MLB Needs Universal DH to Make Sure Pitchers Never Hit Again

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 08: Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees hits a fly ball to deep center field during the third inning of a game against the New York Mets at Citi Field on June 8, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

When it comes to MLB and the universal designated hitter, the question is not "if" but "when."

Go ahead, purists. We'll give you a minute.

It's the direction the game is headed in, plain and simple. Pitchers pitch, hitters hit and never the twain shall meet.

That's the take of Major League Baseball Players Association head Tony Clark, who told reporters recently the notion of a DH in both the National and American Leagues is "gaining momentum."

The change also appears to have the tacit backing of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who had this to say in 2016:

"Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you'd think you were talking some sort of heretical comment. But we have a new group [of owners]. There's been turnover. I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways we think would be good for the fans—always respecting the history and tradition of the sport."

There's the tug-of-war. History and tradition versus advancement and adaptation. All sports struggle with that dichotomy to some extent, but none more than baseball. It's America's oldest professional pastime. The first team was founded in 1866, when Andrew Johnson was president and the Model T Ford was nearly four decades away.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Yet, in recent years, MLB has adopted a number of changes and updates, most notably instant-replay challenges. Evolution is possible, and the advent of the universal DH feels undeniably like evolution.

As Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer noted in June, the performance of pitchers at the plate has been trending steadily downward from the beginning of the sport to today:

"When two-way players were more common, players who were primarily pitchers hit almost as well as a league-average player in some seasons. But as the league's talent level improved and roles became more specialized, pitcher hitting soon went into a free fall that hasn't slowed since. ... In more than 1,900 plate appearances, this year's pitchers have produced a .115/.146/.150 combined slash line, which translates to a minus-23 wRC+."

There are exceptions, of course. The San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner hit 15 home runs in 292 plate appearances from 2014 to 2017. He's a card-carrying member of the Pitchers Who Rake club and would surely balk if the bat were taken out of his hands.

On the other hand, there are cautionary tales such as the St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Wainwright (season-ending Achilles tear while batting in 2015) and the New York Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka (two strained hamstrings suffered on a tag-up in June) that highlight the folly of having pitchers hit and run the bases.

Is the "joy" of watching the game's preeminent hurlers take half-hearted hacks worth the risk of losing them for extended disabled-list stints?

The designated hitter can also extend the careers of great hitters. How many fewer at-bats would a guy like David Ortiz have gotten without the DH rule? Even if you aren't a Boston Red Sox fan, would you honestly rather have seen those at-bats taken by a pitcher?

Steve Nesius/Associated Press

"If it were up to me, the [pitchers] would never take BP and never swing in the game," Mets manager Mickey Callaway told reporters in May. He's not alone in that sentiment.

The designated hitter rule was adopted by the American League in 1973. Since that time, it's been the primary difference between the two leagues. Would eliminating it undermine the sanctity of the NL/AL divide?

"The biggest remnant of league identity is the difference between DH and no DH," Manfred acknowledged. "I think that's a significant issue."

Then again, we've had interleague play since 1997. The wall between the Senior and Junior circuits has already eroded.

And seriously, NL fans: When your team plays a regular-season game in an AL park and employs the DH, are you upset? Or are you glad your lineup features actual hitters from the leadoff to the ninth spot and your pitcher gets to rest comfortably on the bench?

Keep in mind, also: Adopting the DH for both leagues doesn't mean pitchers can never hit.

The Giants might be persuaded to let Bumgarner take a few hacks even with the DH rule in place. And two-way Japanese star Shohei Ohtani (elbow issues aside) could represent a new type of player who toes the slab and digs into the box.

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 22:  Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at bat in the game against the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium on July 22, 2018 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

In general, however, the vast majority of pitchers have no business wielding the lumber, just as the vast majority of slugging corner outfielders should never take the mound.

The game would be helped rather than hurt by a universal DH. It'll have to go through the collective bargaining process, but it's tough to imagine players will fight it. It would mean fewer injuries for pitchers, after all, and the potential for hitters to prolong their careers.

In 2016, I interviewed former MLB player Eric Byrnes about the idea of an automated strike zone. His words on that subject ring equally true in this case.

"Baseball players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings," Byrnes told me. "They used to take trains across the country instead of airplanes. They used to not have lights and not play night games. It's a simple progression."

If you love double-switches and other such machinations, you're probably fuming. Again, we see you, purists.

This is a when-not-if situation, though, and it's what's best for the future of the sport.

It's time to embrace it. It's time to evolve.