The universal DH: “Evidence over ideology”

Bruce Hurst

As a hitter, Bruce Hurst was an excellent 1986 World Series pitcher.

Long before I got religion about the designated hitter, George F. Will did. I didn’t have a specific road-to-Damascus moment, merely a lot of re-thinking based upon a lot of evidence I’d ignored previously. Will’s road-to-Damascus moment came watching Game One of the 1986 World Series, which opened in New York’s Shea Stadium.

The ill-fated Red Sox (weren’t they always ill-fated from 1919 through the end of 2003?) were stripped of their DH playing in the National League ballpark. Their Game One starting pitcher Bruce Hurst was compelled to bat for, possibly, the first time since high school during the Ford Administration.

From the moment the Red Sox drafted Hurst in round one, 1976 draft, until that World Series game, he had exactly one professional plate appearance, in the minor leagues—and struck out. Now, in his first three major league plate appearances, Hurst struck out three times. Permit me to remind you of those three plate appearances.

Top of the third, two outs, against Mets starter Ron Darling: Three pitches, three swings, one strikeout, and one home plate umpire, John Kibler, laughing his fool head off over the absurdity of it.

Top of the fifth, two outs, a man on first (Dave Henderson, after a one-out base hit up the middle), also against Darling: A slightly miraculous 2-2 count, then swinging strike three. Runner stranded.

Top of the seventh, two outs, against Darling yet again: Well, what do you know. With Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman on second, after his grounder to second resulted in Hall of Famer Jim Rice scoring on an errant throw home, Darling walked shortstop Spike Owen—a .231 hitter on the regular season, but a .429 hitter while the Red Sox won the American League Championship Series—to pitch to Hurst.

After his well-reported harrumphing, “I’m serious,” Hurst on 1-2 swung and missed. Kibler really couldn’t help himself that time.

“Umpires are carved from granite and stuffed with microchips,” Will wrote then. “They are supposed to be dispassionate dispensers of Pure Justice, icy islands of emotionless calculation . . . Nothing that causes such a collapse of decorum can be in the national interest.” Neither was yet another rally killed by a pitcher with a pool noodle bat, in a game in which the unearned run Rice scored off the Gedman grounder was the game’s sole run.

A veteran ESPN writer, Tim Kurkjian, laments the advent of the universal DH because we will have a little less “magic” in the game: “The universal DH, for all of its uniformity, practicality, and Shohei Ohtani, saddens a small few of us, for it eliminates one of the game’s underappreciated elements: pitchers hitting, or not hitting, which, for 150 years, has provided great statistics, stories and smiles.”

Kurkjian’s roll of outliers—and, Ohtani to one distinct and extremely-extreme outlying side, outliers is what they are—kicks off with Michael Lorenzen, for seven years a Reds relief pitcher until signing as a free agent with the Angels last November. As pitchers go at the plate, Lorenzen is an outlier with his .233/.282/.429 career slash line at the plate. In 2018, he hit .290, and the entire 2018 Reds pitching staff hit .101.

Three years ago, as Kurkjian celebrates nostalgically, Lorenzen pitched and was credited with a pitching win, hit a two-run homer, and played center field in the same game, against the Phillies on 4 September.

Lucky for him. What Kurkjian omits is that Lorenzen got positioned for a win credit only because he’d served Jay Bruce a 1-2 pitch meaty enough to hit over the center field fence and tie the game at five in the top of the seventh. Lorzenen got the next five outs before getting to bat with a man on in the bottom of the eighth and hit Phillies reliever Blake Parker’s first service into the left center field seats.

You saw that how many times a season? A decade? A century? From how many members of the collective class that (ha! you thought you’d avoid me saying it one more time) has hit .162 from the end of the dead ball era’s final decade through the end of last season?

Now, riddle me this, and be absolutely honest about it for once: You saw how many more rallies destroyed by a pitcher who might as well have a cardboard paper towel tube on his shoulders when compelled to hit with a man or two on base in the early innings, because he was pitching too well to lift just yet—but rally dead because he struck out swinging or whacked into an inning-ending forceout or double play?

