Is the Designated Hitter Ethical? A Philosophical View

Matt SavopoulosCorrespondent IMay 14, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 13:  David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox reacts as he flies out in the game with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on May 13, 2009 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.   (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Disclaimer: This was written as a philosophy paper. Many of the baseball arguments have been simplified for the sake of not bowling over my egghead professor with baseball terminology, or to enhance the impact of the argument.

I'm aware of this. Feel free to criticize, but don't lambast me over something that I left out because I didn't think my professor would know what I was trying to say. I hope the sports fan segment of the population finds this as interesting as I did.

The Morality of the Designated Hitter
A Philosophical View of Baseball’s Great Debate

Is the designated hitter rule ethical? Since the rule’s inception in 1973, it has been the subject of endless debate between those who view it as the natural evolution of baseball and those who debunk it as a gimmick and a detriment to the sport.

While there have been a great many of arguments about this particular facet of America’s favorite pastime, as far as I know there have been no debates about the ethical merits (or lack thereof) the DH.

In the pages to follow, I will attempt to offer a philosophical look at one of baseball’s greatest arguments, and establish once and for all that the designated hitter is an unethical rule that has no place in baseball.
Major League Baseball Rule 6.10, as the law is officially dubbed, allows teams in the American League to designate a player to bat in place of the pitcher. The pitcher is nearly universally the worst hitter on a baseball team, and this rule allows the pitcher to be replaced with a stronger hitter.

The rule was enacted as a response to the offensively challenged baseball of the early '70s, in which runs were being scored at a lower rate than ever before and the league was looking for a way to increase the scoring in the game.

By removing the “easy out” that the pitcher presents in the batting order, and putting a competent hitter in his place, it makes task of getting the required three outs in an inning much more difficult, thereby increasing the run production.
In the past 35 years, the American League has ingrained the designated hitter into baseball’s culture, as at least two generations of fans have been raised on the game with the rule in effect.

So now we arrive at the part of the paper where I begin to argue the thesis: the DH is an unethical rule which cheapens the contributions of both pitchers and hitters, and is generally a cheat of the strategic aspects of the sport.
Baseball, to begin with, is the most individual of team sports. A player scoring a goal in hockey will often have done little more than bang the puck into an already vacated net, having watched as his teammate drew the defense to him with skillful stickhandling before sliding him the puck at the last moment.

But a second baseman who comes to bat and hits a double into the gap in left field has done all of this by himself: what happened to the batters before him is ultimately insignificant.

Even situational plays, such as a sacrifice bunt, which are impacted by actions of previous batsmen do, in the end, come down to the ability of the man at the plate. While the leadoff man may have done well to hit a double, his success doesn’t impact the ability of the next batter to successfully sacrifice him along.
Defensive baseball is a similarly individual action. By having each man responsible for a general area of the field, it is easy to see who is responsible for each ball put into play. A rightfielder who successfully runs down and catches a fly ball will have done so regardless of whether the shortstop is out of position or not.

Although in the field the players are more connected than they are at bat (any ground ball will generally require at least two fielders to collaborate for the out, one to field and one to touch first base or whatever base the play is) it is still fairly easy to discern who is responsible for every batted ball.
Baseball, by its very nature, lends itself well to keeping statistics. The slow pace of the game, large number of things to count in each play, individualistic tendencies of the competition, and the long duration of the season mean that baseball statistics are much more accurate barometers of a player’s ability than those in other sports.

To stick with the comparison to hockey made earlier, a good goalkeeper stuck on a terrible hockey team will have, at best, mediocre statistics at the end of the season.

This is not necessarily his fault: he may have made a great many fantastic saves, but eventually the poor quality of his defense will mean that he will concede goals and his statistics will suffer.
By contrast, a good shortstop placed on a bad team will likely have similar statistics as he would on a good team. The lack of talent around him doesn’t impact his ability to catch balls hit near him, or to hit the balls pitched to him.

At year’s end, the statistics will bear out the fact that he is still a good player, even if his team has lost 100 games that season.

Because of the abundance of statistics, and their accuracy at gauging a player’s skill, it is possible to ignore the entire baseball season—not watch a single game—then open the stat book in November, look at the numbers in it, and determine who is a good player and who is not.
As I said earlier, the pitcher is nearly always the worst hitter on a team. This is a trade-off for their obvious value on the defensive end of the sport. With the DH rule enacted, a pitcher is handed access to his greatest strength without expecting any sacrifices from him in return.

Making the pitcher hit discourages bean-balls (the act of deliberately hitting a batter) as a pitcher may be hesitant to bounce a 90-mile per hour fastball off some hitter’s ribs if he knows there might be a similar pitch coming for his ribs the next time he steps to the plate.
Conversely, the designated hitter is nearly always among the worst fielders on a team, but usually one of the best hitters. Allowing him to work his magic with a bat at the plate without suffering through his ineptitudes in the field negates the need for him to practice fielding or any defensive abilities.

The designated hitter rule has created a breed of “batting cage players,” who are less athletes in the traditional sense than men with one highly refined, highly specific talent that they use to great advantage.  
Since baseball statistics are very accurate, as we have already concluded, they can be relied on to determine who is a good player. This is done by the casual fan; this is also done by the sporting media and baseball insiders.

If a designated hitter hits 55 home runs and bats .340 in a season, he will be lauded by all the talking heads on ESPN and deemed a brilliant baseball player. Baseball executives will arrive at the same conclusion, and deem him worthy of a $50 million contract.

