It's Time for a Decision

Since writing about the probable upcoming realignment of Major League Baseball I have been pondering the real issues with the Designated Hitter rule. The problem as I see it is not actually the designated hitter. I know a great number of baseball purists vehemently disagree with my [current] position, and that’s fine. But, I think I have a valid position here.

The main issue is not actually whether any team uses the DH or not. It’s that not every team uses, or does not use, the DH. If the AL and NL were truly separate leagues and their respective teams only met during the World Series then this would be a non-issue1, but such is not the case. Interleague play has become a significant part of the game and with realignment it will most likely become an even greater factor.

Look at it this way: the Boston Red Sox generally play the New York Yankees eighteen times a year. That’s more than ten percent of the season and you can bet your bottom dollar that Terry Francona and the team management allocate a lot of resources to winning as many of those eighteen games as possible. And hey, guess how many interleague games American League teams play? That’s right. Eighteen.

My problem with interleague play is not that I don’t want to see Brewers at Red Sox. I think that’s great. Interleague play brought the Cubs to Fenway for the first time since 1918. It gets fans interested. It gets butts in seats and eyeballs on televisions.

Likewise, my problem with having, or not having, a DH has very little to do with baseball history or purity. I certainly don’t see any of these so-called purists arguing that players shouldn’t wear helmets and gloves or that we need a return to the dead-ball. My issue with the DH is simply that the two leagues of Major League Baseball should—if we are going to make interleague play such a significant part of the season—play according to the same rules. Here is how Bill Conlin summed it up in today’s Philadelphia Daily News:

National League pitchers hit, American League pitchers sit. The use of nine hitters vs. eight plus a pitcher has changed forever what was once a level playing field.

Picture the NFC playing current rules and the AFC playing three-down Canadian Football League rules. Or one NBA conference having a four-point field goal and the other conference outlawing the three-pointer.

Indeed. It’s at best awkward that they use different rules according to which ballpark the game is played in. I think it’s unfair. And the statistics seem to agree with me. Since 1997 the AL has bested the NL in interleague play ten years to four. Over that period the AL has 1806 wins to the NL’s 1652. It really isn’t even a contest2.

So, what is the solution to this unfair situation? Quite simply Major League Baseball needs to make a decision. The time has come. The thirty teams need to play the game according to the same rules, regardless of where the game is being played. My personal opinion on what that decision should be? Let every team use the designated hitter.

All minor league teams use the designated hitter regardless of the league of the affiliated MLB team. The transition from college ball to professional baseball comes with a move to wooden bats and the designated hitter. And that is in a nutshell why I think it is ok to go ahead and use the DH across the board. ‘Pure’ baseball is fine for little leagues and high school/college baseball. Those pitchers are still learning the game. There is a decent prospect of those players becoming position players at some point.

When one makes the transition from amateur baseball to professional baseball, however, I think that signifies a different game. As a player, one is expected to perform for money. That includes pitchers expected to hurl 100+ ninety mile-per-hour baseballs. What good reason is there to make them bat other than some notion of ‘tradition’? And, although I don’t think this is a crucial part of the argument, the designated hitter position helps extend the career of many major league players. If he couldn’t hit do you think David Ortiz would have a place on the current Red Sox roster? No way.

Let’s all be big boys and admit that baseball, though just a game, is a professional game. If we’re going to change schedules and realign leagues then we can let every team use the designated hitter.

  1. Or, more accurately, an academic issue. If there were only a possibility of seven interleague games each year between only two teams no one could really take issue with the different rules. The team with home field advantage gets 4 games their way. OF COURSE: One could argue that using the All-Star game to determine home field advantage—which is now played with a DH regardless of which park the game is played in—benefits the AL disproportionately. I am nowhere near ready to go into that, for that leads to fairness versus ratings. That is a dark, dark rabbit hole to go down… And it’s an issue which might just negate all of my issues with having two different rule books. ↩

  2. In the World Series—which is a much smaller sample size—the AL has only a slightly less decisive edge. Over the same period as the interleague stats above the AL has eight wins to the NL’s four. Incidentally, that includes two wins by the Red Sox and four by the Yankees. The Yankees also went to the Series, but lost, twice. The Tampa Bay Rays also made an appearance in 2008. That’s nine appearances in twelve Series’s with six wins for the AL East. That’s good baseball. ↩