Universal DH: Enough foot dragging

Pud Galvin, a Hall of Fame pitcher who looked like a mustachioed Babe Ruth but was part of a rotation that made Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle at the plate with or without the mustache. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Two fetuses gestated in 1891 America and both had impacts on baseball. William Mills Wrigley, Jr. carried his company to term and, in due course, from scouring soap and baking powder to chewing gum and himself to buying the Chicago Cubs. William Chase Temple’s fetus, the designated hitter, ended in a miscarriage.

His concept had nothing to do with extending the careers of great hitters who’d lost it (or never really had it) in the field, and everything to do with being fed up wasting a batting order position.

Temple owned the Pittsburgh Pirates. One group of five hitters on his 1891 team went to the plate 510 times and collected 78 hits between them in 473 official at-bats. Their collective batting average was .165. A group hitting like that should make you wonder what on earth they were doing within ten nautical miles of a major league roster.

OK, I just threw you a spitball. The quintet in question were pitchers: Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, plus Mark Baldwin, Silver King, Harry Staley, and Scott Stratton. Knowing that plus the foregoing, are you truly surprised now that Temple impregnated himself with the idea we know as the designated hitter?

Fair disclosure requires mentioning that the 1891 Pirates weren’t exactly a prehistoric Pittsburgh Lumber Company. They also finished dead last in the National League pennant race. Their worst-hitting regular position player still hit 49 points higher than that pitching staff. Connie Mack (catcher) is another Hall of Famer, but he didn’t exactly get there because he was a terrorist at the plate.

The Boston Beaneaters, ancestors of today’s Atlanta Braves, won the pennant . . . and their main pitching staff actually hit worse (.127) than the Pirate staff did. Temple had little trouble convincing fellow owner J. Walter Spalding, whose New York Giants pitchers actually could hit a little bit, that pitchers at the plate were worth as much as catchers on the mound.

The 19 December 1891 issue of The Sporting Life includes a short article citing Temple and Spalding in agreement: pitchers had no business hitting. Temple said aloud he wanted a designated hitter replacing a pitcher in the batting order. Today’s reactionary old farts would demand Temple’s impeachment and removal, preferably yesterday.

They should only know how Spalding wanted to see and raise: eliminate pitchers from batting orders entirely, without replacement, and let the batting lineups be eight men in. If you would wish Temple’s removal in irons and chains, you might wish Spalding’s public hanging.

“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,” said Sporting Life in agreement with Temple.

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.

Temple didn’t face impeachment, merely the turn-down of his proposal in a very close vote by the National League’s rules committee of the time. The vote seems to have been tipped against by Chris von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns. (Refugees from the ancient and freshly folded American Association, and starting National League play in 1892, von der Ahe’s Browns have been known since 1900 as the St. Louis Cardinals.)

Once and for all let us dispense, then, with the prejudice that the designated hitter is a product of that nefarious American League who’ve conspired since 1973 to turn the Show into a high-price softball league. The American League didn’t even think about the idea until 1906.

That’s when Mack—Pirates catcher grown up to manage (and in due course own) the Philadelphia Athletics—raised the DH seriously, after watching and tiring of his own pitching staff swinging at the plate as though their bats were made of cardboard paper roll tubes. Those 1906 A’s pitchers who got into 22 games or more—including Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Rube Waddell, and Eddie Plunk (er, Plank)—hit a collective .201.

Being only slightly better hitters than Mack’s 1891 Pirates didn’t stop the Tall Tactician from proposing a DH for the American League at season’s end. The league turned him down, too. Twenty-two years later came the next in vitro of the DH, by John Heydler—president of the National League. This time around, the American League caused the National League’s miscarriage.

None in Show would try again until the 1960s minor leagues, including the AAA-level International League, brought the baby to term successfully. That caught the eye and ear of a later, far more controversial A’s owner, Charlie Finley. The rest, of course, you know, unless you forgot that the National League tried once more to bring the fetus to full term, in 1980.

Five NL teams voted no; four voted yes; three abstained. The National League miscarried again.

It’s not that I haven’t written about the designated hitter’s true history before, but I raise it once again because at this writing Show fans still don’t know whether Commissioner Rob Manfred and the Major League Baseball Players Association will get off the proverbial schneid, get onto the same page, and consecrate the permanent, universal DH.

Manfred seems more determined to keep more abominable ideas such as the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning, and a permanently expanded postseason. He still seems unable to grok that leaving the permanent universal DH in the air did few, if any favours, for a lot of free agents more suited to designated hitting than earlier in their careers. Or, for a lot of teams who’d love to have their bats without sending them out into the field with gloves that could be tried by jury for sedition.

Not knowing whether they’d have the DH option may have factored as heavily as their current economic folderol when the Cubs decided to non-tender Kyle Schwarber. The Nationals did sign Schwarber, of course, which tells you how unafraid they are of finding him plate appearances while the most polite description of him as a defender is “suspect.” But not every National League team is quite that risk-willing.

