Earlier this year, after the baseball winter meetings had completed, and with a large majority of the marquee free agents having found new homes, the baseball writers of the world were left in the lurch as to how to fill their respective columns.  For some reason the subject moved to whether the National League should adopt the designated hitter or not, and so the pontification began.

Due to my complete lack of a research department I’m going to take the word of Brett Taylor (the excellent mind behind Cubs super fan site BleacherNation.com and @BleacherNation) and trace the beginning of the discussion back to an article by Yahoo’s Anna Hiatt that went up on January 1, 2013 (I wasn’t kidding about a slow news cycle).  Craig Calcaterra then responded in his space on NBCSports.com with a reluctant agreement with Anna on January 2nd.  By January 3rd Brett himself had given in to the dark side and the general consensus of the internet was that it’s time for the National League to get with the times and adopt an extra bat into their lineup. 

My question to these so called experts is, are you taking crazy pills?!  I feel like I’m living in a cuckoo clock.

All of the articles noted above, as well as those in a similar vein elsewhere on the interweb boil down to, pitchers are lousy hitters, the game is better if there’s more offense, so why don’t we remove this inefficiency and improve the game for all parties (fans, players, teams alike).  I hear what they’re saying, I really do, but I couldn’t disagree more.

I kid you not when I start my defense of the current National League format with the first rule of the game in the official Baseball Rule Book as provided by Major League Baseball (page 6). 

1.00—Objectives of the Game. 

1.01 Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a

manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of

one or more umpires.

By incorporating a designated hitter are you not introducing a 10th player to the involvement of the game, thus breaking the literal first rule in the book?  That’s like talking about fight club with the first person you meet in Lou’s parking lot on your way home.  Call me a traditionalist but breaking that is the equivalent of the NBA’s Western Conference playing on 9’ rims.  I could not disagree with the premise of this more.

The most popular argument you will hear from those in favor of the National League “getting with the times” is that the American League games have more offense incorporated in them and fans love offense.  Guess what, fans love cotton candy and hand jobs as well, but I don’t see any owners giving either of those away for free today, or anytime soon for that matter.  If put to a poll, I bet a larger percentage of golf fans than you would think would support the PGA adopting some degree of the longest drive competition into their game.  Imagine if Tiger Woods were allowed to let this guy tee off for him once every nine holes and got to use that shot as part of his final score?  Would it be more entertaining?  Most likely, but that wouldn’t make Tiger, nor the game of golf better in my opinion.

The baseball world has been taken over by statisticians and sabermatricians (read: nerds) these past few year as they have found a way to quantify nearly every aspect of the game and make relevant models to predict future performance and success.  This all started with the Billy Beane Moneyball era A’s where they sought market inefficiencies to build the most competitive team possible under a restricted payroll.  These stat heads today say that the game, or at least the field, has changed as everyone is looking at the same data and seeking the same assets to improve their respective clubs.  To these people might I suggest my own theory.  Is there not a market inefficiency for pitchers who are not liabilities in the batter’s box today?  Are you telling me that if the Pittsburgh Pirates were able to find five starting pitchers who could hit north of .275 (without sacrificing their ability to get outs on the mound) they wouldn’t have a distinct advantage over the rest of the teams in the National League?  Young men often become pitchers because they were the best athletes on their teams during their formative years.  They often played center field or shortstop on their days off in high school and batted third or fourth in the lineup.  There’s no way that their ability to make solid contact with the lumber just goes away like smoke as they get older.  The argument that the pitcher’s spot in the 9-hole is by default an automatic out is not in itself a law of nature, I would argue that instead it is a by-product of the current mentality that gives this subset of players a free pass in a particularly pertinent aspect of the game for no apparent reason.  I desperately hope Theo Epstein has a room full of interns plugging away at shifting this paradigm to allow our Northsiders to be on the cutting edge of not giving away 1/9th of the outs they are allotted to begin each game.     

