Is the designated hitter coming to a National League park near you?
Major League Baseball has expanded its pool of postseason teams to 10 -- up from four just 19 years ago -- and next year will re-align into 15-team leagues that make for at least one interleague series all season long. But the biggest change of all may be around the next corner: the end of baseball as it was originally designed.
"I would be shocked if 10 years from now there's not a DH in both leagues," said one influential baseball source.
No one believes the National League will adopt the DH imminently. Rather, the thinking is that baseball, as it continues its progressive era, has embarked on a path in which it seems inevitable that all of its teams play by the same rules.
"In 10 years? I'll be long gone by then," said commissioner Bud Selig, who recently signed a contract extension to stay on the job through 2014. "At the moment there is no conversation about [the NL adopting the DH] . . . That doesn't mean it won't happen. I've always said it would take something of a cataclysmic event to get that done. Geographic realignment would be such a cataclysmic event."
Think of the 2013 realignment, in which Houston moves from the NL Central to the AL West to create uniformity of five teams in each division, as a transitional step for baseball. It further weakens the identity of leagues and the resistance to change on the basis of tradition. Geographical realignment is the next step that may prove too tempting for owners and players to resist. It builds on regional rivalries, reduces travel costs, allows more games to be telecast locally in prime time, and breaks down close enough to pool teams with similar revenues.
The players association pushed hard for the 2013 change, in great part because it will make travel easier and scheduling more equitable. Both issues became concerns as unintended consequences of interleague play.
While MLB has touted the popularity of interleague play -- attendance numbers are artificially inflated because a majority of interleague games are held on weekends, in warmer weather and when school is out, then compared to season-long numbers -- players often griped about what it did to the schedule. NL teams, for instance, don't even play the same number of games against AL teams; some play 15, others play 18. The Boston Red Sox won more AL games than the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011, but the Rays won the AL wild card because they won more games against NL teams -- and the Red Sox and Rays shared only two common opponents among the five NL teams on their schedules.
The 2013 realignment is designed to address those inequities, but creates the awkwardness of interleague games throughout the season. When you play interleague games all year -- Opening Day, in a pennant race, once a month, etc. -- the illogic of playing under two sets of rules becomes an everyday issue and not one confined to one or two small windows. Last year, for instance, the Red Sox played all nine of their interleague road games consecutively. Next year, assuming David Ortiz again as the DH, they could face the quandary about what to do with Ortiz just about every month -- including in a pennant race.
"It's worse for National League teams," said one GM. "When we go play in an American League park, they have a power guy as their DH hitting in the middle of their lineup. We have a fourth outfielder or backup infielder as our DH in the bottom of the lineup. You don't build a National League team the same way.
"Do I think it will change? It could happen. But you'd have to give some lead time to it so that NL teams could prepare for it. Like, 'We'll have the DH in 2015.' So within 10 years, yes, it sounds possible."
No one on either side among the owners and players believes the AL will drop the DH. There is no way the union will forfeit a position that pays well and creates jobs for players who never had or have lost the ability to play defense. Owners like the fan-friendly offense the DH provides.
Traditionalists prefer the game without the DH because that's the way the game originated. But the DH has become a tradition unto itself -- it began in 1973 -- while baseball continues to change how the game is played, i.e. the addition of wild cards, interleague play, four rounds of playoffs, instant replay, 26-man rosters, centralized rather than league-based umpiring and administration, etc. With the exception of 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, every major league player today grew up regarding the DH as a normal part of baseball. It is used at every amateur level.
Moreover, events of this winter spotlighted the negotiating advantage that AL teams have over NL teams with the use of the DH. Prince Fielder (nine-year contract) and Albert Pujols (10 years) jumped to AL clubs as free agents in part because AL teams can afford to offer longer contracts because a player can transition to the DH role as he ages. Eleven of the 13 richest contracts ever given to position players have been bankrolled by AL teams.
Also, A.J. Burnett showed what can happen when an AL pitcher moves to the NL and has to hit. Burnett, traded from the Yankees to the Pirates last month, fouled a ball off his eye while batting last week and suffered an orbital fracture. The highest paid player on the Pirates is now out for two months. In 2008, then Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang broke his foot while running the bases in an interleague game and hasn't been the same since. Pitchers often don't hit much at all at any level -- high school, college or the minors -- then suddenly are asked to hit major league pitching. Some AL managers will order their pitcher not to swing at all in an NL ballpark, depending on the game situation.
There is no question that the style of NL baseball is more interesting and nuanced than AL baseball. Yes, it's a better game, the way chess is a better game than checkers. Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, just like Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, is one of the greatest games ever played because there was no DH. Texas manager Ron Washington used nine players in his number nine spot in his order. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa used pitchers in four of his nine spots and -- when down two runs in the 10th inning -- ran out of position players and had to use a pitcher to hit for a pitcher.
Is baseball really willing to lose so much strategy and history? The debate about what to do with the DH has been around since the rule began, but the context is very different now. Twenty years ago the answer would have been a definitive no. But this is the 40th season with the DH. It is now ingrained in the modern game. And baseball has become extremely progressive.
The big change is the interleague play format next year, when MLB begins to look much more like the NFL or the NBA. (No schedule has been finalized yet.) The Rays could be playing the Pirates midweek in September, just like the Eastern Conference Hawks against the Western Conference Jazz midweek in January, and league affiliation gets blurred further. It becomes just another game on the schedule, and when it does, the awkwardness of playing under two seats of rules -- back and forth all year, not just in a one- or two-week window -- becomes more obvious. What was quaint becomes an annoyance.
Also, don't underestimate the power the players' union quietly has been accumulating in how baseball is played, run and administered. It effectively gave up nothing in the last CBA. It gladly signed off on limits to the amateur draft and international market, knowing better than the owners did that clubs will spend more on the free agent market with the amateur market constrained. It agreed to the theatre of HGH testing -- one announced test in spring training; nothing thereafter -- and forestalled in-season testing because the issue of taking blood for the test needs "further study," even though hundreds of minor league players who have been tested in-season offer a ready-made control group.
The union knows the Fielder and Pujols contracts were helped by the DH rule. It has a membership that has played baseball their whole lives with the DH rule. Thirty DH jobs instead of 15 must be good for the union, so there is more wind in the sails coming from the players association.
Twenty years ago the idea of a DH in both leagues was unthinkable. But the game has evolved so much in those 20 years that if you extrapolate the trends for another 10 years the loss of baseball as we knew it becomes, at the very least, a possibility. I thought about the possibility of an all-DH major leagues when I first heard about the move to 15-team leagues. But it was just theory. I was taken aback when I heard the prediction with such conviction of the 10-year window.
Me? I would hate to see the original version of baseball disappear. Baseball with a DH is inferior, but I respect its upside and actually see two leagues under different rules as a net positive. But then, I saw no reason to "fix" the asymmetry of the number of teams in each league. People keep trying for the "perfect" schedule, as if the game is played in a lab or a vacuum. The season is too long and the variables too numerous. In fact, the tension and debate created by idiosyncrasies are healthy for the sport.
I do fear that the identity of the leagues has weakened and that everyday interleague play will further erode such tradition. Throw in the economic impact, the union, a new commissioner, a fan base less inclined to value tradition in most any discipline, and you begin to understand how it's possible that 10 years from now baseball could look even more different than it does today.