Is it time for the National League to take bats out of the hands of pitchers and follow the American League's path with the DH?
Is the designated hitter coming to the National League? It will be a topic of debate when Major League Baseball and the Players Association sit down to bang out the next collective bargaining agreement next year. In fact, as union head Tony Clark told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold on Monday, it has been "a topic of discussion going back the last two bargaining agreements." With MLB having adopted year-round interleague play with realignment in 2013, the pressure to reconcile the only remaining difference between the two leagues seems likely to be higher than ever when negotiations begin for the next agreement, which is due to take effect in December 2016.
The debate over the DH is nothing new. According to Peter Morris's A Game of Inches, it dates back to at least 1891, when Pirates co-owner William Chase Temple proposed the idea of a hitter assigned to hit for the pitcher to the NL's rules committee. In December 1928, NL president John Heydler again proposed the idea and received support from powerful Giants manager John McGraw. Both suggestions were obviously rebuffed, but they point to the fact that a dim view of pitchers hitting is hardly a modern condition. Indeed, per Morris, in 1891, manager Ted Sullivan described pitchers as "a lot of whippoorwill stickers."
Sullivan's assessment is as true today as ever. In 2014, NL pitchers—the ones who get to hit with some regularity—hit a combined .124/.156/.155. By way of comparison, the second-weakest position in the NL in terms of offense last year was second base, which produced a .251/.308/.368 line on the year. American League DHs, meanwhile, hit .249/.320/.424.
The arguments for and against the DH are well established. Those arguing for it will echo Sullivan in pointing out that that pitchers, as a group, simply aren't major league-quality hitters. Forcing them to make some 5,000 plate appearances a year (it was 5,492 between the two leagues last year) and forcing fans to watch those pathetic efforts are detriments to the game. Those arguing against will point to tradition, the added level of strategy involved in having the pitcher in the batting order, and the simple logic that every player on the field should be required to field and hit.
I'm sensitive to both sides. I understand the inherent logic of having every fielder bat and every batter field, and I certainly get a kick out of the rare occasions when a pitcher makes an impact with his bat, be it Madison Bumgarner's grand slams last year, Clayton Kershaw's Opening Day shutout/home run combination in 2013, lefthanded Mets reliever Dae-Sung Koo doubling off Randy Johnson in his second major league at-bat, or Orel Hershiser going 3-for-3 while throwing a three-hit shutout in Game 2 of the 1988 World Series.
However, what makes those occasions so memorable is how rare they are. Among active pitchers with 200 or more PA, Zack Greinke and Mike Leake are the leaders in OPS+. Their respective career batting lines are .219/.270/.335 (67 OPS+) and .234/.261/.325 (60 OPS+), and they have combined to strike out in 30 percent of their plate appearances, laying down a sacrifice bunt in another 11 percent. By way of comparison, over the last two years,
B.J. Melvin Upton Jr. has hit .198/.279/.314, good for a 66 OPS+, and struck out in 32 percent of his PA, dropping down a sacrifice bunt just four times. Upton has been a blight upon the game over the last two years, but he has still been roughly as productive as the best hitting pitcher, and his at-bats have produced a hard-hit ball in play roughly 9% more often than those of Greinke and Leake combined.
It is undeniable that even the best hitting pitchers are awful hitters. So what is being preserved by allowing them to continue to hit? The answer is typically the strategy, but that is the anti-DH argument that holds the least water for me.
I won't lie: I hate the double-switch. I also hate any situation in which a manager removes an effective starting pitcher in the middle innings simply because his turn came up in the batting order. I understand that the situations that lead to those decisions force a manager to consider strategies that the DH renders irrelevant and forces him to use more of his roster than is typically necessary in a DH league. For some, that extra layer of nuance makes the game more compelling. However, I don't watch baseball games to watch managers manage. I watch to see players play.
If I'm watching Johnny Cueto (career -36 OPS+ as a hitter—yes, negative) dominate for the Reds, I don't want to see him come out of the game before he has emptied the tank, and I certainly don't want to see him come out so that Skip Schumaker, for example, can get a single at-bat. Doing so is punishing the pitcher for the failures of his offense and arguably punishing the entire team for the same, as run prevention is as important as run production.
Similarly, the double-switch takes a position player out of the game—not because he's hurt or has played poorly or lacks a platoon advantage, but often simply because of where he was placed in the batting order. Did I mention that NL pinch-hitters hit just .210/.286/.319 (75 OPS+) last year? Those, as well as the 558 sacrifice bunts laid down by pitchers last year—42 percent of the MLB total—are strategies without which I can live.
If ever there were a time for the NL to adopt the DH, the upcoming CBA would appear to be it. Year-round interleague play is a convenient excuse, though it's a bit of a red herring. Teams are only playing a few more interleague games per year than they were before realignment, and with those interleague games spread throughout the year, the leagues' differing rules are actually less problematic, as AL DHs are less likely to see their playing time evaporate for a week at a time. However, new commissioner Rob Manfred has been outspoken about his desire to reverse the game's downward trend in run scoring and increase the ratio of action to inaction during games. Installing the DH in the NL would accomplish both goals, removing a sub-replacement level class of hitters who strikeout or sacrifice in nearly half of their plate appearances.
I will admit, however, that as much good sense as it makes to make the DH universal in MLB, I can't quite get 100% behind the idea. Part of that stems from my disagreement with Manfred about the current scoring levels being inadequate, but most of it comes from the simple fact that the idea of never seeing another pitcher come to the plate (even if it wouldn't necessarily be never—weird things happen in extra innings) is a difficult one to accept even for a progressive fan such as myself. That's a large part of why this debate has raged on for more than 120 years, why MLB has allowed the two leagues to operate under different rules for more than 40 years now, and why the debate over the DH will continue beyond the implementation of the next CBA, whether or not that agreement introduces the DH to the Senior Circuit.