It’s Time to End the Designated Hitter Debate

Baseball needs more offense, and one archaic rule still used by only half the league is preventing it. It’s time for the National League to welcome the designated hitter. 

While perusing Twitter early this morning, in the wake of last night’s injury to Adam Wainwright – an injury which occurred not while Wainwright was on the mound, but in the batter’s box – one tweet stood out to me:

While I don’t necessarily agree with the connection between Wainwright’s injury and the argument, I do agree with the argument itself; it’s time for the National League to adopt the designated hitter, and the fact that it has yet to do so borders on ridiculous.

The DH debate is perhaps the most polarizing in baseball outside of Pete Rose. Old-school purists will tell you that the pitcher, like any other player on the field, should take his turn in the order. They’ll tell you that having the pitcher bat adds strategy to the game, and that double-switches are an art-form more than a managerial decision. New-schoolers will argue that pitchers add zero value – in fact, they add negative value – when they step in the box, and that having having someone who will produce an out about 85 percent of the time isn’t helping anyone. They’re both right, but one side is, well, more right.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the DH or no DH debate, the number one argument for it is covered in the tweet above. “Time for same rules across [Major League Baseball].” It’s such a simple thought, and yet one we often overlook as simply part of the game.

MLB: MAY 14 Red Sox at Twins

It’s time for more of this…

The distinction between the National League and American League has always been more pronounced than that of other sports. The AL and NL play less frequently than, say, the Eastern and Western conferences in the NBA and NHL, or the AFC and NFC in the NFL. But since inter-league play began, that gap has only become smaller. Once the Astros moved to the American League in 2013, putting an odd number of teams in each league, the need for inter-league play on a day-to-day basis became a reality; now, there is always at least one inter-league series on the schedule, making the distinction even smaller.

With Major League Baseball becoming less divided, it is truly time to regulate the rules. The fact that half the teams in the league play with a different set of rules than the other is absurd. Imagine if the NBA’s Eastern Conference played with a three-point line, but the Western Conference didn’t. Or if the NFL implemented new extra-point rules this season, but only in the NFC. It’s a crazy thought, yet we’ve put up with it in baseball since 1973.

Now, to the rule itself. Pitchers having to step up to the plate is archaic, plain and simple. These days, pitchers are so specialized, so focused on honing their craft, that there is no time to worry about how they fare with a bat in their hands, and the statistics back that up. In 2014, 36 pitchers had at least 50 at bats. Exactly four of those pitchers hit .200 or better, and none hit better than Madison Bumgarner’s .258. In that same 50-at bat group, you had such sluggers as Bartolo Colon (.032), Lance Lynn (.067), and Wily Peralta (.053). Why do we do this to ourselves?

MLB: JUL 24 Braves at Mets

…and less of this.

Major League Baseball is already trying to increase offense with changes to the strike zone and discussions about banning infield shifts. Maybe, just maybe, offensive numbers will increase if we stop giving 50+ at bats to players who hit, as a group, less than their weight. Forget shifts, and strike zones, and everything else; just stop letting this happen:

Baseball purists will argue it to the death, of course. It’s the same group that argues designated hitters have no place in the Hall of Fame; if you think that group doesn’t exist, we can talk about it next to Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame plaque. By their logic (and I swear, I’m doing my best not to straw-man here), a DH provides zero value in one half of the game, and therefore isn’t a “real” player. By that same logic, I suppose American League pitchers since 1973 also shouldn’t get in, since they don’t bat. It’s asinine.

Maybe you don’t think we should take the bat out of the pitchers’ hands because it would kill part of the game’s strategic element. To that, I say you’re right. Double-switches will go the way of the Dodo and disappear. So what? First, we’re talking about a strategy that exists solely because pitchers, as a group, can’t hit the ball. Second, with the way baseball is today, we’ll replace the pinch-hitting double-switch strategies with a million other things. Lefty specialists, infield shifts, bullpen management, day-to-day lineup maintenance, pinch-running; I mean, managers have their hands full already. Are we really going to miss the double-switch and the sacrifice bunt?

Major League Baseball has – at least its own eyes – an offense problem. Major League Baseball also has a rule only half its teams abide by that, if spread across the rest of the league, would infuse offense. Instead of watching pitchers struggle to reach the Mendoza line and, yes, injure themselves running out of the batter’s box, maybe it’s time we not only re-visit, but end the designated hitter debate once and for all. The NFL added the forward pass. The NHL got rid of ties. The NBA added a shot clock, then a three-point line. Leagues can change. Rules can change. It’s time for the National League to step into the 21st century and adopt the designated hitter once and for all.

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