Around the Horn

Designated Dumbness

The weird 2020 faux-season is scheduled to begin in a few weeks, and considering its various rule alterations and pandemic protocols, one issue continues to rankle me like no other, because it threatens to last a lot longer than this bizarre year of coronavirus: The "universal DH."

I loathe the designated hitter rule. It was a bad idea when the American League implemented it in 1973 and it's bad today and it'll be bad tomorrow. It should not be made universal, it should be metaphorically burned with fire until no trace of it remains. It does nothing to enhance, improve, or otherwise add value to the game of baseball.

But wait, you might say, without the DH we wouldn't have had the Hall of Fame career of Edgar Martínez! We love Edgar! So the DH is good, right?

"Humpty Dumpty could manage in the American League. There's nothing to manage! … In the NL, you're thinking. You teach your pitchers to sacrifice bunt. You balance your batting order. You use your bench. You play for a run at a time. The good fan can take the time to learn about these things. He gets rewarded for paying attention. The owners never thought all of this through back in 1973, and they still don't realize half of what I'm saying, but the DH takes all of it away. The AL manager sits, waits and watches. So do the fans in the stands. What's so great about that?"

—Hall of Fame manager
Whitey Herzog

Well, yes, we do love Edgar. And the DH rule did allow him to play at a reduced risk of injury and no doubt gave him a few extra years on the field. All that is stipulated. But because it just worked out to the benefit of one of the true good guys of baseball is not a reason to embrace a terrible disfigurement of the game.

The DH is a dumb rule. And I say that with "dumb" not as a descriptor but as a subject. It is a rule designed to increase dumbness. The entire point of having a designated hitter is to take thinking away. To make the game a simpler concept for minds that don't like working very hard. To produce conditions that allowed Cito Gaston to manage a team to a pennant without having any idea what a bench is for or how a double-switch works.

It's not a new idea, of course. The concept of a player that bats in place of a pitcher goes all the way back to the 19th century, as reported by the publication Sporting Life. James Spalding and Pittsburgh owner William Chase Temple both argued in favor of some manner of replacing the pitcher in the batting order; Spalding preferred simply leaving the pitcher out of it and having the lineup turn over after eight batters, while Temple advocated a substitute batter for the ninth slot. Even in the 1890s it was assumed pitchers couldn't hit. ("Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball," went a passage from Sporting Life in 1891.) Philadelphia A's owner/manager Connie Mack revived the idea in the early 1900s, but saner heads prevailed. Again from Sporting Life, this time a 1906 issue: "Against the [proposed DH-like] change there are many strong points to be made. It is wrong theoretically. It is a cardinal principle of base ball that every member of the team should both field and bat. Instead of taking the pitcher away from the plate, the better remedy would be to teach him how to hit the ball."

Well, in over a hundred years pitchers as a group still haven't learned to hit, though some individuals do well enough for themselves (Mike Hampton, Rick Rueschel, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, et. al). But that's not the point.

When making out a lineup, managers have to consider the relative skills of their teams' players. Mark Trumbo could hit for power, but was a liability in the outfield. Is it better to have his strong bat and live with his weak glove? Mike Zunino was among the best defensive catchers around, but when he went up to bat he was as close to an automatic strikeout as you could get. Do you play him? A pitcher is not, or shouldn't be, any different, and as the game proceeds, circumstances should dictate if a manager decides to substitute someone off the bench. Fans following along have strategies form as they watch. There's engagement.

Your team is tied going into the home seventh and the pitcher is doing well. The bottom of the order is due up and you've got a full bench. You could go to a pinch-hitter when the pitcher comes up, especially if there's a runner in scoring position, give yourself a better chance at driving in the run, but then you have to go to your bullpen, which hasn't been so good lately. Or, maybe your pitcher is Bumgarner and you could opt instead to let him bat and save your pinch-hitter for when your .110-hitting catcher comes up. Or, your team is in the field in the middle innings and the pitcher starts to lose it, he's getting hit hard; you could go to the bullpen now, but his spot in the order is due up second next inning. Who's your pitcher? Is it Hampton, who has a better bat than some on your bench and you want to keep him in long enough to get another at-bat? How deep is your bench? If you pull your pitcher now and then pinch-hit for the reliever you bring in, you've burned a reliever on just a batter or two and a pinch-hitter with a third or more of the game left to go. You could double-switch, bring in a reliever and another fielder at the same time and bat them in the opposite lineup spots (for you AL-only people—and Cito Gaston—in this scenario you're technically bringing in a reliever to replace, say, your left fielder and a new outfielder to replace your pitcher, but before they get out there you switch them to the other's defensive positions). How much does that alter your defensive capability? Is the outfielder you're replacing going to be missed in the lineup later on?

These decisions can apply to anyone in the order, not just the pitcher, it's just that pitchers (a) tend not to last the whole game anyway, and (b) generally are your worst hitters. But by creating a lineup spot for a single designated hitter, what logic exists to say you don't also do that for shortstops? Or catchers? Or, hell, every defender? Why not go the route of football and just have offensive and defensive specialists all around?

Because that isn't baseball. In baseball you have to make choices, you have to bat and you have to field, and your value as a player is tied to how well you do both.

The DH eliminates having to make choices. Not all choices, but many of them. It facilitates laziness of the mind. It dumbs down the game. The argument that "no one wants to see the pitcher strike out" is irrelevant; no one wants to see the third baseman strike out either, unless they're rooting for the other team. But that's the choice you make, and sometimes you make it up to four or five times a game. "I'd rather see a good hitter take those at-bats than a guy that can't hit his way out of a paper bag" means, to me, "I'd rather this game not expect me to use my brain," and "I'd prefer not to consider the depth of my team's bench," and "I can't be bothered to think when I watch sports."

Designated Hitter rule? No. Dumb Halfwits rule.

DH: Bad rule or worst rule?

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