Generally speaking I’m all for adding strategy and thought process to most competition in life.  The best boxers are those who out think their opponents, and if that is the case in perhaps the most directly physical sport we have, why should baseball be any different?  Baseball managers make incredible salaries these days and I think the game is better when they actually have to earn that paycheck every now and again.  Let’s be honest, we’re talking about 40-65 year old men who get to put on a uniform, fill out a lineup card, and chew sunflower seeds for four hours a day, 162 days a year.  We’re not asking them to cure cancer.  What I would like to see however is for the good ones to separate themselves from the pack by using the latest in analytics, or lacking that, their good old fashioned gut to decide whether pinch hitting for their starter in the 6th inning is worth the price of improving their chances of bringing the runner home from third with two outs.  Factors such as whether the bullpen is fresh or taxed from the game on Tuesday that went 14 innings; if it’s worth burning the team’s best pinch hitter this early in the game; will this be their last chance to score based on the opponent’s bullpen; how much does their starter have left in the tank; etc. all must be weighed and factored in a matter of moments. These kind of scenarios are why they make the salaries they do because they can directly affect the outcome of a game.  I don’t think it’s outrageous to hold these guys feet to the fire more than we do.

The National League is more of a thinking man’s game (often the home of more crafty pitchers, double switches, and suicide squeezes) as opposed to the American League being known more as a fastball league (meaning I’m going to throw it as hard as I can and let’s see if you can catch up).  More thinking equals more good in my book and I’m not alone. 

Back in 1997 when MLB was introducing the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the league a decision was made that those two teams would be split between the American & National Leagues (so neither league was watered down with two expansion franchises).  I recall that Arizona was given first choice of which league they would join and they quickly pounced on the opportunity to play in the NL (I can’t find a link to back this up as the internet was in it’s infancy in 2007).  In turn with these additions it was decided that one American League team would switch to the National League to create an even number of teams in each league.  Ignoring a poll of their fans, the Kansas City Royals opted to stay in the American League after being given the first opportunity to jump to the other side, so the Milwaukee Brewers with the second choice quickly said “yes” and saw their turnstiles spin an additional 350,000 times the following year.  It is said that the Minnesota Twins, who would have had the third option, also would have jumped at the chance to move to the NL.  The flip side of this is in 2011 when the Houston Astros’ new owners purchased the team, they were told that a condition of the sale was that they move to the American League (letting them play their natural rival Texas Rangers 16-19 time per year).  Jim Crane (the new owner) opposed the switch but reportedly worked out a $70 million reduction in purchase price of the organization from the $680 million offered to get the deal done and make the switch.  Basically it sounds to me like when given the option the National League is the place to be.

While the American League has general dominated interleague play since its inception, it would be tough to say that they’ve been the better league of late.  The National League has won four of the past five World Series (and five of the past seven – and you could argue that the 2005 White Sox were built like an NL team) while also claiming the past three All-Star Games (because now they count!) after the American League dominated from 1997 through 2009.  Despite that historic run of 12 wins and a tie for the AL, the National League still leads the all-time series 43-38. 

The last and final argument you’ll hear from the DH-is-better contingent is that the DH opens more opportunities for the all-hit-no-field players of the world.  Guys like Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Matt Stairs and Adam Dunn can continue to earn paychecks well after their value in the field totally negates what they bring to the batter’s box.  While a nice sentiment, I’d like to point out that nothing in the rulebook states that the American League teams get to carry 26 guys on their roster.  In fact they are restricted to the same 25 allotted roster spots as the NL so they’re not necessarily creating more jobs, they just chose to allot one of those spots to a trained monkey who can go up and perform his one trick three to five times per game.  Having a DH just means those hitting-is-my-only-skill individuals get to go on collecting their hard earned wages while a utility infielder or a LOOGY in the pen is left to figure out how to start his own construction company.  While it’s nice that Frank Thomas got to extend his career five years longer than he should have, I would argue that the Jeff Blausers of the world would be able to make a very compelling argument as to why it’s not such a warm and fuzz story for all parties involved.  I’d rather choose the versatility of a guy who can play three or four positions and help my team in eight different ways over the course of a season than employing a homerun-or-bust batting cage hog.  These guys tend to spend the majority of the game down in the tunnel taking hacks and watching video waiting for their next turn to participate every third inning or so. 

So that’s where I stand.  If anything I think if you’re a purest and love baseball for the strategy and nuances that I believe make the game so great, then we should be flipping this conversation on its ear and discussing how the American League should unwind the 40 year experiment of placating the masses.  The last time we embraced the idea that offense makes the game better I recall it not working out so well.

The Designated Hitter Rule Is Like Letting Someone Else Take Wilt Chamberlain’s Free Throws  — Rick Wise