Sorry Purists, Writing Is on the Wall for NL to Implement the DH

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 25, 2020

Minnesota Twins' Nelson Cruz in a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid)
Tom Olmscheid/Associated Press

The designated hitter is coming to the National League. It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when.

I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the National League. I say that as someone who loves watching pitchers such as Madison Bumgarner and Bartolo Colon take their hacks.

If you put on a glove, you should pick up a bat. Right?

Maybe. But the designated hitter upholds another fundamental baseball truism: We want to watch hitters hit and pitchers pitch.

Sure, there are novelty exceptions such as Bumgarner and Colon. Overall, though, do you want to see your squad's ace sidelined because he pulled a muscle on a swing or a run to first, or would you rather watch an actual batter take an actual at-bat?

Jim Bowden of The Athletic reported the two-league DH could be coming after the 2021 season when the current collective bargaining agreement expires:

Jim Bowden @JimBowdenGM

There is a growing belief amongst NL GM’s that the DH will be instituted for NL as early as 2021. FWIW.

Whether or not a universal DH arrives that soon, it feels inevitable.

As Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer noted back in June 2018, pitchers' performances at the plate have been trending downward from the old days to now:

"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+."

Maybe you love the sacrifice bunt. Perhaps you covet the double switch. In the end, though, this game is about hitting, pitching and fielding at the most elite level, and virtually no one can do all three of those things with enough acumen to score a spot on a highlight reel.

The designated hitter rule was implemented by the American League in 1973. Since then, it's been the major distinction between the two leagues. It also adds some drama to the World Series (and, to a lesser extent, interleague games) when AL pitchers unused to wielding the lumber have to hit and teams unaccustomed to utilizing a DH get to put a ninth legit hitter in the lineup.

Honestly, Senior Circuit boosters: When your team plays a regular or postseason game in a Junior Circuit park and uses a DH, are you mad? Or are you stoked your squad features real hitters top to bottom while your pitcher rests on the bench without the risk of injury?

The designated hitter also extends the lifespan of prolific hitters. How many fewer at-bats would David Ortiz have gotten without the DH rule? Or how about Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez? Likewise, modern swatters, including Nelson Cruz and J.D. Martinez, wouldn't have nearly the same impact without the DH.

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Purists will dig in their heels. They'll point to the history of the sport and the occasional pitchers who can actually wield a bat without embarrassing themselves. 

But in a world in which MLB has employed instant replay review, is considering expanding its playoff format and might even adopt robot umpires at some point, how absurd does it really sound to unify the roster rules for each league?

Picture your favorite team. Imagine it put out a lineup of its eight position players. Would you rather the ninth hitter be the pitcher or an actual hitter? Maybe a one-dimensional slugger who's all bat and no glove, or simply a guy who could stand to rest from the rigors of defense for a day?

Here's what Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in 2016, and it's tough to believe his mind has changed much, if at all:

"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."

Baseball has been around for a long time. It's evolved, slowly and sometimes painfully.

While it pains this old-school NL fan to admit it, it's time for the next evolution: a universal DH.