Don’t make the mistake of believing Schwarber is just another contemporary phenomenon. There have been DH types in baseball all through the live ball era now 101 years old. They didn’t exactly begin with Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, whose butcher shop at first base was tolerated for eight of his ten major league seasons because he could and did hit baseballs across county lines.

The so-called purists merely forget or can’t bear to think about it. But ponder this: What would you do with a second baseman who can flat out hit but has limited enough fielding range and averages eighteen errors charged per year at the position in a seventeen-season playing career? Today you’d want a DH slot available to you because you don’t want to lose a bat that would lead the league in OPS six straight seasons and OPS+ seven. Shake hands with Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby.

Ponder this, too: Ted Williams—arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived and, if you didn’t believe it, you could have asked him—hated fielding. He has the career defensive statistics to back him up, too: enough below his league’s averages. Now, put Williams in today’s game as a DH and turn him loose at the plate. You’re really going to get an earful about who’s the greatest hitter who ever lived and, if you don’t believe it, you’d better ask him.

Let’s give Manfred and the MLBPA a little more historic reference. The following table shows decade by decade how Show pitchers have hit beginning with 1920 (for the 1910s) because that seems the first year in which league splits by defensive positions are available:

Year BA OBP SLG OPS BA +/- MLB AVG
1920 .202 .247 .254 .500 -74
1930 .214 .254 .285 .539 -82
1940 .179 .218 .222 .441 -88
1950 .178 .231 .227 .459 -88
1960 .155 .206 .194 .401 -100
1970 .146 .188 .192 .380 -108
1980 .156 .192 .197 .390 -109
1990 .138 .172 .169 .341 -120
2000 .148 .185 .192 .377 -122
2010 .141 .175 .174 .348 -116

Notice the numbers for 1940, representing the 1930s. That was a decade in which batting statistics overall were off the charts, with the Show’s sixteen teams averaging about five runs per game and batting .267 with a .726 OPS.

Do you really want this lifetime .101/.126/.152 slash line hitting or wasting outs? (Yu Darvish.)

Now, ask yourselves whether those or any other decade’s pitchers’ batting statistics would show you a major league level hitter if you didn’t know those numbers belonged to pitchers at the plate. Instead of asking and demanding why pitchers aren’t taught “to play the whole game,” too, ask and demand to know, too, why you’d really want pitchers with valuable arms and talents wasting strength and stamina, risking their health even further when you (damn well should) know pitching itself is a health risk going in.

So pitchers can drop sacrifice bunts? Wonderful. Glad you can afford to waste outs for the nebulous sake of “strategy.” I’d rather see real hitters think about bunting against those defensive shifts for base hits a time or two during games and putting the kibosh on those shifts post haste. A few have, and there should be more. Show me all that delicious free real estate, and I’ll show you a little bunt on an outside pitch and me on first base before your alarm clocks ring.

Glad, too, that it’s little of the proverbial skin off your teeth that an effective pitcher showing no early fatigue yet might be scheduled to hit with two out, at least one man on, batting stats making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle, and side retired with no further profit.

You want “strategy?” The universal DH might actually add some. Think about a second cleanup hitter or an extra leadoff-type batting in that number nine slot. Some teams have. Who’d you rather have batting ninth with a man or two aboard? Who’d you rather have batting in the nine spot if it leads the next inning off? Hint: In either case, it won’t be Yu Darvish.

One more time, hand it off to Thomas Boswell, because he’s still right as rain: “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.”

By the way, in full-season 2019 Show batters struck out 42,823 times. Would you like to know which non-pitching batters struck out the least that season? You can look it up: the designated hitters. They struck out a mere 2,652 times, compared to none of the other non-pitchers striking out less than 4,093 times. Joe and Jane Fan bitching about all those strikeouts should love the DH, no?

The owners are said to be more than willing to let the players have the universal DH—if the players agree in turn to permanently expanded postseasons. The players should tell them to stuff that idea. We’ve had a long enough era of the thrills, chills, and spills watching teams fighting to the last breath to finish the season . . . in second place.

We got close enough to a pair of losing teams in last year’s World Series, too. Allow that 2020 was a pandemically-imposed freak season. But remember that the 29-31 Astros got all the way to the American League Championship Series. Are you really ready for the prospect of a losing team over a full season getting the chance to play their way to the World Series or even win the Series?

The universal DH really would remove a blemish from the lineup while helping still-effective bats find fresh jobs. The so-called purists, the reactionary old farts, fight harder to stop that than to stop the continuing dilution of championship play. I could tell you another word for that kind of thinking, but then you’d have to kill me. And my fountain pen (yes, I still write with one) has light years to go before it sleeps.

Update: After this essay was published, news arrived that the MLBPA rejected the universal DH—because the owners offered to allow it contingent upon their accepting permanently-expanded postseasons. Before you say “damn fools,” remember that further dilution of championship play should not be accepted.

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