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The Great DH Debate: A Modest Proposal

We needn’t choose simply from DH or no DH....lets make it a strategic decision that impacts games in interesting ways.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants
Not every team has a Bumgarner, but maybe thats a good thing.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the Designated Hitter. Could any other two-letter acronym cause a baseball fan to turn so quickly against brethren? Probably not. As of right now, MLB’s two overarching leagues are the only two in any professional sports framework that I’m aware of that use different rulesets. That’s not inherently a problem, but where there are differences, there are disagreements and partisans. It happens.

I think it’s worth stating outright that, if I had to choose one or the other, I would choose a universe with no DH in both leagues over a universe that used the DH in both leagues. That is inherently my own preference. Why? These three reasons:

  1. The aesthetics of a nine-versus-nine, sandlot style, are more intuitive and appealing than a strange exception. Pro sports rules arcana is fairly tiresome. A world with the DH requires more of it than a world that lacks it.
  2. This is almost inherently very personal, but games in NL parks seem to have a better “flow” to me, because the pitcher has a place he can go to for an easier out. The pitcher batting adds a clear delineation to lineup turnover and some variation that separates top-of-the-order rallies from bottom-of-the-order ones.
  3. Baseball is a strange game in that the mode outcome for any plate appearance is failure. That is, watching a baseball game is inherently hoping for an unlikely results, multiple times; whichever team generates the most unlikely results, or strings them together most effectively, usually comes away as the winner. For that reason, having the pitcher hit evinces this ethos better than a DH and a more same-y lineup top-to-bottom. If the joy of baseball is in the unexpected, that joy multiplies when an even more unexpected thing happens.

This moment wasn’t just special because the Braves got a Harper-assisted homer. It was especially special (yes, that was written intentionally) because it was Braves pitcher Tim Hudson who got that homer.

With that said, strong feelings that I used to have on the DH have faded. Why? It mostly has to do with that third point. The more the pitcher/DH spot trends towards certainty in either direction, the less interesting it becomes. In other words: if pitchers aren’t expected to get hits, and indeed, pretty much don’t get hits, there’s nothing interesting there.

It’s getting a lot worse.

It’s not like pitchers are even doing other things well, either. The last three full seasons have been the first since 1994’s strike-shortened season with fewer than 500 sacrifice bunts completed successfully by pitchers. If you throw 1994 out, you have to go back to 1992, which featured two fewer teams and 11 percent fewer pitcher PAs overall, to find the earliest season with fewer than 500 sacrifices. I don’t even like sacrifice bunts, but it’s clear that increasingly no one else really cares enough to learn how to get them down, either. The more useless pitchers become, the less point there is to them taking up a lineup spot.

So, a universal-ish DH seems an inevitability given the above. However, in a feeble-yet-vain attempt to forestall that glaringly uninteresting solution, I propose an alternative. It’s probably too complicated and fraught to ever happen, but I think it would do a good job of adding strategic choice to baseball in a way that a “thou shalt have a DH” mandate would not. Basically, it would work like this:

  1. At some point before Opening Day, each team would declare itself a “DH team” or a “no DH team.”
  2. For the first game of any series, both teams would be obligated to use the ruleset declared by the home team prior to the season.
  3. For any remaining games in the series, the loser of the prior game would be able to choose which ruleset to use. (Probably by some deadline like midnight prior to the game starting.)

There are two reasons why I like this.

First, it allows the collective of teams/Front Offices/owners to “vote with their feet,” by which I mean some kind of paper filing and not feet. If everyone truly wants a universal DH, they will just be able to file as a “DH team” and always select the DH option. We will have the universal DH by circumstance, instead of the universal DH by fiat. That settles the debate by taking it out of the realm of league mandate and into the hands of the coaches and executives themselves. Doing away with pro/anti-DH arguments might be the best part of this whole thing. (Note that if the universal DH were adopted by fiat, the arguments would probably still exist, because one ruleset wouldn’t win out naturally but be imposed on its detractors.)

Second, it allows for some interesting choices, but limits them to prevent rules arcana. If the circumstances align for your team (good hitting pitcher, other team has a fantastic DH that can’t really play the field, etc.), you can skew some games to your advantage. But not all games, and not in a way that is overly stringent. Sure, the above could have instead skipped the third component, and simply said that each team chooses a ruleset and imposes it on all of its home games. But, this adds some wiggle room for strategy, by allowing “retribution” or “compensation” decisions from the team that lost most recently. The intersection between times when your team could opt to use the DH (or no DH), times when it would be allowed to implement that ruleset, and times when doing so constituted a good idea would create an interesting paradigm. It would also offer room for rewarding the most clever of teams, while not making such a huge difference that a team couldn’t just let either ruleset ride as much as possible.

I’m ready to move on from the DH/no DH debate. Instead, I look forward to a “should our manager have imposed the DH/no DH ruleset for last night’s game?” debate instead.