Should MLB Add the Designated Hitter to the National League?

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Should MLB Add the Designated Hitter to the National League?
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Imagine a scenario where David Ortiz could play everyday in the National League...

Whether you love it or hate it, odds are good that you have an opinion on the designated hitter rule in Major League Baseball. You are not alone, as the first topic in a series of Bleacher Report MLB Lead Writer debates will examine the pros and cons of the DH being added to the National League. 

The DH, as well as the role of pitchers being forced to hit, is one that perfectly encapsulates this new era of baseball we are in. There was a time when the DH was merely an excuse that gave older players a chance to hang around past their prime, but does it serve a larger purpose now?

Lead Writers Adam Wells and Jason Martinez will engage in a pro/con-style debate about whether MLB should institute the DH in the NL. Adam will argue in favor of the change, while Jason will speak on behalf of the current system. 

But don't be afraid to chime in with your thoughts, as we are looking to open up a larger conversation about the game that we all love. With that in mind, here are the pros and cons of adding the DH to the NL. 

 

Pro: Stops NL teams from Giving Away Outs

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Not surprisingly, I love watching baseball. I make a point to stop my day around 7:05 p.m. ET every night to turn on the MLB Game Mix. Yet there are a few things about the game that drive me absolutely insane.

I have come to accept that managers just have to use the “proven closer” in the ninth inning even though they could get more value out of that pitcher in a higher-leverage spot. I don’t mind two or three pitching changes in the middle of an inning.

But the one thing that makes me physically ill is watching a pitcher step into the batter’s box because it isn’t baseball. It’s a sideshow that you will find in the circus. Pitchers, for the most part, don’t want to be there. Pitchers' at-bats usually end up as wasted outs outside of the occasion when they are asked to drop down a bunt to advance a runner, but even that can end in a mess for many of them.

If you figure that a starting pitcher gets three at-bats on a good day, a team is essentially wasting an entire half inning of offense on that pitcher. Stop giving away outs when you only have so many to play with in a game!

 

Con: Ruins the "Chess Game" Strategies Involved in the NL Game

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Without the large percentage of casual fans who don’t need to appreciate all of the intricate strategies involved to still love the game, baseball would be a dying art. Just as jazz clubs struggle to stay open throughout the country, baseball stadiums would have a hard time filling seats and keeping their businesses afloat. 

As much as we think of the "steroid era" tainting the game, it's hard to ignore the fact that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa homering at a record pace during the 1998 season rejuvenated the game and piqued the interest of so many who had little to no reason in following baseball or attending a baseball game before that.

Yet in a game that is so frequently decided by a run or two, a successful stolen base, hit-and-run, sacrifice squeeze or double-switch could make all the difference. These very exciting aspects of the game become much less significant when a designated hitter takes the place of a pitcher in the batting order. A tendency to wait around for the three-run homer isn't likely to develop when runs are at a premium. Pitching, defense and clutch hitting become a much greater priority.  

If a manager decides to remove a starting pitcher earlier than anticipated because his spot is coming up in the lineup, forcing the use of a pinch hitter in a close game and bringing in a potentially less effective middle reliever, he could be deciding between whether his team win or loses on that day. This is not possible if a manager isn't forced to make that decision. 

 

Pro: Eliminates Unnecessary Risk for Pitcher Injuries

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Clay Buchholz once injured a knee while running to second base.

There are so many unnatural things about what a pitcher does that it’s not really a surprise anymore when we hear that, say, a top pitching prospect like Dylan Bundy needs Tommy John surgery. When you are putting so much torque and pressure on a shoulder/elbow, particularly starters throwing 100 pitches at a time, staying healthy is a challenge.

The National League, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the risk for an arm injury isn’t enough—forcing pitchers into the batting box where they can get hit by a pitch or run the bases and pull a hamstring or quad or something else that will end in a DL stint for a month.

I would be willing to bet that if you took a poll of every manager and general manager in the NL, all of them would tell you that they don’t want a pitcher anywhere near a bat..

Major League Baseball clearly understands that pitchers shouldn’t be hitting but still insists on keeping the rule for…no reason in particular.

 

Con: Destroys Historical Roots of the Game of Baseball

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The game of baseball has a rich history, dating back to the 19th century. We've all heard about legendary players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson and classic moments like "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. It's part of what makes baseball such a beloved sport. 

While the game will continue to evolve and hopefully improve when necessary—stricter drug testing and instant replay that will serve to assist the umpires in getting the most important calls right are good examples—it's important that baseball doesn't become a completely different game.

Adding the designated hitter to the American League in 1973 was a big change, but it only impacted 12 of the 24 big league teams at the time. That's six games per day, at the most. And if the change was only going to happen to one league, it made sense that it was the AL, or the "Junior Circuit" as it was referred to because its existence in the major leagues came 25 years after the National League was formed. 

By the time the DH arrived in the American League, home runs had already become a much bigger part of the game than they had been in the first half of the century. As players became bigger and stronger in the '70s and even more so during the alleged start of the steroid era in the '80s, home runs began to define a game that was once ruled by hit-and-runs, stolen bases, bunt singles and moving runners over.

It's not that the pitcher does much more than have a couple of weak at-bats and maybe a sacrifice attempt or two during the game. More than anything, it's the addition of another hitter, one that is much superior to the pitcher in most cases, that could cause the game to slowly shift focus away from those small details that were so integral in the early era of the game. Not having the reminder of another league playing a slightly different kind of game could also contribute to the shift.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe it will change overnight. It will likely be unnoticeable from year to year. But in 20-30 years, the new generation of baseball players and fans will be watching a game that is very different than today's game and nowhere close to what was being played a century earlier.

