Actual headlines from mainstream news outlets last week out of the baseball owners meetings in Coral Gables, Fla.:
National League designated hitter seems almost inevitable for 2017
National League could adopt DH by 2017, Rob Manfred says
Actual truth behind such headlines: zero.
“I swear to God, I never said anything in the press conference that was in support of the DH,” said Manfred, MLB's commissioner. “All I said was that 20 years ago what would have seemed heretical—any topic—is more possible as ownership becomes more forward-thinking. What I did not do—and this is probably my fault—is say that when it comes to the DH, I’m a status quo guy. What I can honestly tell you is that at those meetings, there was not one word spoken about the DH. It only came up as a question at the press conference.”
True baseball fans, resume normal breathing. I say true baseball fans not to claim some higher ground among tweed-jacket-wearing, baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life traditionalists. But if you really love baseball, you find room for this beautiful tension between one league with the DH and one without. You do not throw away the last vestige of league identity, not to mention the original, strategic beauty of nine guys a side playing offense and defense, all for the sake of eliminating just two plate appearances by a pitcher per team each game. You may prefer checkers to chess, but you cannot convincingly sell the complete banishment of chess.
On the one-year anniversary of his taking over as commissioner, Manfred found himself parrying against a controversy without merit. “It’s my fault,” he said, about how an attempt at a diplomatic answer became click-bait.
The non-issue briefly distracted from a year of decisive action by Manfred. He introduced pace-of-play initiatives; made huge investments in dollars and manpower into youth baseball programs; thankfully and smartly provided a much-needed facelift to the Home Run Derby; denied the reinstatement bid of Pete Rose with a powerfully-written opinion; birthed the fabulous idea of a uniform finish line to the season (every Game 162 starts at the same time); streamlined the sport’s business operations under one umbrella in New York; established BAM Tech, its highly successful digital and streaming operations, as a standalone entity; pushed international growth with a digital partnership with China and plans for a spring training game in Cuba and a regular-season game in London; and partnered with the players association to establish a domestic violence policy.
Manfred was not without his rookie mistakes. He backed off enforcement of his pace-of-play initiatives too soon, thinking two months of scolding players was enough to change ingrained habits of dawdling—and pace began to slow again as the season wore on. Of such criticism, Manfred said, “That’s fair,” and promised that baseball is “going to make more changes” to pace of play protocols this year, though he added he was not ready to announce the specific additions.
Moreover, Manfred did nothing about the ongoing fiasco of expanded September rosters, in which teams play the last month of the season with as many as 15 extra players, and head-to-head matchups frequently involve one team with more players than the other. “We got closer” to doing something about it, Manfred said, but the complaints from managers and general managers have gone on for so many years that it’s time for the commissioner to insist on repair. The fix is simple: Call up as many 40-man roster players as you want (all get service time), but you must establish a 25-man roster at the start of each series.
Also, despite that new domestic violence policy, Manfred still has not ruled on cases involving Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes and newly acquired Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman—essentially using the off-season to buy more time in search of information. He understands there is no need to make a ruling, especially a precedent-setting one, as long as no games are being played. But what happens when an incident occurs during the regular season? Can the commissioner afford to wait months for more information? Of course not. (The commissioner can place an accused player on paid leave for “up to seven days” while allegations are investigated.)
And while international growth is noble, he needs a bigger “event” footprint for baseball right here in North America. I’ve argued for years that baseball needs to own All-Star Week and shouldn't go dark for two nights after the game has been played. My idea: Play The American Game on the Thursday after the All-Star Game—the only game that night—in which a regular-season game is played at a non-traditional major league venue, even if it means constructing a temporary field. For examples: Cubs vs. Cardinals at The Field of Dreams in Iowa; Tigers vs. Blue Jays at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Pirates vs. Phillies at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.; Twins vs. Brewers at the foot of Mount Rushmore, etc.
Thankfully, at least the DH in the NL is not “inevitable” for 2017. What’s been clear about Manfred from his Year One is that the guy cares about the soul of the game as well as the bottom line—and thus his firm “status quo” stance on the DH.
