Saturday, April 7, 2007

Finally, Let's Can The DH

What happened to this debate? At one time you didn't have to look very hard to find someone, somewhere who would routinely call for the abolishment of the Designated Hitter. Dismissed as "purists" by the naysayers (as if this was a bad thing), have the dissenters, who included among them such folks as Bob Costas, finally been silenced?

Maybe, but not this one.

The DH was conceived in the late 1960's as a solution to the anemic offensive output of the era. Pitching was dominant, particularly in 1968 which become known as "The Year of the Pitcher". Check the statline for Bob Gibson in that amazing year:

22-9, 1.12 ERA, 304 2/3 IP, 268 K's, 28 complete games, 0.853 WHIP

You read that correctly - an ERA of 1.12, a number which has not been approached since. Gibby was awesome anyway, but this was simply amazing. Also note that in 1967 Carl Yazstremski won the batting title (en route to a Triple Crown) with a .301 average. Offense was most definitley not at a premium during this era.

In their infinite wisdom, the powers that be decided to take action. Rather than do something subtle like, say, lowering the mound an inch or two, they thought big. You know the rest - the pitchers do nothing but pitch, while one guy does nothing but hit. Furthering the amazing lack of forethought, it was decided to conduct the "experiment" in the American League only, while allowing the National League to remain as is.

Fast forward 30+ years. Offense has not been a problem - better conditioning, the coddling of pitchers, higher salries and "supplemental assistance" have seen to that. Yet the DH remains, with no signs of being removed from the game. I could've sworn that Commissioner Bud Selig said he was going to review the issue and perhaps explore either abolishing it completely, or having it universally adopted. Still waiting for that, Bud.

Call me a purist - I think of that as a badge of honor rather than an insult - but it is time to get rid of this joke once and for all. Offense is quite obviously not an issue any longer. Pitching has thinned out through multiple expansions since 1973 to the point where if you a left-handed you can have a job well into your forties. I, for one, do not want to see careers extended through this capacity. The fact that great players like Paul Molitor and Dave Winfiled exploited this to further their careers enough to reach important achievements like 3,000 hits and a World Series ring doesn't change my opinion. I don't hold it against them as individuals - they were simply playing within the rules- but I still think it stinks.

My position causes me to embrace (for this argument only) one player in particular who has become baseball's pariah: Barry Bonds. For whatever reason, Bonds has not found his way to the AL, and still patrols left field in San Francisco as he attempts to achieve the most hallowed record in the game. Once a Gold Glove level talent, he has slipped considerably, but age (and perhaps the lack of "assistance" wink, wink) have combined to make the 42 year old a near liability in the field. This is a chance the Giants are obviously willing to live with, though Interleague play (don't get me started on this - it will generate a whole other column someday) will allow manager Bruce Bochy to use the aging slugger in the DH role for a few games.

The existence of the DH, by default, makes managing in the American League that much easier. Subtle things like knowing when to pinch hit for your tiring pitcher, when to give him the hook, or when to double switch are all decisions the AL skipper is never forced to make. Bunting has become a lost art, and it is almost comical to see lifelong AL pitchers at the plate when forced to bat. Managers who have led in each league attest to the fact that the NL forces one to employ more strategic decisions than in the push button AL.

Somehow the perception exists that people embrace scoring, and lots if it. Recall if you will the ugly 1993 World Series game between Toronto and Philadelphia, final score 15-14. An ugly, ugly game all around - ineffective pitching, shoddy fielding, etc. Compare that to the ten inning 1-0 masterpiece by Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 series, which is considered one of the greatest games ever. There are countless more examples, but the bottom line remains that fans enjoy well played baseball, be it during a 7-6 game or a 2-1 pitchers duel.

There must be a pocket of folks who feel the same way, as a full time DH has never been able to win the MVP. The argument comes up, much as it does when a pitcher's name is in the mix. David Ortiz was almost able to pull it off in 2006, but Minnesota's Justin Morneau, who owns and uses a glove, won the honor. The fact that his team came roaring back from way behind to win a division title, while Ortiz' BoSox finished a disappointing 3rd probably turned the tide, but I'm sure some of writers who voted held the DH role against Big Papi.

Come on, Mr. Commissioner, let's reopen the debate here. I know the Players Association is extremely powerful, but I think enough bones can be tossed to them to shut them up. For starters, expanding the roster from 25 to 26 should placate them. No jobs will be lost. I know in your heart of hearts that you are a National League guy, and probably loathe the DH as much as the rest of us. At the very least, implement it in the low minors and let it work it's way up the chain. Oh, and while you're at it, stop letting the All Star Game decide home field advantage in the World Series.

Okay, I'll let that one go if you fix the abomination that is the DH. We'll still have to talk about Interleague play, but again, fix this first. Good luck.

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