Smugger-than-thou National League-loving “traditionalists”—whose league once introduced carpet baseball, and who forget the DH concept was first conceived by a National League owner—love to harrumph about baseball’s diminishing entertainment thanks to managers bereft of “strategy” with the presence of the DH. Very well.

A lot of the same “traditionalists” kvetch concurrently about the alleged and unentertaining epidemic of strikeouts. (Funny how we hate strikeouts unless the pitchers we root for ring them up.) Guess which batters struck out in the highest percentages of their plate appearances last year? (44 percent.) And, a decade earlier? (37 percent.) That’s entertainment?

The age of analytics presents us with things such as the spectacle of its enemies stuck for answers when asked why they oppose more, deeper, truer  information about the game they profess to love. Long before the age arrived, however, baseball’s best managers did 90-95 percent of their “managing” before games even started.

Military pilots obtain encyclopedic, detailed knowledge of enemies and their aircraft before take off, but no conscientious air group sends them up without their parachutes. The universal DH means no baseball manager equipped with any level of knowledge before a game goes into it with the hole in his parachute that a pitcher at the plate normally proves.

In-game strategy isn’t going the way of the Pontiac yet. Like the military pilot, the manager still faces enough moments with minus one second to make the choice that proves the difference between survival and disaster.

I write as a man who was stubborn enough to ignore the evidence before him for a very long time, on the field and in the records alike. Even while watching pitchers wasting outs with sacrifice bunts that in only one out of six known “bunt situations” leave their teams a better chance of scoring after the bunt than before it. Even while watching nine and a half out of ten pitchers swing bats as if trying to swat flies with single sheets of paper. Even while watching poor Bruce Hurst at the plate in Game One of the ’86 Series.

“The real case for the DH is this: it represents the triumph of evidence over ideology,” Will wrote. “The anti-DH ideology is that there should be no specialization in baseball, no division of labor—everyone should play ‘the whole game.’ That theory is slain by this fact: most pitchers only go through the motions at bat. The DH is a way of facing that fact. It says: only serious batters shall bat.”

No one did what Lorenzen did on that 2019 day that since Babe Ruth did it in 1921. “I have a baseball card with only me and Babe Ruth on it,” Kurkjian quotes Lorenzen as saying. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that.” Reds fans bereft of the entertainment in winning a World Series since just after the death of freshly-retired conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein might beg to differ.

Cease and desist!

Huascar Ynoa

Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa looks like Hall of Famer Henry Aaron hitting this grand slam. But he’s not a reason to oppose the DH.

I thought I’d seen every possible absurdist argument against the designated hitter going universal to stay. (It won’t happen until after this season, if baseball’s government can quit its foot-dragging over it.) Then I read Jayson Stark in The Athletic Friday. It wasn’t Stark making such an argument but, rather, a couple of his respondents.

Stark is a Spink Award Hall of Fame writer with as much passion for mulcting “Weird and Wild” baseball moments as I have for learning about them. How could he resist White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease having a day during which he struck eleven Reds out . . . and, having to make plate appearances himself for the first time in his major league life, nailing three hits?

How could Stark resist noticing the last American League pitcher to go 3-for-3 at the plate in his first Show game (Boo Ferriss, 1945) came 76 years before Cease fired? Or, that the only National League pitcher to do that in his premiere between 1945 and now was then-Met Steven Matz (2015)?

How, too, could Stark resist making note that of those three pitchers Cease is the only one who’d never shown up at the plate to bat in his entire professional baseball life until that fine day in Great American Ballpark? And Cease’s refusal to desist happened when (Stark’s words) “a few guys who hit for a living” hadn’t had a three-hit game all season yet: Mookie Betts, D.J. LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, Francisco Lindor.

Then there’s Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa, hitting a home run each in back-to-back pitching starts, with the second one—off Nationals pitcher Tanner Rainey, with the bases loaded and Ronald Acuna, Jr. on deck—going over the almost-straightaway center field fence.

It was the first time any Braves pitcher hit home runs during back-to-back starting assignments, Stark points out, since June 1961—when Lew Burdette and his running-mate in the comedy department, Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, did it in the same week, never mind the same season.

