I get the impression that the only baseball debates more bristling than those over the owners vs. the players in the current pandemic impasse are those bristling over the universal designated hitter that’ll be put in place for this year (if there is a this year) and next year at minimum. OK, you asked for it: Let the universal DH stay forever.
That’s my call and I’m sticking to it. And you’re dealing with a guy who would sooner have tried to pass the camel through the needle’s eye than insist the National League give up the ghost—and, by the way, the futility of 99.99 percent of those pitchers who bat in the number nine hole—and accept the DH.
I insisted on that refusal until some time between 2018 and 2019. Because reality has a way of knocking you down faster than any hitter ever got knocked down by Bob Gibson after hitting one out off the Hall of Famer. Sure as hell faster than it took (age 42 years, 349 days) for Bartolo Colon to hit the only home run of his major league life.
In my case, reality only begins with making note that, in 2019, major league pitchers posted a wonderful .128/.159/.163 slash line. (Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage.)
Which was a mild improvement over 2018’s .115/.144/.149. Yep, last year’s balls might have been juiced, after all. Oho, but what about the eight seasons prior to that? What about them? Very well, as the man said on television once upon a time, you asked for it:
The slash line for pitchers at the plate all decade long? .130/.161/.165.
Now tell me how nuts Thomas Boswell to write a year and a half ago:
It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.
Tell me, too, how nuts an old magazine known as Sporting Life was to write thus:
Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.
That was written in . . . 1891. The year in which then-Pittsburgh Pirates owner William Chase Temple first proposed leaving pitchers to pitching strictly and having someone else who isn’t a pitcher bat in the lineup in his place.
The following year, after the collapse of the ancient American Association sent four teams into the National League, Temple’s fellow owners missed implementing the DH by four votes. According to Temple himself, the somewhat mythological Chris von der Ahe, owner of the former A.A. St. Louis Browns (I am der Boss Pressident of der Prowns) let him down by voting against it.
The DH didn’t cross the mind of any American League owner, apparently, until 1906, when Connie Mack got fed up with his pitchers swinging at the plate as though their bats were made of papier mache. (The 1906 Philadelphia Athletics’ main pitchers hit for a collective .201 that year. Don’t even think about it: in the dead ball era pitching wasn’t quite as tough or hard as it became much later.)
The Tall Tactician’s proposal didn’t go anywhere. Neither did a 1928 proposal to introduce the DH—by National League president John Heydler—that the American League rejected. Not until several minor leagues including the AAA-level International League adopted the DH in the 1960s did the idea get traction again, and then because maybe the single most despised owner in baseball at the time took it up.
Charlie Finley noticed the DH’s staying power in the minors. He also noticed two more things in 1972: 1) The National League out-drew the American League when the AL’s run production shrank. 2) His Oakland A’s pitchers couldn’t hit if you set the balls up for them on tees: their slash line was .165/.198/.203. (The very outlying exception: relief pitcher Rollie Fingers. His 1972 slash line: .316/.316/.474.) The American League’s pitchers overall in 1972: .145/.184/.182.
That’s when the American League—with commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who usually took anything Finley said as a declaration of war, giving his blessing—turned to the DH. (Year One A.D.H., aka 1973: the American League out-hit the National League.) The National League took it up again in 1980 and 1982 and it lost.
Without the DH, but with the remaining cop-out of pitching around the number eight hitter to strike out the opposing pitcher, Boswell wrote, “some weaker pitchers survive in the NL But survival-of-the-unfittest isn’t good for the evolution of a league. Over time, high-quality hitters migrate to the AL, where they can have longer, richer careers by finishing as a DH. That is the main reason the AL has dominated interleague play in this century.”
Actually, from before this century. Since regular-season interleague play emerged in 1997, the American League has a .522 winning percentage. (3,166-2,898; or, the AL has won 268 more games.) And only in five seasons has the National League won more interleague games than the American League. Sure, they did it last year and the year before, but that snapped a fourteen-season American League winning streak.
I don’t like a lot of the possible temporary 2020-2021 rules proposed for the Show’s return. Especially the idea of starting extra innings with each team getting a man on second to open the tenth inning.
I’m not as wild about the three-batter minimum for pitchers as I thought I might be. I don’t like the pack of television commercials for each pitching change, either. I’m also tired of things like that reviving meaningless and usually mal-informed debates about the death of the complete game, too.
(News flash: Complete games began dying off after the dead ball era ended. Damn right you can look it up. And thank God for it, unless you love the idea of ruining arms prematurely and ignoring the concept that pitchers like Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan were and remain anomalies. Or, that Robin Roberts was so worn down from his passel of early ’50s complete games and 300+ innings seasons he had to remake himself as a junkballer to stay in the Show as long as he did. I love complete games, too—but I’d rather see pitchers have longer, more productive, less injurious careers.)
But you know what I like even less?
1) I don’t like managers and coaches paying so little attention to warmup activity in the bullpen (more than you think don’t) that they don’t realise the guy they’re about to bring in might have thrown the equivalent of a quality start’s worth of pitches before he got into the game, with about a better than 50 percent chance of being gassed—and battered—going in.
(And if he’s been throwing that much in the pen before coming in, why the hell are we still letting him throw eight more pitches on the game mound before facing his first hitter?)
2) I don’t like the thought of some poor soul—who may or may not have been overworked in the pen before coming in in the first place—coming in with less than his best stuff and getting killed to death because his skipper can’t lift him until he’s faced three batters minimum.
But I like the idea that a National League lineup spot won’t be wasted anymore by the single most automatic out in baseball. I like the idea that National League managers might come to enjoy having, among other things, the option American League managers have: you could, in theory, use that number nine hole for either an extra cleanup-type or an extra leadoff-type. Quite a few teams have.
From 2010-2019 the Show’s pitchers averaged 5,492 plate appearances a year and, for those who insist it’s worth the wait to see a pitcher hit one over the fence, 23 home runs a year. One bomb per 239 plate appearances. If you watched a team’s regular lineup hit one homer per 239 plate appearances on a season, you’d call it the Second Dead Ball Era. Oh, funsie.