Well, the Toronto Blue Jays are making a late season run to hopefully make the playoffs, and so I’m paying more attention to baseball as a whole now than I used to … and so are most Canadians. Because of that, a little while ago I had a short discussion with a co-worker about the Designated Hitter rule. He doesn’t care for it, and I prefer it. So, here, I’m going to go over the reasons why I prefer the DH, even though I started watching baseball with the Expos — and so the National League — and was a latecomer to the Blue Jays.
About the best argument against the DH is that baseball is a game that has two separate but equal components: fielding and hitting. Thus, the quality of a baseball player has to be determined on the basis of the combination of their ability to field and to hit. So the interesting decisions in terms of who you have on your team come down to balancing that. Do you keep someone who is a great hitter but can’t field over someone who is an excellent fielder but doesn’t hit very well? Or do you go with a player that balances the two more? Having more hitting will score more runs and having better fielding will prevent more runs … but going with a player who is merely good at both doesn’t give you an advantage there. The DH, however, takes away that consideration. For pitchers, you simply evaluate them on the basis of their ability to pitch, and for the DH their ability to field is irrelevant (for DHs whose main role is to DH). So, it can be argued, this allows for two positions where the player isn’t evaluated as a complete baseball player … and so isn’t, in fact, a complete baseball player (or at least need not be).
This is a fair criticism, but I evaluate the DH on the basis of what it means to me, as a fan, and having watched both, and both recently (when I got cable back, one of the big things I watched was baseball, and the baseball playoffs). And as a fan, it seems to me that the pitching position is unique enough that making pitchers hit doesn’t really add anything to the game, and that allowing some players to mostly hit does add to the game. The big issue I have when watching National League games is how often pitching changes are made not for pitching-related reasons, but for hitting related reasons. A pitcher is pulled because they’d be hitting and the manager needs or wants someone who has a better chance of getting on base or driving in a run. But the interesting pitching changes, to me, are the ones that are related to “How can I best get this next guy out?”. Matching lefty vs lefty, for example, or going with the better or worse history between the two, which then can spawn counter-moves from the opposing manager. The moves because you need a better hitter are not only moves of this sort, but, in fact, impede these sorts of moves because you end up making earlier and more frequent pitching changes which means that you don’t have the arms in the bullpen to make that move. And let’s not forget that the reason managers change pitchers in favour of pinch hitters is because pitchers, in general, don’t hit all that well. They have so much more to worry about that, in general, working on their hitting is not going to be a high priority for them, especially considering that starters get about 3 at bats once every 5 games and relievers might get 1 at bat in a blue moon.
Pitching, then, is just not the sort of position where hitting can ever or ought ever be a priority. Pitchers will generally hit infrequently compared to other position players, and hitting and running the bases can be an issue for them since pitching is so complicated that, in general, pretty much anything else they do can impact their pitching. If they have to run full out on the bases — going first to third, for example — that might tire them out and shorten the number of innings they can work. Remember, this is a position where a blister or even a twinge can greatly impact their stance and ability to throw pitches. Everything has to be working right for a pitcher to pull off the complicated pitches and to hit the spots that the modern pitcher needs to hit; adding hitting into the mix just provides another distraction from their real job, a distraction that isn’t one for the other positions.
From the other side, having a DH can extend the career of great players, who can still hit but simply aren’t able to play in the field every day anymore. Without the DH, it’s hard to justify a roster spot for them since they can only be a pinch hitter and occasional substitute, but with the DH they can play every day, do spot inserts into the field, and pinch hit if they aren’t DH’ing. I remember Paul Molitor fondly for his time with the Blue Jays in their run to the World Series, but he was, indeed, pretty much a DH. Without the DH rule, he wouldn’t have been on the roster. And there are a number of cases where this can allow a great player to keep playing and thus help to do things that are magical and win and be integral to the win of titles even though they wouldn’t be on the roster otherwise. We lose those players and those moments without a DH.
As a fan, I prefer the DH. It let’s pitchers be pitchers and lets managers manage pitchers for their pitching rather than their hitting, and extends the career of great and storied players who just can’t play full-time in the field anymore. Sure, it excludes some players from having to play both aspects of baseball, but I think the gains more than overcome that. At the end of the day, having the DH just makes the game of baseball more fun to watch. And God knows, it needs it [grin].