Ynoa can claim to be only the third pitcher to homer at the plate in back-to-back starts during which he also surrendered an earned run total of (wait for it!) zero. And whom might the other two be? Stark has your answer: Don Larsen, 1958; and, Rick Ankiel, 2000.

Now, repeat after me: All the foregoing are what such creatures have always been—outliers. Extreme exceptions. Non-habit forming. Hope Diamonds versus glass. Henry Aaron for one day compared to Hank Conger lifetime. Nolan Ryan pitching 27 seasons worth of major league baseball. Get the picture?

More than a few of Stark’s commenters didn’t. “Screw the DH! Let pitchers hit (at least in the National League),” read one, to which another gentle reader replied, “I don’t get why so many people want to take pitchers hitting out of the game.”

Yes watching pitchers hit is painful but getting these types of moments with Cease and Ynoa are so worth it. It’s fun! Just think about the most memorable baseball moment in the past 5 years. What is it? Bartolo’s home run. Take away pitchers hitting and we’ll never see anything like it again. Let pitchers hit!

The first sentence by the second such reader is dismissed almost too easily. Fair disclosure: I did so, posting that as of Saturday morning, the cumulative slash line for pitchers at the plate this season is .108/.136/.146, for a mighty .284 OPS. And, I wrote further, that the cumulative slash line for pitchers at the plate from the end of the 20th Century’s first decade through the end of the 21st Century’s first decade is .158/.207/.199, for a big fat .406 OPS.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again the way I said to that gentle reader: Show me a position player with a slash line like that, and I’ll show you a guy who won’t get past the minors even if he’s the next Mark Belanger with the leather. Even Belanger slashed .228/.300/.280. And he only got to play major league baseball for eighteen years because he was a human Electrolux at shortstop, who finished his career worth one defensive run saved above league average less than Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. (Belanger: +238; Smith: +239.)

Bartolo Colon’s 7 May 2016 home run in San Diego is baseball’s most memorable moment of the last five years? It was a regular riot, no question about it. But if I called it the most memorable moment in 2016-2021 baseball, it would expose me as having slept through a small truckload of moments that were far more memorable if not half as laugh-and-a-half funny. Games Seven of the 2016 and 2019 World Series come to mind at once, for openers.

Using outliers to support arguments is as fatuous as making memes out of Ryan and fellow Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, as someone did aboard Facebook last week, showing the two righthanders sharing a laugh during a Shea Stadium event, with “Pitch Counts?” above Ryan’s head, “Innings Limits?” above Seaver’s, and “#SMH” under Ryan’s and “#LOL” below Seaver’s.

The head smacks and laughs out loud should be aimed at those witless to comprehend that, for every Ryan and Seaver there are 1) probably a hundred or more hard-throwing pitchers who didn’t have a third their career longevity; and, 2) definitely not any single pitchers otherwise blessed with the exact or equivalent physiology to that pair.

Those same head smacks and laughs out loud should also be aimed at those who think Cease, Ynoa, and Colon are mic drops for keeping the National League immune to what they think is the taint, if not the virus, of the DH. By the end of the regular season—when the still-batting pitchers overall are unlikely to finish with a slash line higher than that .108/.136/.146 thus far—Cease and Ynoa will likely remain the outliers they are at the plate, assuming they do get any more base hits the rest of the way.

Hitting this season’s tough enough, seemingly, without further wasting precious outs on behalf of an anti-idea whose time really left the building long before Elvis ever did. If you’ve got a rally in the making, or you pushed a run or two across the plate with the promise of more to come before the inning’s over, do you really want to watch the enemy pitcher bury it alive by finding a way around your serviceable number eight batter to strike your pitcher out for the side? Or, to lure your pitcher into a rally-killing, inning-ending double play?

Don’t even think about countering with “sacrifice bunts—strategy!!” either. Unless you see the other guys put the old wheel play on (corner infielders down the line; middle infielders to the corner bases) so you can fake a bunt for a base hit, send four pairs of cement hands out to the infield, or present yet another defensive overshift yielding open prime real estate, bunts waste outs. (“I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game,” Keith Law wrote in Smart Baseball, “because she really wanted to see guys drop some sac bunts.”)

