If it isn’t broken, call the repairman. If it is broken, it’ll fix itself. So seems to be the thinking (using the term very liberally) of Commissioner Nero. Apparently, he’s in no hurry to keep the universal designated hitter, but he’s in a big hurry to keep permanent the over-expanded postseason.
Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Steinberg, whose team is now playing in the World Series and is one of baseball’s most innovative, has it right about innovation actual and alleged when he likes to say, “Break a window, don’t burn down the house.” Rob Manfred seems to prefer burning down the house to save the broken window.
The DH would have “broken” the window in 1891 if then-Pirates owner William Chase Temple had his way. Yes, I’m going there again. The concept that drives today’s stubbornly ancient-school National League fans came originally out of a National League owner’s head.
Temple was fed up pitchers being unable to hit. Not “unwilling,” unable. So he proposed what we know as the DH. Temple’s contemporary and friend Albert Spalding wanted to see and raise. Spalding thought the pitcher’s lineup spot should have been erased entirely with eight-man lineups otherwise. Window-breaking? Spalding would have busted three for the price of one.
“Every patron of the game,” wrote Sporting Life about Temple and Spalding’s thoughts, “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.”
No need to review the history of the DH idea in detail. Suffice to say here that Temple brought it to a vote and lost in 1892. In 1906, Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack (whose pitchers hit a whole .201 that season) proposed it to see it go nowhere. The National League proposed it again in 1928 and the American League rejected it then. It took traction at last when the high minors adopted it in the 1960s and impressed Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley enough (as well it might considering his 1972 A’s pitchers hit a whopping .165) convinced his fellow AL owners to bring it in.
Looking for ways to make the pandemic-shortened irregular 2020 season as painless as possible, Manfred decided this would be an experimental season. The universal DH was one of the experiments. Would you like to know how it went? The batting slash line for major league pitchers all 2010s long is .130/.161/.165. The batting slash line for 2020 designated hitters is .231/.316/.408.
It gets better. Want to know whose DHs did the best this season? The Atlanta Braves. In the National League. With a .316/.411/.589 slash line. And, a 1.000 OPS. Hitting more home runs than everyone else (17) except the Minnesota Twins (19). Getting more base hits period (73) than everybody else’s DHs. With the highest DH batting average on balls in play (.403) by 44 points. Did I mention Braves DHs knocked in the most runs (55) of any team’s DHs?
Want to know how many National League teams’ DHs finished in the top ten for collective OPS around the 2020 Show? Six. (The Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Diego Padres, and the St. Louis Cardinals.) The top ten in DH on-base percentage is even-up between NL and AL teams (five each) with the Braves at the top. Braves’ DHs led a pack of five NL teams in the top ten for batting average at that lineup slot. They also led all teams’ DHs with 37 walks.
I’m going here, too: my Real Batting Average metric. RBA = total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches. Look how the National League’s DHs measured up against the American League’s:
2020 Real Batting Average – DHs
The National League DHs batted five points higher in RBA than the American League despite batting 44 fewer times. (They took a lot more for their teams, too, if you noticed the hit-by-pitches.)
Do you still miss those .128-hitting pitchers with their .178 RBAs? Are you ready to listen to Thomas Boswell this time, if not a) almost two years ago; or, b) when I cited him again in June?
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.
If you want to yell your head off at Commissioner Nero, there are better reasons. Bawl him out from San Diego to Boston and back about that ridiculous three-batter relief pitching minimum and, even more, against that free cookie on second base to start each extra half inning.
Rant your heads off against a permanently-expanded postseason. Sure it might have been mad, perverted fun to see the 29-31 Houston Astros meet the likewise 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers in the World Series this month. Only because it would have made a further chump out of Commissioner Nero seeing regular (well, irregular) season losers playing for that piece of metal.
Bellow like Falstaff that the real issue with postseason baseball’s ratings declines are and have long enough been saturation. Bad enough the era of the second wild card made for potentially-exhausting maximum 43 postseason games a year. Slightly worse was this year’s sixteen-team postseason making for a potential maximum 65 games (if each series went the distance) and an actuality of 52 postseason games so far.
Even fans such as myself who think there’s no such thing as too much baseball get wrung out by that. The good news is that, this time, championship won’t be diluted. The two best teams in 2020 baseball—when all was said and done about COVID-19 infections, disruptions and scheduling contortions—are going at it in the World Series. That’s now. Does Nero really want to risk a future full of losers playing for the Promised Land?
Or would wiser heads who aren’t sound asleep while Nero burns the house down in order to put a trash can fire out willing to suggest what I’ve suggested until I’m bluer in the face than the Rays’ jerseys. Dump the bloody wild cards. Give the winningest division champs a round-one bye and let the other division winners play a best-of-three. Let that winner meet the bye winner in a best-of-five League Championship Series. Leave the World Series best-of-seven and return it to its proper primacy.
As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so damn simple a child of five could do it. And, sit back, watch the tanking teams run out of excuses to tank because you either win or be gone, watch all those “competitive” teams realise they can’t settle anymore for stirring the blood and delivering the thrills, chills, and spills fighting to the last breath to see who finishes . . . in second place.
Now, somebody send for a child of five. (Thanks again, Groucho.) Then, send him or her to Nero with instructions to keep the universal DH. Which did you one of the biggest favours baseball was able to do for you this otherwise pandemically-putrid year. Even if you didn’t know it and didn’t want to hear about it.