Thursday, April 4, 2013
It's time for NL to adopt the DH
By Christina Kahrl
So here we are: Two days from Ron Blomberg Day, the anniversary of baseball's partial adoption of an overdue innovation, the designated hitter. Forty years on, and we still have the two leagues playing by different rules. Imagine the NBA with one conference playing without the 3-point shot -- sounds silly, right? Well, that's what we've got for the time being, but we'll get to that.
As originally envisioned, the DH was supposed to be a role that kept great aging players -- identifiable brand names, even, like Hank Aaron or Harmon Killebrew or Rusty Staub -- in the game. Consider the impetus equal parts economic and offensive: The American League needed more runs, and baseball didn't want to lose stars to old age when they might still be able to hit.
Ron Blomberg was equally stiff afield, making him the perfect choice for baseball's first DH.
Forty years on, how are teams using the DH today? Not so much as the "golden years" power-and-profits mashup, that much is certain. Guys like Harold Baines or Edgar Martinez or Paul Molitor weren't gloried players in their golden years when they became full-time DHs, they were men who simply could not stay healthy playing the field. You could argue that they became more famous as DHs than they ever were beforehand. But even that has now changed.
Despite the obvious goal of using it to employ a guy who helps you put runs on the board, you might think teams aren't doing a great job of finding them. In the past 12 years, out of a possible 168 player-seasons for the guys we'll call full-time DHs -- say, those who spent at least 75 percent of their playing time in a given year batting as a DH -- there have been just 47 regular DH seasons worth a win or more via Baseball-Reference.com's Batting Runs stat. Nine of those belong to David Ortiz in Big Papi's 10 years with the Red Sox, which puts the rest of the American League at just a 23 percent return on getting even a modest win's worth of value out of their regular DHs. Beyond Ortiz, just three players have notched as many as five one-win seasons as a DH in the past dozen campaigns: Travis Hafner, the near-done Jim Thome and the long-since-retired Frank Thomas.
So taken in the aggregate, the DH today might seem like it's giving us more Blomberg than Baines. But I say this not to bury the designated hitter, but to praise it, because the contrast isn't between those very few -- and today, fewer still -- who deserve the epithet of "DH" and those who don't, it's between the travesty of letting pitchers hit versus the adaptive way that AL teams are using the DH to give us a better brand of baseball.
Simply put, American League teams aren't using the slot to just employ a full-time DH. Three players qualified for the batting title last year while playing as much as three-quarters of their games at DH -- Delmon Young of the Tigers, Billy Butler of the Royals and Kendrys Morales for the Angels. That tally isn't unusually low; in the last dozen seasons, on average just four guys qualified for the batting title while DHing 75 percent of the time.
Sure, there are plenty guys who are employed as a club's primary DH -- say, Adam Dunn with the White Sox. But that's the thing: Guys like that aren't just regular DHs for their teams. Witness that Dunn started 56 games at first base or in left for the White Sox last year. If anything, a team's DH is more like a guy doing what Chris Davis did for the Orioles, starting 38 games at first and another 39 in the outfield corners when he wasn't DHing. He was a moving part employed to provide power; sometimes that was as a DH, but that wasn't his sole role.
Cases like Dunn and Davis are examples of how the 12-man pitching staff forces teams to employ DHs who have to be ready to play the field as well. Almost gone are the days when the 1983 White Sox had to ask whether they could put the Bull, Greg Luzinski (138 DH starts, two at first base), in the field if they reached the World Series. Papi's the only guy we've had to worry about on that score any more.
Let's celebrate David Ortiz, one of the last true regular DHs.
This isn't to say some players haven't lost job security to the larger pitching staffs of the present. Guys like Travis Ishikawa or Tony Gwynn Jr. don't have the same opportunities Greg Gross or Dave Bergman had back in the day. And while some of us might miss seeing guys like Bergman hanging around, it means that today's DH is generally forced to be more of a complete baseball player ... and not just a DH.
With year-round interleague play putting 10 games in National League parks on every AL team's schedule, that kind of flexibility is that much more important. That's what has Jim Leyland talking about putting Victor Martinez back behind the plate for a few games; it's that sort of flexibility that means the Tigers are the rare team that has three catchers, even in the age of the 12-man pitching staff. It's the sort of thing that allows the Twins using nominal regular DH Ryan Doumit as Joe Mauer's caddy behind the plate in the early going, at least when Doumit isn't snagging another 20 starts or so in the outfield corners.
Last year's Yankees were a good example of how a club can completely skip having anything like a regular DH. Without peeking, who do you think was the Yankees' most frequent DH in 2012? Who was their second-most-used DH? If you thought Raul Ibanez was either, you'd be wrong; he was third, with just 23 starts at the gloveless task. Joe Girardi's most frequent DHs were Alex Rodriguez (38 times) and Derek Jeter (25) -- the left side of his infield.
Which brings us to a major advantage that employing the DH gives the American League: In free agency. While AL teams must employ a ninth starting player on the payroll, they're not spending that money on the oldest players to play out the end of their careers, they're adding it to top-dollar offers to sign the best players on the market to long-term deals, knowing that they can rotate those guys in and out of the DH slot as needed later in their careers. Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder may never become an out-and-out full-time DH the way Ortiz is, but the AL teams taking the big-money risk know if a star player becomes fragile late in his career, they have the DH slot to protect him as well as their investment within. Having the DH even expands a team's options in terms of who they might draft, as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow noted back in February.
So enjoy the Papis and the Pronks while you can. Certainly, here's hoping we get to see Thome signed by somebody, not least so that he can pass Reggie Jackson for the all-time career strikeouts total -- Reggie only got there thanks to the DH, after all, and Thome will only be able to beat him because of it. But as things now stand, we stand to see less of their like, and more of teams rotating their position players through the slot, much as the A's are with their quintet of starting-quality outfielders, or the Angels with Mark Trumbo picking up Pujols or Josh Hamilton or Mike Trout.
So as multi-faceted and flexible as the DH has become, why do we still have the two leagues playing different brands of baseball? You probably know the checklist by heart.
There's the tradition argument, to leave things as they are because that's the way they've been. But really, how far does that go? Bud Selig added a third division per league, two wild cards, realignment and All-Star Games that "count." Tradition clearly ain't what it used to be, and to make a buck, the game is clearly more than happy to set it aside, just as it did in adding the DH to the AL in the first place.
Then there's the honest if incorrect conviction that the pitcher having to bat invites more strategy, though you'll see more elective bunting with position players in the AL than you do in the NL with the pitcher having to automatically bunt when he isn't whiffing almost 40 percent of the time. Me, I like to watch major league pitchers throwing to major league hitters, quality against quality, and let that drive strategy and tactics.
The DH gives us that, just as it gives us increasingly flexible definitions of what a DH is. It gives us one less way for pitchers to unnecessarily risk injury doing something most aren't even remotely good at. Considering the money shelled out to starters, you know that's a fairly massive incentive right there. And if National League owners want to avoid seeing the best free-agent hitters taking American League offers, you can bet they'll eventually come to terms with cashing in this element of tradition as well.
Here's hoping the NL sees the light before the 50th anniversary of Ron Blomberg Day. Here's hoping that we see the day when the DH isn't employed in just half of the games, but all of them.