Unless you think managers in any era made their lineups out by rolling dice, turning cards, playing eenie-meenie-mienie-moe, calling the Psychic Hotline, or tossing coins and interpreting the I Ching, here’s a scoop that shouldn’t be a scoop: most baseball strategy is plotted before the game begins.

Make the DH universal and give National League managers the options American League managers have enjoyed for decades without having to move a pitcher above the number nine slot in the order: maybe a second cleanup hitter or an extra leadoff-type in that slot.

Relieve them, too, of the brain-bending decision (and yes, I’ve seen it happen) to remove a hot starting pitcher before his gas goes AWOL because his spot in the order’s due up early enough with men on base and a chance—especially down the stretch of a pennant race or with postseason survival at stake—to tie a game or bust it open as long and wide as the Chunnel.

Of course it’s fun to see the very occasional Ceases, Ynoas, and Colons*. But I’ll Cease and desist those in half a heartbeat, on behalf of putting a permanent end to the historic and overwhelming majority of pitchers killing my rallies because the historic and overwhelming majority of the lot of them hit as though they swing swimming pool noodles at the plate.

Instead of thwarting the universal DH, how’s about we kill the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? (Somebody might get killed because of the latter.) Or would that cause Commissioner Nero and his mouse-like employers to think, “Nope, makes too much sense?”


* It took Bartolo Colon nineteen years of major league baseball, only two and a half of which were National League seasons, and 248 previous major league plate appearances, before he finally hit James Shields’s 38th pitch of the game into the left field seats.

It didn’t even take Mark Belanger that many plate appearances to hit his first of twenty lifetime home runs—Belanger did it in his seventh plate appearance of 1967. And Belanger wasn’t a tenth as funny running his out as the portly Colon who ran like a cement truck with the rear tires deflating en route.

Some 2020 rules that must die

2020-06-24 DavidPriceMookieBetts

Seriously? You want the man on the left (David Price, pitcher) taking his lifetime .080/.132/.080 slash line to the plate with a rally on the line? You want the man on the right (Mookie Betts, right fielder) brought in to pitch if the game is close enough for the other guys to break open?

Oops. We’re going to have the universal designated hitter after all when the Show returns next month. Some said yes with reasonable knowledge; some said no, also with reasonable knowledge, and I did kind of jump the gun on the latter the other day. But now we’ll have it. For awhile, anyway.

Everybody repeat after me, with or without apologies to R.E.M.: It’s not the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine. Or, we ought to feel fine. I don’t know which has been more absurd: that the DH was originally a National League brainchild that the American League once rejected (yes, you can look it up); or, that people to whom “tradition” is a fetish forget how often traditions prove untenable at last.

Forgive me. I’m not a man who dismisses tradition lightly unless incontrovertible evidence tells me otherwise. Once it was tradition that non-white players alone could play major league and other “organised” baseball. Surely that was one tradition whose time should never have been so in the first place. Of course the tradition of pitchers batting isn’t even close to the disgrace of black, Latino, Oriental, and other races and ethnicities barred from “organised” baseball.

But pitchers in the 2010s hit for a .131/.161/.165 slash line. They hit about likewise in the decade preceding. You want the thrill of pitchers hitting home runs? Tell me what you’d call one bomb per 239 plate appearances if that was the production of the rest of the lineup. Now tell me you wouldn’t call that the Second Dead Ball Era.

Remember: Thomas Boswell had it right when he argued he’d surrender thrills like that “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.”

There are far worse protocols coming forth for whatever the 2020 season is going to be.

The three-batter minimum for pitchers. This is something kicked around well before the coronavirus’s world tour as it was. It was likely to be implemented for 2020 even if the coronavirus never got past a Chinese province. I admit that at first I couldn’t make up my own mind about it, but now I’m convinced: it’s a terrible idea.

Maybe I don’t like the crowd of commercials accompanying every pitching change even two or three in an inning, either. But I’m going to hate watching some poor sap who doesn’t have his best that particular turn get beheaded before his skipper can lift him for a fresher arm because one stupid rule says he must face three batters before Skip can even think about getting him away from the guillotine.

The extra innings in which each team begins its turns at the plate with a runner on second base. What the hell is this, the Nursery League? Now, forget the image of everyone getting the cookie and tell me whether you think it’s going to be all that much fun to see a gift man on second brought home in two quick shakes with a sacrifice bunt and then a sacrifice fly at minimum.

