Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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September 2014

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Rob Manfred’s First Act as MLB Commissioner Should be to Make the DH Universal

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It’s hard to imagine MLB without Bud Selig, who will be stepping down as Commissioner at the end of the season. Skeptics of his replacement, Rob Manfred would argue that it likely won’t be much different as Manfred was clearly Selig’s desired successor. As Selig’s tenure included several noteworthy changes to both league alignment and the game itself, we can expect that Manfred will implement his own changes at some point.

One of those should be to apply the designated hitter rule to both leagues. The DH has been widely contested since its introduction to the American League in 1973. While baseball purists despise the notion that AL teams can employ a batter who doesn’t have to take the field, there’s another factor that’s particularly relevant in the year 2014 that we should not ignore.

Economics.

NL teams are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to acquiring the services of free agent hitters. While many players themselves dislike being the DH, feeling an extra pressure to get on base even though that’s something that even the best of them will fail to do more than 60% of the time, it offers extra security for the teams themselves. This comes in two ways.

The DH is often used for defensively challenged and aging players to keep their bats in the line-up. This helps cushion the blow of free agency that’s built on a model that forces teams to pay premiums for post-prime years. It’s highly doubtful that Robinson Cano will continue to be worth over twenty five million when he’s 40, but he wouldn’t be on the Mariners if they didn’t offer him that. Without the DH slot, they wouldn’t have been in position to do that and likely wouldn’t be in this year’s playoff race without him.

It’s also useful in that sense considering that younger players can come from the minors and outperform veterans, leaving teams in an awkward position. Back in 2005, The Phillies were forced to eat a large portion of Jim Thome’s salary in order to free up first base for Ryan Howard. That wouldn’t have needed to happen if there was a DH in the National League.

The Phillies find themselves in a familiar position once again with Howard, only this time it’s Darun Ruf who’s beginning to show signs that he’d be a more productive option at first base. Unlike Thome, Howard is all but completely immovable and Philadelphia is in a pretty terrible situation with him.

The Dodgers also find themselves in a similar predicament with their outfield. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Carl Crawford all have tens of millions remaining on their contracts, but younger players such as Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson have played their way into the line-up with Scott van Slyke also looking like an appealing option. None of their big money outfielders will be able to be moved unless the Dodgers pick up a significant chunk of the tab.

Now you might think that this just goes to show you not to hand these deals out. Serves them right, right? Not necessarily.

When the Guggenheim Group purchased the Dodgers for 2.15 billion in 2012, they inherited a team largely in shambles. Instead of waiting a few years to build from the ground up, they poured money into the team in order to field a contender as quickly as possible. While they probably wouldn’t have granted Ethier an extension knowing that Crawford was on the way, it’s hard to condemn the owners for doing whatever it took to revitalize baseball in Los Angeles. They accomplished that.

But that has its downsides. While last offseason, it was thought that only one of the three needed to go, Pederson’s ascent means that they’ll likely need to move two. And they won’t get much, if anything, in return.

The DH would allow Kemp, who boasts a respectable 3.0 oWAR hampered down by a -3.2 dWAR, to continue to contribute to the team. His offensive contributions are essentially negated by his defensive liabilities, which also hamper his ability to stay on the field. An AL team could greatly benefit from Kemp, even more so since the Dodgers would be footing most of the bill.

It’s certainly tempting to completely write off an NL DH as something that only benefits the Dodgers or the Phillies. That’s true in the sense that as teams with deep pockets, a DH would allow them to invest more in free agency. But it really allows NL teams to have the same roster advantages that the AL does.

Injuries are on the rise. While there’s no proven data to support the idea that the increases in Tommy John surgeries have anything to do with the pitcher batting, AL pitchers are at an increased risk now that interleague play is dispersed throughout the whole season. Banged up hitters get to take a partial day off with the DH, limiting the exacerbation of injuries.

League offense is also on the decline. That’s not likely to change drastically unless steroids are reintroduced, but it would change a bit if we stop forcing pitchers to take ugly hacks every five days. Hitting isn’t their job and it shows.

The arguments against the DH have lost credence in recent years. The increase in bullpen specialists has taken much of the strategy away from late game substitutions in the NL. The usually defensive oriented benches in the NL prevent a double switch from being anything other than a minor upgrade over a pitcher. Sabermetrics frown upon bunting. These strategies exist because they present a better offensive option than the pitcher, but so does the DH.

MLB makes changes for monetary purposes all the time. The second WC and home field advantage being determined by the All Star Game come to mind. But this is a change that helps deal with the disparity between the AL and the NL. It’s not about which league is better. It’s about which league gets to take bigger risks with its money. There’s really no good reason why the Dodgers have to eat tens of million of dollars to send players away when the Yankees can keep their aging roster fresh by utilizing an advantage NL teams don’t get to have.

Baseball is the only major American sport that has its leagues play by two different sets of rules. While that adds a certain element of individuality, that simply isn’t a valid reason to penalize NL teams from utilizing their resources to the best of their ability. It’s time for a change and hopefully Manfred puts an end to the atrocity that is the pitcher batting.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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