On the Eve of Destruction: Universal DH proposed
Felix Hernández connects for a grand slam against the Mets in 2008
Acouple weeks back, we noted that Major League Baseball had proposed some small rule changes for next season and beyond, tweaks to do with time a player would have to spend on the disabled list and time necessary to spend in the minors after being optioned down. Now, according to a piece by Ken Rosenthal in The Athletic, the players' union has responded with a counter-proposal that expands on MLB's change ideas and adds an explosive to the conversation.
Firstly, Rosenthal reveals that part of the league's proposal was one of the items on Commissioner Manfred's wish list, an increase in the number of batters a pitcher must face once brought into a game. This is something that falls under Manfred's "pace of play" obsession, and seeks to cut down on pitching changes and thus eliminate a couple of minutes of dead time from any given game. It would, of course, basically eliminate the LOOGY concept and consign relievers who have made a living as a left-hander specialist to obsolescence. Also, MLB's request includes reducing allowable mound visits from six per game to four for 2019 and three in 2020. It would also do away with the expanded September roster as we know it, changing the expansion limit from the entire 40-man roster to just 28; making up for that would be an addition of a 26th spot on the regular season roster.
More critically, though, the players' proposal would make significant changes to which teams get what kind of draft selections—an apparent effort to disincentivise teams from undergoing lengthy rebuilding phases—and has the incendiary request to adopt the designated hitter rule universally.
Rosenthal explains the universal-DH proposal as addressing a perceived need for more offense in the game, and notes that pitchers batted a mere .115 last season. That rationale is hard to accept, though—it seems obvious that the union's motivation for the National League to adopt the DH is because it would mean 15 more high-paying jobs. Regular designated hitters are paid far more than bench players, and that has been the union's reasoning when they've floated the idea in the past; conflating it with a "need" for more offense is disingenuous. "I think that’s been pretty consistent with the players since 1987," Manfred reportedly said about the union wanting a universal DH, though he didn't give a reason. What may be different now is that the current crop of Major League players may not have a Tom Glavine or a Greg Maddux, champions of the every-player-on-the-field-is-in-the-batting-order-as-God-intended philosophy. The desire for 15 more multi-million dollar contracts may now have more sway over everyone involved than any loyalty to the traditional no-DH game.
Since its initial institution in the American League in 1973—as a three-year experiment that just never went away—the DH rule has metastasized throughout the minor leagues, college, high school, foreign pro leagues, and so on; today, the only leagues I'm aware of that don't use the DH are the National League and Japan's Central League. The very existence of baseball played properly, with pitchers in the lineup, would be all but wiped out if the players' union gets its way on this.
Obviously, I am not in favor of the idea. It may be anathema to say in Seattle, home of Hall of Famer Edgar Martínez, but my stance is firm: The designated hitter rule is abominable, it takes too much away from the strategy of the game, it brings the creep of football-style specialization into the sport, and it should be abolished yesterday. If I had the power to move the Mariners into the National League, I would do it, for no other reason than to see proper baseball in my hometown.
Since the union isn't about to let 15 DH roles vanish, maintaining the status quo is essential. The upside of having the DH rule is the debate, after all; if it has to exist, at least having the two styles of play in Major League Baseball offers fans of both the opportunity to see their preferred brand of ball.
I doubt a universal-DH rule will come to pass anytime soon despite the union's march toward demanding it. There are still National Leaguers opposed, and the one and only time the NL voted on its adoption (1980), only one-third of clubs were in favor. When former commissioner Bud Selig proposed a "radical realignment" of the Majors along geographic lines, putting all Eastern-city teams in the American League and all Western-city teams in the National, NL teams in the east (particularly the Braves and Reds) objected vehemently to being moved to the DH league.
While none as evangelical on the subject as Glavine and Maddux may remain, there are those within the game that share my view. Like San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, one of the game's better-hitting pitchers—one year (2014) he batted .258—who torpedoed the argument that pitchers shouldn't bat because there's a risk of injury. When Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon running out of the batter's box there were the predictable laments about how it wouldn't have happened if there'd been a DH. Bumgarner wasn't having it: "What if he got hurt pitching? Should we say he can't pitch anymore? What if he gets hurt getting out of his truck? You tell him not to drive anymore? That's the way the game has to be played." Also, pitcher Jake Peavy, who noted that adopting the DH would "take a ton of strategy out of our game. The bench player is so much more important a part of the game [in the National League]." Tim Hudson, former pitcher in both leagues: "A pitcher that can handle the bat can be an advantage. Most of the advantage comes from the managers who know how to manage in the National League." Infielder Sean Rodríguez was more direct: "The pitcher is on the field, so he should hit. There’s your nine and our nine. That’s how it should be. I don’t think there should be a designated hitter. The name itself is weird. You’re just saying to one guy: ‘Grab a bat and go hit.’"
Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo once said in a radio interview, "I would hate to see the DH in the National League. I love the National League brand of baseball, with the pitcher batting and all the strategy that that employs." Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who has made a name for himself in both leagues, also prefers the NL Way. "I love the National League game," Maddon said. "It's pure baseball—the essence of baseball. It's much more cerebral. I would hate for us to take away all that nuance and just plop a DH in there." And then there's my favorite take, from former manager Whitey Herzog, also a veteran of both leagues: "Humpty Dumpty could manage in the American League. There's nothing to manage!"
(This was illustrated in the 1992 World Series: In the decisive Game 6, played in Atlanta and thus without the DH, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who had used his bench less than any manager in the game throughout the season and never managed a non-DH game before the series, apparently did not know how to double-switch. In the 10th inning and having used one player off his bench thus far, Gaston pinch-hit for his 8th-place-batting shortstop, resulting in the third out. Jimmy Key had been readying in the bullpen, presumably to begin the next inning, but instead, along with a new player at shortstop, Gaston sent his current pitcher back out to the mound for one batter, then brought in Key, making no other substitutions. Fellow grandsalami.net contributor Erik Lundegaard and I were watching that game and rooting for Toronto, each yelling at Gaston through the TV variants of "You idiot, now Key will have to bat or you'll lose him after two outs! If you'd brought him in at the start of the inning you could have put him in the eight-hole! Are you high?!" Erik wondered aloud, "Has he ever hit before?" Key got through the inning and indeed came up to the plate to lead off the 11th. The television graphics helpfully confirmed it for us with the note "Jimmy Key—first Major League at-bat." He fouled out. Cito Gaston, Humpty Dumpty—six of one, half a dozen of the other...)
MLB's proposed rule changes are bearable. The game can survive the loss of the lefty-specialist without seeming diminished. Not having 20 rookies on the bench in September would help those of us who like to keep a scorecard. Preventing abuse of the DL/yo-yo optioning relievers is all good. But the union's counter is unacceptable. I'm not sure how the draft changes would even work—it's a complicated formula that tries to give teams almost good enough to make the playoffs better draft positioning and penalizes teams that lose 90+ games in consecutive seasons—but the universal DH is a deal-breaker. Or it should be.