The designated hitter is good for baseball and should be expanded

Ronald Martinez

The designated hitter position is now 40 years old. It is not going away, and may soon expand to the National League. And I, for one, welcome our new slugging overlords.

The designated hitter is coming to the National League. With expanded interleague play further blurring the lines between the AL and NL, it's only a matter of time before the leagues play under the same rules. And those rules will include the DH. This is not just something to shrug at, but to embrace. The DH is coming, and that is an unequivocally good thing.

I have always been a devoted fan of baseball history and the National League. For almost all of my life, I have believed that two-way baseball, where the pitcher bats, is the true, more strategic, and better version. But for almost all of my life, I have been wrong. The DH is an imperfectly sound solution to what is, aside from intentional walks, the game's most conspicuous shortcoming: the hitting pitcher.

Many argue that the hitting pitcher adds an element of strategy that makes baseball more cerebral and engaging. It gives managers opportunities to scheme, role players opportunities to shine, and fans opportunities second guess and obsess. This, the argument goes, makes the game more complete and more fun.

Never mind the absurdity of looking to managers for exciting or winning strategy. None other than Bill James has pointed out that the so-called strategy that comes with the hitting pitcher is trite, predictable, and actually nonstrategic. Far from giving managers options to give their teams an edge, the hitting pitcher boxes them into situations where they must bunt, must pinch hit, and must double switch. As James notes, "the American League game allows a true option, and thus true strategy." There, if a manager bunts or pinch hits he does so actively, not out of obligation. Although moments of intrigue and one-upmanship occasionally result from pitchers in the lineup, those moments are rare compared to the far more mundane maneuvering. Meanwhile, anyone who has watched a Rays game recently knows that true strategy is alive and well in the American League.

While the NL game may not be more strategic, its rules are certainly more pure in that they are inline with the game's pastoral roots. And that's precisely the problem. When baseball came of age it was far less specialized, and although 19th and early 20th century pitchers weren't good hitters, they were far better equipped to compete than their modern counterparts. An interesting not-totally-unrelated aside: If you set the plate appearance threshold at 107, the record for highest single season batting average belongs to Walter Johnson, who hit .433 in 1925.

For myriad reasons, hitting is more difficult today than ever before, especially for pitchers, and allowing them to hit is a greater drag on the game now than it has ever been. Baseball fans, especially those sabermetrically inclined, should ask the question at the heart of Moneyball and much of James's work: If we didn't always do it this way, is this still the way we'd do it?

When you boil Major League Baseball down to its essence the designated hitter actually makes the game more pure. A fan of National League baseball will be forced to sit through two, three, or four at-bats where the over-matched pitcher flails, or bunts, or stands with the bat on his shoulder. That fan will endure more intentional walks and see more sub-par players rotated into the game. A pitcher who can take a halfway decent swing against major league pitching, like Matt Harvey, is so rare that even a .250 OBP becomes something special. That may be an entertaining oddity, but it isn't true baseball. Baseball is the one-on-one game-within-a-game that comes when big league pitcher faces big league hitter.

So although a team of two-way players may appeal to the human fondness for symmetry, it's not what's best for baseball. True, there are poor hitters at other positions. But for other positions, management weighs offensive and defensive contribution and plays those that they feel afford the best chance to win. This is not true for pitchers. Pitchers are evaluated solely on their ability to pitch. Offense is not part of their equation, and it should not be part of their game. The position is unique and should be treated that way.

In addition, the DH prolongs hitters' careers. Remember the Mike Piazza as first baseman episode? The DH could have given us more Piazza, with less embarrassment, like it gave us more Frank Thomas and more Edgar Martinez. And more Piazza is always better than less. Not just for die-hards, but for the casual fan as well.

Because baseball has a problem. Thanks to the massive amount of cable network-supporting content in its regular season and soft competition for summer entertainment dollars, the sport has never been richer or a better draw at the gate. But the game has lost cultural relevancy. When I was a kid the 1991 World Series took me from Mets fan to baseball fan. More than being a great series, it was a big deal. TV ratings were huge, and if Twitter had been around its TPM (Tweets per minute, a closely-monitored metric) surely would have beat this year's NCAA championship basketball game or a 2011 first round NFL playoff game, neither of which modern World Series even approach.

The designated hitter isn't going to instantly cure baseball's embarrassing ratings or pop culture deficiencies. But it can help attract the casual fan by leveraging the game's stars. That means giving David Ortiz a position and prolonging the careers of the sport's most famous players. It makes the game more offensive, more talked about, and more exciting. The game's general popularity may not be important to seamheads on the surface, but it ensures higher quality of play and keeps alive the game's cherished mythology.

The DH serves the die-hard and casual fan alike by providing more of the best part of the game: professional hitter vs. professional pitcher. It is time for thoughtful fans who love the game and want it to thrive long term, to embrace it.

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