MLB – DH TO THE NATIONAL LEAGUE WOULD BE A WIN-WIN

Adoption of the Designated Hitter Rule (5.11) by the National League seems to be imminent.

The idea has been gaining momentum over the past few years due in part to the amount of high profile pitchers who have recently been injured while at bat, declining fan attendance, and also because fairness issues have arisen during interleague play when American League teams have visited NL ballparks.

Baseball Commissioner Bob Manfred addressed the media about the matter during this season’s MLB winter meetings & indicated the change could take place as early as 2017.

He said: “We have a newer group [of National League owners]. There’s been a 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.”

Of course, any changes would have to be collectively bargained with the players’ association (set to expire Dec 1.), but there are indications that the majority of baseball owners and GMs are supportive of the idea along with the union.

My take is that I am surprised this hasn’t happened sooner.

In fact, I’ve discovered that there could be several advantages for the National League to make the change:

PROTECTING THE INVESTMENT

Arguably, the most important position in baseball is the pitcher.

And, finding a good one can be costly.

This year, 3 of the top 5 players with the highest annual salaries are starting pitchers (Kershaw – 1st; Price – 2nd; Verlander – T4th).

In addition to the dollar value investment a pitcher brings, teams also invest in a pitcher for his presence, performance, chemistry, and competition.

Essentially, pitchers are brought in to fit into a team’s specific needs and so, when one is missing due to injury or otherwise, it can throw the whole dynamic off of the rotation built around him. The loss can be devastating for a club.

It’s a wonder, then, why NL team owners are risking their multi-million dollar investments when several pitchers have recently been getting injured either preparing to bat, while up at bat, or running the bases.

Some high profile examples include:

  • Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang tore a ligament in his foot rounding third base in 2008;
  • Dodgers righty Josh Beckett hurt his back taking a practice swing in 2010;
  • San Fran pitcher Ryan Vogelsong broke a pinkie and dislocated a knuckle on his throwing hand while at bat in 2013;
  • Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright suffered a season-ending injury to his left Achilles and lower ankle while batting in early 2015; and
  • Cy Young Winner Max Scherzer famously jammed his wrist while at the plate last year. His injury was minor, but it would have been devastating if the Nationals’ $210 million ace was lost for the season.

BOOST OF OFFENSE

Statistics show that there is a large gap between offense generated by Designated Hitters and Pitchers.

I’ve compiled a list of stats below via Fangraphs.com:

PITCHERS (LEAGUE-WIDE)

  BA OBP K% SB PA HR R
2015 .131 .158 37.7 2 5406 25 238
2014 .122 .153 36.6 2 5519 15 241
2013 .132 .164 36.7 8 5512 21 237
2012 .129 .162 37.1 3 5913 24 274
2011 .141 .175 32.9 3 5960 28 272
2010 .140 .174 33.7 3 6058 16 286
6 YR AVE: .133 .164 35.78 3.5 5728 21.5 258

 

DESIGNATED HITTERS

  BA OBP K% SB PA HR R
2015 .264 .334 20.1 41 10971 439 1249
2014 .246 .317 20.2 53 11815 406 1254
2013 .255 .338 20.4 47 12189 412 1318
2012 .265 .339 19.8 64 11803 449 1339
2011 .268 .342 18.2 74 10165 305 1106
2010 .250 .332 20.5 51 10117 353 1290
6 YR AVE: .258 .334 19.87 55 11177 394 1259

 

  BA OBP K% SB PA HR R
DIFF: -.125 -.170 15.91 -51.5 -5449 -372.5 -1001

From 2010-2015, Designated Hitters generated an average of almost double the Batting Average than pitchers did, got on base double the time, struck out 16% less, stole an average 51 more bases, hit 372 more home runs and brought in 1,259 more runs.

What’s also interesting to note from the above stats is how many more times DHs appeared at the plate vs Pitchers. (5,449 more times). Obviously, the more times up to bat, the more practice and experience is gained.

