Sunday, January 31, 2016

How the National League Hits the Designated Hitter

The Designated Hitter is coming, the Designated Hitter is coming!

That was the fear early this week before Commissioner Manfred tempered expectations. A driving force on the issue is that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires December 1, 2016. A change this monumental would require the collective bargaining process to address the myriad other aspects of the game including just when it would begin. While we now know that it is unlikely to be included in the next CBA, it nonetheless remains a topic that generates much interest and passion from fans on both sides. I believe the DH will eventually come to the National League, not today and maybe not by the end of Bryce Harper's career either, but someday. What follows is my idea to preserve the strategic style of current NL play even with the addition of a designated hitter.

When asked about what a designated hitter is, the image conjured up is a fat old guy who can't field, but still swings a bat well enough to warrant a spot on the team. Indeed that was the intention when the DH was introduced in the AL in 1973. But, as they say -the only thing constant is change- and the game of baseball is no exception. By my back of the envelope calculation there are only three of fifteen teams that are going to stick with the conventional old hitter at the DH spot, the rest have already adapted and will be loath to go back. Those teams are the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Tigers. David Ortiz has continued to put up numbers justifying his continued roster spot, even if is just as a hitter, the other two teams just owe too much money to old and increasingly fragile players that they feel obligated to have them do something besides sit on the bench.

What are other teams doing? Using the DH slot to rotate players to get half days off, keeping their productive starters bats in the lineup without the wear and tear of being on the field for 162 games. Considering Manny Machado was the only player in the majors to do so this trend is going to become more popular. Teams are starting to accept the fact that giving a player a game off every few weeks is more beneficial to the player and the team over the course of the season.

Another reason the rotating DH is going to continue is the ongoing specialization within the sport. Clayton Kershaw recently came out strongly against the DH, arguing that baseball should be played two ways. Except that isn't really accurate and has not been for decades. Starting pitchers throwing complete games is at an all time low. I cannot recall the last time a relief pitcher took a non-sacrifice at bat in a 9-inning game. Starting pitchers not scheduled to start were used as pinch runners once upon a time. Babe Ruth played five positions during his 22 year career, now teams wonder if a left fielder can transition to right field for a few games. The idea baseball is played with 9 players only is a quaint idea, a nostalgic idea, but it does not reflect the games you watched last season or the decade before that.

Fans of National League baseball bemoan the DH because they think it will destroy the strategic elements that baseball has required since its inception. Bunting is a dying art in both leagues, sacrifice bunts were on the decline even before Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, but there still plenty of ways teams can decide how to play beyond Earl Weaver's "pitching, defense and the three-run homer."

It is true that the strategy changes on pitching changes when you do not have to consider the impact on your batting order and I do appreciate the strategy of executing a double switch, but why would the National League need to adopt the exact DH model of the American League? The National League could still maintain a unique approach by adopting the DH tied to the starting pitcher only. When the starting pitcher is pulled the designated hitter is removed as well, unless the manager opts for a double switch. Relief pitchers do not get the benefit of a DH. The end result would be improved offense in the National League, not an abandonment of its tradition or its unique strategy.

To address this new change would require one additional tweak, the 25 man roster. Currently, MLB allows teams to have a 40 man roster, but only a 25 man active roster. To add this wrinkle, and accepting current rules, teams would likely seek a few more options to consider. The answer is to accept the idea of a 28/25 roster in which 28 players are available, but only 25 are allowed every game. The most obvious answer is designating starting pitchers, but teams could prove creative. 

We don't know when the DH is coming to the National League, but as increased specialization continues more owners will start considering it as a way to better protect their investments in pitchers and the players who rotate through the DH slot. On top of that I would really look forward to seeing how Joe Maddon, perhaps the most unorthodox manager in the game, would respond to the challenge.