 

Pro: Evens the Gap Between the Two Leagues

Interleague Records Since 1997 (Win Percentage)
American League Wins National League Wins
2,014 (.521) 1,849 (.479)

MLB.com

Think back to the last time the National League was better than the American League. I am not talking about using a one-game exhibition result like the All-Star Game or a short sample size like the World Series where the NL team came out on top.

I am talking about going from top to bottom in both leagues and finding that the NL was superior to the AL. I would argue that a big reason for that is because of the DH. Before this season, when we got interleague play throughout the year for the first time, the AL had topped the NL in interleague play 12 out of 16 seasons with a total mark of 2,023-1,826.

First, with the DH, lineups actually have more length and depth to cause problems for a pitcher. It allows a manager to keep his best hitter in a lineup on a day he otherwise might not play because due to a day off from playing in the field.

Second, the DH has also forced AL teams to build better, deeper pitching staffs. Knowing that there are no “gimme” outs in the lineup, for the most part, AL teams have to prepare for the bottom half of a lineup that could be as good as the 3-4-5 or 4-5-6 hitters in a NL lineup.

This year, AL teams are averaging 4.37 runs per game compared to 4.03 in the NL. That difference of 0.34 runs per game amounts to an extra 55 runs over the course of a 162-game season.

Give the NL a chance to start building lineups and pitching staffs the way the AL has been forced to in by adopting the DH. It will take some time because NL teams aren’t used to the strategy, but it's one that can pay huge dividends in the long run.

 

Con: Stops NL Demand for 25-Man Roster Depth

With a DH, the story of Evan Gattis might not exist. Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

It's rare that a team can win a championship with 25 players these days. The higher occurrence of injuries that has developed over the years has forced teams to use 30-40 players per season, so roster depth is more important than ever.

While there is an argument there for why a designated hitter would be a solution—less injury risk for pitchers who must bat and run the bases and more opportunity to rest aging position players by not having them play in the field for a game—I'm a big believer in getting the best return on an investment.

It may not be considered much in comparison to most major league salaries, but a bench player or a middle reliever making between $500,000-$2,000,000 should still be an integral part of a team's success or lack of success. Less opportunities to pinch hit, double-switch or get called out of the bullpen in the sixth inning because the starter left the game for a pinch hitter could make 20-25 percent of the roster pretty much irrelevant. Almost like the 12th man on a basketball team. 

And let's be honest. Those pitchers do a pretty good job of getting hurt on their own without picking up a bat. I haven't heard of a pitcher tearing elbow ligaments from swinging. 

For a game that has such a wide gap between large- and small-market teams—seven teams had an Opening Day payroll of over $120,000,000 and 10 were under $80,000,000, according to ESPN—it's important that the teams who can't afford the biggest stars in the game still have a chance to compete by possessing more overall depth on their 25-man roster and more players that can help on a regular basis, whether it's as a pinch hitter, defensive replacement or lefty specialist out of the 'pen.

Injuries occur on every ball club. But the severity of those injuries, the amount of time missed and to whom those injuries occur can greatly affect any team. A small-market team without the ability to compete with the top 15 players on other teams still has hope of knowing that the gap decreases if it's 25 against 25 and beyond that in most cases.

 

Pro: The Game Has Changed, and Rules Should Change with It

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Bringing this argument full circle by going back to things that drive me insane about Major League Baseball is this notion that the way things have been done in the past is the way they have to be done now.

When people were arguing for Miguel Cabrera to win the AL MVP award last year, their only argument was because he won the mythical Triple Crown (batting average, home runs, RBI). Yet we know so much more about the game today that determining a player’s value based on average and RBI was ridiculous.

Trying to say that the AL is “wrong” for using the DH, or that the NL is “pure” because it still allows pitchers to hit completely ignores the way the sport has changed and evolved over the years.

There was a time when pitchers were able to take some time working on hitting, but now being a pitcher is a 24/7/365 gig. There is so much that these players have to work on, between learning scouting reports on players, preparing for the day’s game, doing bullpen work and side sessions, they don’t have time to do anything with a bat.

Nor should pitchers have to do anything with a bat. There was a time when the DH was merely an excuse to keep older players around, but now it is an incredibly valuable spot in the lineup that gives managers flexibility by letting a team’s best hitter stay in the lineup on a day they wouldn’t be playing the field.

It is a tool to give a player who performs poorly in the field—like David Ortiz, one of the most popular players in baseball and a dreadful first baseman—a chance to contribute. MLB has to learn that change isn’t scary, especially when it makes the game better.

 

Con: More Bad Contracts for Aging MLB Stars 

Would A-Rod or Albert Pujols have gotten the contracts they did without the DH? Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Teams have already begun to figure out how risky a long-term deal is for a star player that pays them top dollar well beyond their prime years. Alex Rodriguez might be the poster boy for not doing it.

The bidding for Albert Pujols prior to the 2012 season was limited to just a couple of teams, and Josh Hamilton ended up with only a five-year contract from the Angels, who were probably the lone team to offer him a deal for that length. But it's still a possibility that a team will sign a player knowing that they'll likely be limited to the designated hitter role for the last few years of the contract. 

At least, for now, that's only the case for 15 teams and not 30. A National League team cannot afford to sign a 33-year-old corner outfielder to a five-year deal if the feeling is that their defense would be well below average by the third year of the contract.

For as many aging, one-dimensional hitters as we need in the game, I think 15 spots (on 15 American League teams) is a pretty good limit. This could also force superstar players to retire on top rather than once it's obvious they're done.

 

Conclusion

Hope you enjoyed our first MLB Lead Writer debate between Adam and Jason. Was any particular argument more convincing than the others? Did any of the points sway your opinion at all? Be sure to give us your thoughts in the comments section below. 

And keep an eye out next week for Round 2 of our debate series when Jason Catania and Joe Giglio argue over which pennant race collapse is the worst of all time. 

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