Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The New DH

This season started the advent of yet another new phenomenon in baseball: year-round interleague play. Nearly every day at least one team from the National League is forced to tangle with a team from the American League. Making each league carry an even number of teams, 15, has that effect on the schedule. Baseball purists have been up in arms decrying this as the latest affront to our National Pastime. They see this as another money grabbing move by Selig and the players to get the National League to adopt the designated hitter (DH). Small ball and true strategy will be gone, the game will be inevitably compromised! Cats will also marry dogs and the apocalypse is nigh! Take a deep breath purists, the game will continue, but there will be a change, what I call "the new DH".

Baseball as a game is constantly evolving. The distance between the mound and home and the distance between bases are about the only two things that haven't changed since baseball as we know it started. The mound has been raised and lowered, rotations have been altered, even the uniforms have changed. Technology and innovation have improved the game, the innovation lasts as long as the players on the roster permit it. The Moneyball A's did not want to steal bases, with their success many spoke of the end of the stolen base. Last year the A's were 9th overall and stole 14 more bases than the league average. The players changed, not the front office. Rumors of stolen bases' demise have been greatly exaggerated. Steroid/PED prevalence likely played a larger role in teams opting for the long ball over small ball.

Purists can rest easy in the knowledge that Bud Selig stated in April that "some cataclysmic event” would be required for the NL to adopt the DH. I do not have an issue with universal designated hitters. We now have 7th inning specialists and LOOGY's, we are in an age of specialization and there is nothing wrong with that. Let pitchers pitch and hitters hit, less embarrassment and less injury risk for all.

But what about strategy? How much strategy is it to know the pitcher will be sacrificing or striking out 8 of 10 times? The idea that small ball and other strategies would disappear is as overblown as the death of the stolen base, and for a similar reason. When the DH was introduced it was done to allow older, big hitting sluggers to continue to contribute and keep going to the ballpark. That notion was amplified through the 90's and aughts. However, no where does it say that is how position must be used.

National League teams are not going to invest heavily in players who can't field for a whopping 19 games, half of which will not have a DH option. The new DH has been employed for a few years now, signing veterans who will take lower salaries and are known as "good clubhouse guys". Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, and Carlos Pena come to mind. Their value is based as much on the off field intangibles as their on field production. Most of these players are being platooned to maximize their value while they mentor younger players. Both leagues have 25 man rosters, but NL teams are often carrying two bench players who are really just bats to the AL's one. Platoon players are another rising trend, batting lefties exclusively against righties and vice versa, which increases the value of every roster spot.

The NL should take an aggressive approach to this for their benefit. When teams play early interleague games, highlight that player, let him produce, then trade him.  Showcase a veteran and ship him out as soon as you get a decent offer. If he is a problem that cannot be traded, dump him. Improve the roster by subtracting a player who has become upset with a lack of at bats as the season wears on. Give his platoon partner a chance to prove himself against all pitchers. If the player is not a problem and no trades materialized, there are worse things than a player/manager/mentor for younger players to look up to.

The DH is not coming to the National League anytime soon. Small ball will not be going anywhere either. Manufactured runs are the lifeblood of postseason play, regardless of league. The game of baseball is evolving yet again to yet another change, NL teams would be wise to turn this situation to their advantage. The friendly, useful veteran is headlining this new DH and at current prices it is a sound gamble to take.

Are you buying in to the new DH or am I talking nonsense? Feel free to sound off in the comment section below.