Ponder this: J.J. Cooper of Baseball America discovered what happened when the minor leagues adopted the cookie on second to open the extras: extra-inning games decided in the first of the extras went from 45 percent in year one to 73 percent in the last two years.

Come on. This is one fight in which the trads have the better argument. The second two loveliest words in the English language (the first two, of course, are “Play ball!”) are “extra innings.” You’d think an America starved for baseball over the pandemic postponement would stand athwart the cookie on second opening the extras, yelling, “Foul!”

Well, as radio legend Gabriel Heatter once crooned, “Ahhh, there’s good news tonight”: The cookie on second gets eliminated for the postseason. Goody.

Position players pitching. That was then: it was allowed for teams being blown out only. This is now, for 2020 at least: A manager can send a position player to the mound any old time he wants. Brilliant. Didn’t we always want to see Mookie Betts or Pete Alonso or George Springer or Nelson Cruz or D.J. LeMahieu on the mound as openers or coming in to bail the team out of a critical mid-innings jam? Seriously?

Newly-installed Chicago Cubs manager David Ross once hit his first major league home run off a position player. (His first home run and he hits it off Mark Grace. I feel sorry for that kid.—Mark Grace, said position player.) Fourteen years later, Ross pitched two perfect innings (one apiece in two games), and after the second one he led off the inning by hitting one out.

Did I mention Ross was a catcher and he pitched while his team was being blown out? (Did I also mention Ross opened his career with a homer off a non-pitcher but ended it by hitting one over the center field fence off a bona-fide pitcher leading off an inning in Game Seven of a World Series?)

If you think Ross’s Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have even thought of sending Grandpa Rossy to the mound in a tight game with the other guys an out or two away from tying or going ahead, I have a North Pole beach club to sell you at a bargain price.

I get that this is going to be an extremely unusual season, falling considerably under the desperate times/desperate measures umbrella, especially with fans not being able to go to the ballpark for a good while. But the Show’s governors have a troublesome history of calling the repair man for what isn’t broken and dragging their feet on what is.

Even an unusual season doesn’t need the cookie on second to start the extra innings or position players on the mound for any reason other than to keep the rest of the bullpen from further late blowout humiliation. The DH needs to stay universal. But why do I think that won’t be so while at least one of the others will?

Ads on uniforms. Assume the owners get what they’re said to want like five minutes ago. If we must have them, at least let them be sensible per player. Some examples:

Every Boston Red Sox—Samsung television.
Matt Carpenter—Black & Decker.
Bartolo Colon (if a team is convinced to let him have a comeback shot)—Pillsbury.
Mike Ford—If you have to ask . . .
Every Houston Astro—Nikon cameras
Aaron Judge—Legal Aid Society.
Every Miami Marlin—Mrs. Pauls.
Charlie Morton—Morton’s Salt, of course.
Every Pittsburgh Pirate—Long John Silver.
Except Bryan Reynolds—Reynolds Wrap.
Every Seattle Mariner—Red Lobster.
Mike Trout—Bass Pro Shops.

Let’s not leave the managers out, either:

Rocco Baldelli (the youngest current MLB manager)—Mattel.
Joe Maddon (the oldest current MLB manager)—Viagra.

Just keep them to one ad per jersey, preferably on the sleeve. Bad enough the Nike slash now occupies the upper right breast. This is still baseball—not NASCAR.

Let it stay. Permanently.

2020-06-22 BartoloColon

Let’s not and say we did: Averaging 5,492 plate appearances a year from 2010-2019, Show pitchers averaged 23 home runs a year. Or, one home run per 239 plate appearances. Oh, funsie. (Newsday photo.)

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.


The Show’s coming back?

2020-05-11 CodyBellinger

Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you . . . but . . .

Baseball, the sport that more or less invented social distancing (if you don’t count the batter, the catcher, and the home plate umpire in a close enough cluster), is about to return to America, so it is said. At least the Show will. This brings good news, bad news, and very bad news.