Such talk about an all-DH MLB is bound to continue, however, for three reasons:
1. The growing culture of specialists.
Like general columnists, the all-around player is waning. The way ahead in most disciplines is to specialize. So the kid who used to pitch and play shortstop becomes only a pitcher at age 12, forsaking the fun of hitting for private pitching lessons to chase more and more velocity—and so you get pitchers taking an at-bat in the major leagues for the first time since they were Little Leaguers, and the quality of offense provided by pitchers goes down. Three of the four worst OPS seasons by pitchers have occurred in the past four years (2012, '14 and '15, with 1988 thrown in).
2. The abomination of 15-team leagues.
Playing an interleague game every day has further diluted what uniqueness was left of it, further detracted from the “event” feel of the All-Star Game and World Series and pushed baseball closer to the homogenized sport the helicopter generation seems to want: same balanced schedule for everybody, same rules for everybody, robot umpires, and hey, participation trophies for all.
3. Confirmation bias.
After every one of the extremely rare cases when a pitcher gets hurt hitting or running the bases, the cries begin that we must protect these poor things because they earn so much money—because asking young men in their physical primes to run is cruel and hazardous. Pitchers routinely used to pinch run. Hey, it’s not as if they are running with scissors.
Understand this: You can give the NL the DH tomorrow and you will see no effect on attendance (the NL, without the DH, outdrew the AL last year by more than four million fans) but will guarantee less drama. Most of the greatest games in World Series history have been played under NL rules, including Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, when Reds manager Sparky Anderson used 12 players in the ninth spot in his batting order.
You could see the difference in the first and last games of the most recent World Series, each of which went to extra innings. Under AL rules at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, Royals manager Ned Yost used two position bench players to win a 14-inning Game 1, and under NL rules at New York's Citi Field, he used five position bench players to win a 12-inning Game 5. In the latter game, Christian Colon, taking his first at-bat in a month, drove in pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson with the series-winning run. It’s beyond me why you willingly would remove more drama from the game.
More offense? When you consider the lost strategy and suspense—not to mention the changing nature of pitching—the net gain is minimal. Yes, offense by pitchers is down, but NL pitchers are getting fewer and fewer plate appearances as the game becomes so heavy with relief pitching (which encourages pinch-hitters). Take a look at the obvious trend in five-year increments, which shows pitchers coming to plate less often:
More NL pitchers came to bat in a 12-team league in 1975 than in a 15-team league in 2015. We’ve seen plate appearances by NL pitchers decline by 26% thanks to the growth of bullpens and interleague play. (If you include the added at-bats by AL pitchers in NL parks, overall plate appearances by pitchers per game is down 20% since 1975.)
The real trend to worry about is the number of pitchers going to the mound every day, not how they hit. Check out these numbers for selected years showing the average number of pitchers used by each team per game and per season:
The number of pitchers used per game is up 11% in just five years, 36% in 25 years, and 73% in the DH era. Meanwhile, though offense in 2015 (4.25 runs per team per game) is essentially flat compared to 1973 (4.21), the games take 30 minutes longer (3:00 as compared to 2:30).
In 2015, the Dodgers—a playoff team with the fifth-best ERA in the NL—used 31 pitchers. (Their last world championship team, in 1988, used only 19.) Their Triple A team, Oklahoma City, used 51 pitchers last year.
Now you begin to understand the challenge ahead for Manfred. It’s not the phantom issue of the DH; it’s that the culture of specialization favors the development of pitchers over hitters. That is why we’re seeing an overabundance in the supply of hard throwers (you don’t need to stock a bullpen with four-pitch craftsmen) and a decline in the supply of athletic, multi-tooled position players. The rate of stolen bases hit a 42-year low last year, and the number of players with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases (four) hit a 23-year low for full seasons.
If these trends continue to play out—managers using more and more pitchers with increased velocity to stifle offense as athleticism continues to wane—you will get a less dynamic game that takes longer for less action to take place. That should worry Manfred more than last week’s headlines.