Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Designated Hitter in the National League? No Thanks

On April 6th, 1973, Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees came to the plate against Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant and drew a walk in the very first plate appearance by a DH, a "Designated Hitter", in the history of Major League Baseball.
Increasingly since that time, the question has been asked: should the National League also adopt the Designated Hitter? 
To me, having been raised in a National League city (Philadelphia), the question that actually should be asked is, should the American League eliminate the DH?
Discussion of a 'Designated Hitter' has actually gone on for more than a century, and the issue has some serious Philly connections. 
The original idea having been around even earlier, in 1906 it received a strong, influential advocate in legendary Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack. Discussion of the issue has been passionate on both sides, pro and con DH, ever since.
As a direct result of the domination of pitching that came about during the 1960's, discussion of the DH once again arose and became a major issue. 
It was experimented with during spring training of 1969, and then finally in January of 1973 the American League owners approved it's use by an 8-4 vote, as a 3-year experiment to begin that coming season. It has since become a permanent part of the AL game.
In 1980, as a response to attendance increases at higher scoring AL games, the National League owners finally put the issue to a vote, and if not for another Philly connection, this discussion might have ended decades ago.
At that vote in August of 1980, all that was required for the DH becoming part of the NL game was a simple majority. Of the 12 teams, 4 were voting for it, 5 were against, and the Houston owner abstained. 
The Phillies became the key vote. The Pittsburgh Pirates GM had been instructed to do whatever the Phils did, and so a 'yes' vote by the Phillies would carry the Pirates vote as well, passing the DH in the NL.
The issue of the DH in the National League then turned on simple fate. 
Our own Phillies GM at the time, Bill Giles, was unable to contact owner Ruly Carpenter, who was away on a fishing trip and unreachable in those days before cellphone technology.
Unable to reach his owner, and having no idea how Carpenter felt on such a vital issue, Giles chose to abstaine. The Pirates GM also abstained, per his instructions. The NL thus voted down the DH by a vote of five against, four in favor, and the three abstentions.
The Cardinals more traditional ownership fired GM John Claiborne, one of the leading proponents of the DH. He had joined the Mets, Padres, and Braves in voting for the measure. The issue has never again been brought up for a vote in the National League.
So the discussion has now gone on for decades, with passionate baseball fans on both sides splitting into camps that have become almost as firmly entrenched as the current American political right and left. 
Count me firmly on the "No DH in the NL" side.
I understand all the arguments on both sides. Pitchers can't hit, when their position comes up in the lineup, it is usually an automatic out. Or pitchers should hit, they are players, and players should be responsible for being full parts of the team.
"I don’t want the DH to spread to the National League because I like watching pitchers hit, and so do millions of other baseball fans." ~ Michael Baumann, Grantland
The strategy of the NL game: double-switches, pinch-hitting, deciding how long to let your pitcher continue, are some of the issues that make the NL game more interesting according to one side. 
The increased offense that comes from a better hitter participating instead of the pitcher makes the AL game more interesting according to the other.
There is also the issue on the "pro-DH" side of lengthening a player's career, allowing some players whose defensive skills may have deteriorated due to aging to the point where they couldn't field a position effectively enough to remain in the everyday lineup, but whose bats remain highly effective.
Having grown up in Philly, I have heard arguments over the years that players such as Greg LuzinskiJohn KrukPete IncavigliaPat BurrellRyan Howard, and Darin Ruf would make perfect DH's were the position available in the National League. In fact, these players have often been utilized in that role during Interleague play.
However, I have also been exposed to decades of what I consider to be the beauty of the game in the NL. The strategic decisions that confront a manager regarding those pinch-hitting and double-switching opportunities make the game more interesting to me. 
I also like the idea that a pitcher has to stand at the plate and take responsibility for himself, should any issue develop regarding throwing at another player.
I agree with Michael Baumann at Grantland who wrote: "I don’t want the DH to spread to the National League because I like watching pitchers hit, and so do millions of other baseball fans. And while that’s an aesthetic taste, there’s no rational reason for it to change."
The argument that pitchers cannot hit is lame. If it's that important to a team to have pitchers become better hitters, bunters, whatever, then give them regular batting practice and bunting practice. 
Emphasize that offensive part of the game for your pitching staff on a more regular basis in practice. You won't turn pitchers into .300 hitters, but you might keep them from becoming embarrassments with a bat in their hands.
People who stop their argument after making such a simplistic point as "pitchers can't hit" have made no valid argument, as far as I am concerned. You're chasing your tail. 
Make pitchers hit MORE, in both practice and in games, and they will hit better.  This means all throughout the game: in high school, college, and the minor leagues. Put the bats back in the pitchers hands at those levels, you will get better hitting pitchers.
The issue raised its head once again in recent days with injuries suffered by a pair of star NL pitchers, Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals and Max Scherzer of the Nationals, while each was batting. 
But this "increased injury" aspect is a non-issue. Despite pitchers coming to the plate numerous times, injuries in those situations remain rare. Pitchers frequently are injured, well, pitching. Should we outlaw hard, overhand throwing to protect them?
While the DH has become a part of the game in many other organizations, including throughout the college ranks and the minor leagues, it has not caught on everywhere else. 
The Central League in Japan, one of the Japanese major leagues, arguably the 2nd best league in the world, also does not use the Designated Hitter. 
In Japan, the other major professional league, the Pacific League, does use the DH. So Japan has the same situation facing United States baseball fans, two professional leagues under different rules.
I am not advocating a return to a non-DH world for the American League. I actually like the variety, and find it in no way incongruous to have two different playing styles. In fact, I find that it contributes to variety in professional baseball. MLB fans get to enjoy the best of both worlds.
For me, it's not about an argument. For me, it is and should be a non-issue. Stop the arguing. Enjoy the game with a DH in American League games. Enjoy the game without a DH in National League games. Learn to appreciate both versions. 
And on those occasions when the leagues overlap, regular or post season, enjoy the novelty of watching teams having to adjust. They're professionals, they make a ton of money, and they should be able to perform and produce in such situations.
Keep the Designated Hitter out of the National League. Keep the Designated Hitter in the American League. Enjoy the diversity that such differences produce in the most challenging and beautiful game that man has ever invented.

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