The good news is, the proposed July return acknowledges a nation in dire need of respite from the coronavirus’s toll in human life and human mischief and exhausted of asking, “Where have you gone, Cody Bellinger—and Mike Trout, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Christian Yelich? A nation turns its quarantined eyes to you.”

The bad news is, there’ll have to come bristling debate on part of the proposal: will the players get only their cuts of a half-and-half league revenue split, or will they get their normal if prorated-for-time 2020 salaries?

The very bad news is that slightly more than half season to come may leave room for some of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s mischief. The proposal approved by major league owners and submitted to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association includes that the postseason will begin with fourteen teams, courtesy of two more wild cards each in the American and National Leagues.

Manfred has only sought such a postseason expansion for almost as long as he’s been Bud Selig’s successor, of course. Bad enough that some of his thoughts about redressing play-of-game issues have run the gamut from nonsense to more nonsense. Worse is that he has no apparent thought that play-of-postseason requires even more serious redress.

Even if the proposed structure for this year is one time only, well, we’ve heard it before when baseball’s governors tried things once—and let them linger regardless of their wisdom or enhancement of the game.

The postseason is already long enough. And we’ve suffered long enough, too, the thrills and chills of teams fighting down the stretch to the very last breath to determine who’s going to finish . . . in second place.

The original wild card advent legitimised the second place finisher as a championship contender, which was bad enough, and removed the time-honoured incentive of the first place finish as the sole legitimate entree into postseason play. Manfred appears to be witless to comprehend it even as he further exposes himself a man to whom the common good of the game equals little more than making money for it.

You guessed it: here I go yet again. But a three-division league giving a round one bye to the division winner with the best record of the three, while the other two slug it out in a best-of-three division series, with that winner playing the bye team in a best-of-five League Championship Series, would a) produce far more of a genuine league champion and b) far fewer viewers turning off or avoiding television sets or radios on the road to the best-of-seven World Series.

All that said, there are a couple of things to come in the short 2020 season that Manfred, the owners, and the players alike would be wise to make permanent. Rosters are proposed to expand from 26 to 30. Sound as a nut. Make it permanent.

The designated hitter will come to the National League for the short 2020. Good. Make it even more permanent. Pitchers batted for a .128/.159/.163 slash line in 2019. That is unacceptable production no matter what you think of “tradition,” and baseball history is nothing if not full enough with traditions that deserved to be and were killed. OK, you asked for it: Thomas Boswell’s wisdom, one more time . . .

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right 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.

As a result, 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.

Depending upon the team’s up-and-down lineup possibilities, I’d far rather have what amounts to an extra leadoff hitter or cleanup hitter in that spot than a gang of spaghetti bats who might maybe hit one to the back of the yard as often as Halley’s Comet shows up. Assuming they don’t get injured swinging or running the bases and taken out of action when you need their arms the most.

I don’t want Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jack Flaherty, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Josh Hader, Noah Syndergaard (when he returns), or Jon Lester wasting time at the plate no matter how many home runs they’ve hit once in a blue moon. I want them strictly on the mound missing bats or luring outs. That’s why they’re paid what they’re paid.

Beyond that? I’m not going to complain about the possible electronic strike zone, I want the balls and strikes called right, too, which means by the rule book and not according to Angel Hernandez’s mood on a particular afternoon or evening.

But I’m going to complain that Manfred and company continue underrating and underdiscussing umpire accountability, which still seems not to exist much if at all. More’s the pity. When the Korean Baseball Organisation sends an entire ump crew to the country’s minors for re-training after a few too many complaints about a few too many individual strike zones, the American Show needs to pay attention. And the Hernandezes, Joe Wests, and C.B. Bucknors ought to be made to watch their behinds.

MLB’s return will mean empty stadiums to begin with gradual re-openings, not to mention one-time mixed-league divisions based on geography to a great extent and special considerations for keeping players, coaches, managers, umpires, and grounds crews safe. It may sound like a pain in the sliding pants, but it may also beat the living hell out of the alternative, which we’ve had restlessly enough for over a month and counting.

And, like anything else, desperate times call for desperate or at least temporarily ameliorative measures. The only thing we have to fear is that the least appealing of them might become permanent and the most appealing and truly necessary among them might become memories after the season ends.