Baseball doesn't need to stay ever the same. It has changed many times in the past. To keep living, it will keep changing. Introducing a designated hitter to the National League is simply a bad change. It isn't bad because pitcher at-bats are so very cool—though sometimes they are!
I can sympathize with the groaning over frequent plate appearances by a .130 hitter, and not just because I watch Ike Davis. The bigger issue—the far bigger issue—is that the DH rule takes the already questionable trend of player specialization and makes it official and permanent. But first let’s talk about pitchers hitting.
I’m looking at the 2011 stats. Pitchers hit .128 overall that year – .112 in the American League, .142 in the National League. That’s a pretty huge 30-point difference, and would seem to support the old adage that practice makes less abysmal. Will the average pitcher ever again be a decent hitter? Probably not. People like to point out that many pitchers were offensive studs in high school, which is true. It’s also true that 99% of high school studs fail to develop into major-league-caliber hitters.
But pitchers could certainly hit better than .142 if they had more regular opportunities to develop the skill, which they don’t, because of designated hitter creep in lower-level baseball. So long as we’re talking about rule changes, here’s one: Ban the DH in the N.C.A.A. and on the farm. Put an end to the self-fulfilling crisis. It might not produce many good-hitting pitchers, but it would help close the gap, which is all that's necessary, if it's even necessary. I fail to see the big problem, really, or at least a big enough problem to justify the more radical change premised by the DH.
Which is this: The DH rule teaches us that men who can play just 50% of baseball are real baseball players deserving of not only roster spots, but everyday play, and without penalty. Men who have grown too old or fat to field, men who are just lousy at fielding, men who have no reflexes, no throwing arm, no speed, or are Lucas Duda can be used 162 times without cost.
This is not the same as pitchers being crappy hitters. A National League team takes its lumps for that, judging that the superiority of a pitcher’s contribution outweighs his offensive suckitude. It should be just the same with big fat sluggers. I hope big fat sluggers never perish from this earth, but if they’re going to suck at defense, that should hurt. They should have to be so special that a team is willing to white-knuckle it through their play at first base or save them a roster spot just to pinch hit. Because you know what? When someone can pull that off, it’s beautiful. He’s a unique player, a pitcher in reverse. It’s not beautiful, though, to allow a whole category of sub-Giambis to huddle under their team’s basket and never have to run the court. It’s decadent.
I’m not one for slippery slope arguments, but consider. Shortstops are usually pretty bad hitters. So are catchers. Imagine one of the two leagues—the American, probably—allowed a second designated hitter to be used in lieu of the shortstop for 30-some years. What you’d start to see would be phenomenally good defensive play at shortstop in the American League that would shame the National League, since these all-glove kids would give up trying to hit and just become fielding beasts. Sooner or later someone would say, "Look, it’s time for the NL to see it our way. Their shortstops stink. It's really become a problem." They’d say that, even though the actual problem is that the cord linking hitting to fielding had been unwisely cut, distorting the game. I don’t think the present debate is much different.
The totality of a player’s game matters. It’s cool that sabermetrics has taught us the value of a walk, but really, is that that interesting? It seems to me that the very existence of the DH degrades defense. In effect you’re saying that a ballplayer without a mitt is still a ballplayer. You’re saying that a man who sits in a dugout for all but 6 minutes of the game should have the right to play every day, with his name just as big on the marquee. It’s messed up.
Let me foresee one objection here: "Well isn't a pitcher essentially a ballplayer without a bat? Nobody cares about his all-around performance." True and false. In the National League, at least, he does have a bat, but no one judges him by it. There’s a reason for this, though. On the defensive side, pitchers are involved in dozens of at-bats per game, greatly outweighing the three or four times they actually step into the box.
The DH is not a mirror image of this. His effect on a particular game is tiny compared to the pitching staff’s contribution. Were he forced to play crappy defense, it would be a much bigger issue than the staff’s poor hitting, because he has far less positive contribution to offset. In short, the designated hitter is unprecedentedly incomplete. And anyway, pitchers do hit in our league.
Baseball is becoming increasingly specialized. You see it in bold 48-point font in the bullpen, in a way that I think really harms the game, though that's another discussion. The designated hitter rule takes the ethos bringing us relievers trained to do just one thing and sticks it into the daily lineup card. It argues that baseball isn't a contest between talented athletes skilled in the many facets of baseball, it’s a contest of highly-trained special operatives striking precision targets and slinking back to the bunker. Hell, that’s a tremendous overstatement, but the DH edges in that direction, and I oppose edging in that direction. I support edging in the other direction, where we see more aspects of better athletes and fewer pretty-good fatsos prolonging their careers.
And besides, who's to say there won't be an era of good-hitting pitchers that we can't yet foresee? It's baseball. Things change.