DH list is littered with guys like Gattis, Adam LaRoche, C.J. Cron, and Billy Butler. But, secondly, let’s not ignore the fact that Ortiz isn’t just below-average in the field . . . he’s awful. A total of just over 2,000 innings at first base (a National League equivalent of about a season and a half), and he has 22 errors to date. Twenty-two! At, by far, the easiest position on the field to defend. Pedro Alvarez (a guy shifting from third base) was the only NL first-baseman to have more than 9 errors the entire 2015 season. Oh, and guess where Pedro is this year . . . DH’ing for the Orioles.
In recent years, and particularly this past offseason, I was troubled by the increasing discussion of the “need” for the DH in the National League. I would like to suggest that the only “need” regarding the DH in baseball . . . is the need to do away with it! We’ve already seen how it creates one-dimensional players, rather than legitimate baseball players. And, this has become problematic all the way down even into the college ranks, where the DH is now the norm – further escalating the issue of the 1-tool player. But, I also would like to consider more carefully the arguments in favor of the DH, and why they don’t actually hold any water.
The DH Produces More Offense
On the surface, this sounds like a legitimate argument. After all, we see plenty of pitchers batting below .100, and taking swings that look worse than my 7-year-old son’s. But, when you look at offensive production across the league, you’ll find that just having a DH in the batting lineup, instead of the pitcher, doesn’t necessarily translate into that much more offense. Over the last three seasons (ever since Houston moved to the American League, and there were an even number of teams between the two leagues), the AL has averaged 670 more runs per season than the NL. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But, when you break it down, between the teams, that translates to less than 45 more runs per team. That’s 0.28 runs per game per team. So, the average American League game is going to have barely more than half a run more than the average National League game. I don’t think that extra half of a run per game is the kind of offensive explosion that will create more baseball fans (one of the reasons “more offense” is used as an argument in favor of the DH).
So, why isn’t the DH producing more significant offense? Money. Plain and simple. Instead of paying 8 position players “starter” salaries, American League teams now have to essentially pay 9. And, when a guy that only does one thing is getting $7-10 million per season, or more, the team is going to have to make sacrifices at other positions. So, in many cases, you get a shortstop or a second baseman that’s above average defensively, but because he only hits about .240 (and offensive numbers drive the salary train), you can afford to have him in your infield and the power-hitting DH.
What proponents of the DH often do is compare the average DH to the average pitcher. But, that’s an unfair comparison. Yes, the DH is taking the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. But, because of the way American League teams have to organize their budgets differently, I say the comparison needs to be between #9 hitters. Generally speaking, the #9 hitter in your lineup is your lightest hitter. In the National League, that’s almost always your pitcher. If you look at this year’s stats so far – there are 5 American League teams (Astros, Angels, Indians, Twins and Rays) in the bottom 10 in batting average from the #9 spot in the lineup. And, there are 3 National League teams (Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Cubs) that are in the top 10. The American League has a .219 average from the #9 spot, while the National League is batting .187. Last year wasn’t much different (.228 in the AL, .182 in the NL).
While the “more offense” argument sounds reasonable on the surface – the reality is that there is no lack of offense in the NL just because pitchers are batting.
The DH Protects High-Priced Pitchers From Injury
Again, on the surface, this sounds like a very rational argument in favor of the DH. That is, until you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. This argument received a lot of attention last year when Adam Wainwright suffered a torn achilles while running to first base. The outcry was, “See?! If he hadn’t had to bat, this never would have been an issue.” Even Wainwright himself chimed in with a similar sentiment. Meanwhile, everyone seems to forget how injury prone Adam Wainwright has been in his career. He missed the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery – not related to batting. In 2008, he missed more than 1/3 of the season due to a finger strain in his pitching hand – not related to batting. So, of the potential 9 seasons Wainwright has had in his career as a starter, he has suffered significant injuries in 3 of them. Who’s to say that the next time Wainwright had to cover first base on a ground ball, he wouldn’t have blown out his achilles anyway?
High-priced players are going to get hurt. For the 2008 and 2012 seasons, David Ortiz was paid nearly $28 million – and he only played 109 and 90 games, respectively, due to injuries. Injuries happen when you are playing a sport. Pitchers get hurt throwing the ball (right, Shelby Miller?). Pitchers get hurt covering first base (Garrett Richards, 2014). Pitchers get hurt when the ball is hit hard back at them. If we’re going to create new rules or positions just to keep pitchers from ever getting hurt, then we’re going to have to resort to letting pitching machines do all the pitching. Adding the DH to the National League is not going to prevent a significant number of injuries to pitchers.
The Bottom Line
In the end, the DH is nothing more than a band-aid solution to a perceived problem with offense. Instead of adding the DH to the National League, it should be eliminated from the American League. No more 1-tool players. Let’s get back to having baseball players playing baseball.