But he has only played half the sport! Instead of being punished for his defensive liabilities, he has been put in a position to profit from having only one dimension as a baseball player.
Let us theorize (not all together unreasonably) that the Baltimore Orioles are infatuated with a heavy-hitting DH, fresh off his 55 homer season, and offer him the $50 million they have determined that he is worth.

By doing this, they are likely to not offer that money on their third baseman who has hit only 35 home runs and batted only .315, but has gone out every day for the past five months and played stellar defense.

He, instead of being offered the $50 million that his play may be worth, is released by the team and only offered a contract for $30 million from another club.
Not altogether a shabby sum, but that still represents a 40% decline in pay. The designated hitter has earned himself $20 million more than the third baseman: by being a worse baseball player!

The designated hitter profits from having no defensive expectations placed on him, and is free to focus all of his energies on hitting. The third baseman would be required to spend time at practice working on his defense, and would be more tired for his at-bats after playing in the field the half-inning before.

The time spent training in the field decreases the amount of batting practice he would take, and the fatigue from fielding would detract from the quality of his hitting in games.

The resulting difference in offense has resulted in his essentially taking money out of our poor third baseman’s pocket and keeping it for himself: a very unethical proposition, at least in this writer’s opinion.
The designated hitter also removes from baseball many of the strategic aspects of the sport. Much baseball strategy is concerned with the pitcher’s spot in the batting order. When do you pinch-hit for the pitcher? When do you leave him in to hit?

Compensating for the pitcher’s lack of ability to hit takes a fair bit of managing, and is crucial in the late innings of close games. In the bottom of the eighth inning of a close game, with your pitcher coming to bat, do you take him out in hopes of scoring the go-ahead run despite the fact he’s working on a three-hitter?

Leave him in and hope he produces something offensively, or at least continues to pitch well? It’s one of the manager’s most frequently faced problems.
By implementing the designated hitter, baseball takes all of these complex decisions out of the hands of the manager.

In the American League, the only things that a manager is required to do is make pinch-hitting or running decisions and decide when to change pitchers, which happen less frequently (in the case of the former) or are much less complex decisions (as is the latter.)

Indeed, for most of the game, an American League manager can enjoy the fantastic view he has of the game and eat sunflower seeds, with comparatively little to bother him.
In a similar way, an American League manager with mediocre in-game managerial skills may accumulate a fantastic number of wins and a reputation as a genius, although he has the handicap of the designated rule working for him.

A better manager, working in the National League could occasionally make the wrong decision with his pitcher and his batting order, and unfortunately his reputation would suffer as a result.

A team owner, therefore, would be inclined to pick the worse manager of the two to award a new contract to, based unfairly off the reputations earned or destroyed by the DH rule. Both financially and professionally, the designated hitter rule has altered the careers of two men in an unjust and unethical manner.
Some may counter that there are many scenarios in baseball which allow players to maximize their strengths and downplay their weaknesses: pinch hitters are brought in for their superior hitting, and relief pitchers for their pitching abilities in certain situations.

However, there is always some sacrifice to be made in these circumstances which is not present with the designated hitter. If a manager pinch-hits for a light-hitting shortstop, he increases the odds of getting offensive production in that sport in the batting order, that is true.

However, he also increases the odds of conceding runs the following inning, when the shortstop, who is a defensive whiz, is resting comfortably on the bench as the pinch-hitters mangles his defensive responsibilities.
The trade-off, the balancing of the good with the bad, is what makes these actions more ethical than the designated hitter rule. It preserves the competitive balance which makes sports so much fun.

Apart from the monetary and publicity related concerns detailed in my earlier examples, this argument strikes much closer to home with the average fan than the millions made or not made by a designated hitter or a shortstop or a manager.
The joy of watching baseball, at least much of the part of it not derived from such clichéd (and yet accurate) such as the smell of freshly cut grass at the ballpark or watching the game with a cold beverage on the back porch with friends, comes from the appreciation of the strategy of the game and the debates that inevitably accompany the game.

The DH rule detracts from both of these factors, even if it can’t alter the smell of freshly cut grass at the ballpark. While the frequency of these arguments may not be diminished, the quality of them certainly is.
The application of strategy (that is, playing along with the manager) is something that every baseball fan thinks he or she can do well: it’s why major league managers take so much criticism from the fans and media.

The average baseball fan enjoys playing along with the manager during the game, putting themselves in their situation, thinking of what they would do. Every fan, to some degree, is an armchair manager, and every fan thinks that he can do it better than the real manager can.

By taking out the strategy that accompanies the pitcher batting, the designated hitter rule takes the fun of second-guessing the manager out of the part of the sport.
As for the debates that surround the game, many of those revolve around fans of rival teams debating whose players (fans, managers, stadiums, etc.) are better. In this fiercely partisan argument, statistics are often presented as concrete proof of one side being correct: as the old saying goes, the numbers don’t lie.

And baseball stats, as already demonstrated, are more honest than most.

But in comparisons between players on different teams, especially if those teams are in different leagues (with the accompanying difference in rules) the designated hitter is the bane of honesty, skewing the numbers for all parties involved and robbing the outstanding debaters of the chance to come to firm conclusion on whose outfit is superior.
So if the DH robs the fans of the joy of calling the manager of their favorite team an idiot, prohibits them from proving that their team owns the greatest left fielder in the game (much better than that idiot who plays in left for their buddy’s team) and unjustly robs players of money and public adoration that they might otherwise receive, is it not immoral?

If there were a person that did all of these things, they would have certainly been deported, or at the very least imprisoned, by passionate fans of the sport. So why do we continue to employ a rule that taints the pastime of the nation with an unethical cheat of the principles of the game? Out with the designated hitter—let the pitchers hit!

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