The designated hitter has been a subject of consternation in Major League Baseball for several years. While some fans and commentators have become progressively more in favor of bringing the DH to the National League, many remained rooted in their traditions and old-school thinking. The thought process is that the NL has always had pitchers hit, it makes for greater strategy, and the DH would force us to lose such fantastic moments as Bartolo Colon swinging a bat.
Finally, a discussion on the topic has begun. Back in January St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak mentioned that he thought the idea of the DH coming to the NL was gaining some steam. That was news because until that moment there had been no indication from anyone reasonably high up in MLB that it was a possibility. Commissioner Rob Manfred felt the need to chime in, as well:
“Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment,” Manfred said Thursday. “But we have a newer group. There’s been turnover. And I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways that we think would be good for the fans, always respecting the history and traditions of the sport.”
But that’s not all he’s had to say on the topic.
“The most likely result on the designated hitter for the foreseeable future is the status quo,” Manfred said in an interview with ESPN.com in conjunction with his one-year anniversary as commissioner. “I think the vast majority of clubs in the National League want to stay where they are.”
Regardless of how Manfred has chosen to represent the argument for the DH, it’s about time. There are real reasons that the NL should begin to embrace it, the first of which is for competitive balance with the American League. The NL has routinely been beaten up by the AL in interleague play since it began in 1997, with the AL holding an overall 2,565-2,299 advantage. Not only that, but the AL has won more World Series’ than the NL since the DH was introduced in 1973, and since 1983 the AL has taken 19 World Series wins with the NL taking just 13.
It isn’t just about the competitive advantage between the teams on the field, either. Pitchers in the NL play at a slightly higher risk of injury, as well, having to swing the bat and — on occasion, but not frequently — run hard around the bases. Adam Wainwright lost most of his 2015 season due to tearing his Achilles while batting. Ryan Vogelsong once broke a pinkie finger while batting and had to miss time. Josh Beckett once hurt his back taking a practice swing.
Players can get hurt doing all sorts of exercises or movements while on the field, but putting them out there to pretend they can do the things that the position players do on a daily basis is not smart. Pitchers have become extremely specialized in the last few decades, many of them focusing on nothing but pitching for several years before even getting to the major leagues. With the kind of investment that signing a big-time pitcher has become, it’s somewhat shocking that more National League owners aren’t outwardly supporting keeping them on the bench during the offensive half of the inning.
But that’s not even the biggest reason for the DH to come to the NL. In the winter of 2011, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols and Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder both hit free agency looking for big contracts. While teams from both leagues looked to sign Pujols or Fielder and dreamed of one of them signing to play first base for the next eight to 10 years, the only teams with a realistic chance were the teams in the AL.
Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels and Fielder with the Detroit Tigers (and was later traded to the Texas Rangers), and a big reason that the respective teams were able to reach a deal comfortably is because they know that, at the end of their careers, Pujols and Fielder can move from first base to the DH spot. The NL cannot offer this, and are subsequently at a disadvantage in free agency.
No matter which argument for keeping things status quo you prefer, there’s an argument to debunk it. The game has evolved, which means that arguing for tradition simply doesn’t work. The National League is at a competitive disadvantage, which means on the field and head-to-head, in risking injuries to their high-priced pitchers, and in the ability to sign expensive free agents that may need to become a DH toward the end of their career but may also want a long-term deal. It’s time that the owners of the NL teams — and the commissioner — come to grips with it.
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