Granted, some pitchers are bona fide good hitters (Kershaw, Bumgarner, Haren). But the majority of starting pitchers?  Not so much.

So why would teams want to waste a chance at real offense on a pitcher when professional hitters (DHs) could be hired to take their place?

OFFENSE IS SEXY

Fans love the long ball. And, given that popularity is dipping for MLB, why not give them more?

According to the most recent Harris Poll, popularity for baseball has slowly been declining since the mid-1980s.  The NFL is scoring highest than all other sports and are probably taking baseball’s fans.

Coinciding with this downturn in fan popularity, stats show that offense is dipping in baseball. In fact, home runs have dropped 18% over the last 15 years and strikeouts have climbed in each of the last 10 years. The result is that teams are averaging fewer runs per game since the early 1980s.

This could be a result of the crackdown of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Or, as Mark McGwire & Don Mattingly described to the Los Angeles Times in 2014, pitching has gotten much better over the years with the emergence of the cut fast ball and velocity which is “reaching new heights”. In turn, batters just “haven’t kept up”.

Defense is also better too with the ascent of the “defensive shift” used pervasively now all over the league.

Whatever the reasons are for declining offense in baseball, adding the DH to the National League should definitely help give a boost to overall numbers and could help to make MLB sexier again.

MORE FLEXIBILITY IN THE LINEUP

Since most pitchers hit from the 9th spot in the lineup due to lack of firepower, NL managers are left with little flexibility in their roster as compared to the AL who use the DH.

First, the DH can be put anywhere in the lineup and the manager can use any player he wants as the DH day-to-day to fit the situation and/or competitor.

This is all very advantageous to the AL manager down the stretch, as it also gives him the chance to rest full-time players by keeping them off the field for a game or two.

In addition, there is the issue of providing “protection” to certain players in the lineup which the DH helps to alleviate.

Specifically, protection in a lineup is the notion of putting a superior batter behind another to allow for the initial hitter to get better quality pitches to hit.  Historically, some pitchers who don’t take protection into account get hurt.

And, while sabermetricians say increased data is making this a lesser deal than it used to be, there’s no doubt in my mind that pitchers will still try to pitch around elite hitters.

Bringing in a DH helps to provide the manager with flexibility on this front.

THE DH PROLONGS CAREERS

Most fans see players age 35+ and think the end of their career may be near.

Perhaps that is technically accurate in the physical sense for an aging veteran who plays full-time (162 games) and who has been injury-prone and/or had surgeries in his past.

But, if the player is on the downslope and yet, still can hit well to help the team, the DH is great place for him to end up.

Take Alex Rodriguez in 2015. He didn’t play full-time in the field after May and was kept at DH to also supplement occasionally at 1B.  He played in 151 games, brought in 83 Runs, 131 Hits, 33 Home Runs, 86 RBIs and actually was in the MVP conversation. Not bad considering his age (40) and the multiple hip surgeries he’s endured.

What’s more, is that Yankees GM Brian Cashman said recently on Buster Olney’s Baseball Tonight Podcast (Feb 16) that ARod’s veteran leadership in the clubhouse has been valuable. He took a lot of younger players “under his wing” last year by giving them confidence (Didi Gregorious) and helped to inspire “hard work”.

During Cashman’s interview, he also brought up a great point about veterans who have impact in the clubhouse. By providing mentorship and sharing their experiences with green players, especially, it is a tool that helps generate chemistry and bring players closer together.  This balance of having younger players on the roster alongside veterans is essential.

For the National League, opening up 15 spots for DHs potentially gives roster spots to aging veterans like ARod which is yet another valuable asset the DH brings to the clubhouse.

And, it could help prolong the careers of aging players who may not be able to sustain full-time on field positions any longer.

ANY NEGATIVES?

Honestly, the only glimpse of a downside I see about this situation is that we would be bending the 43 year tradition of the DH being solely in the American League.

But, to me, if it brings more offense back to baseball and more fans as a result, it’s a win-win for all.

 

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