Thursday, April 30, 2009

A suggested change to the designated hitter rule

Some people like the A.L. designated hitter and some do not. Some like having a better hitter bat for the pitcher, while some like putting the pitcher at the plate, while carrying a disdain for a starting hitter that doesn’t have to field a position.

I grew up with a heavy dosage of AL baseball thanks to the Oakland A’s (the chosen team by Las Vegas TV networks), and my home team today, the Seattle Mariners, is an AL team. Most college games and minor leagues universally employ the DH. But over the years I’ve developed a strategic appreciation for having the pitcher, usually a terrible hitter, bat in the lineup. Being virtually an automatic out, managers often use the pitcher to bunt a runner over one base with fewer than two outs. In the later innings of a close game, a manager will often pinch hit for the pitcher to try and knock in important runs, forcing managers to use their bench and their bullpen.

This produces double switches and strategic player deployment that you don’t see much of in the AL. Whereas bench players are typically nominal backups (4th outfielders, backup catchers, utility infielders) and pinch runners in the AL, bench players in the NL are typically versatile utility guys that can hit somewhat well.

Having the pitcher bat also creates strategic dilemmas for pitchers that don’t come up in the AL. If a pitcher’s pitching unusually well after six innings in a tight ballgame and is fresh enough to keep pitching… but is due up with one out and a man on 2nd, do you pull him for a better hitter and hope the bullpen holds up? Or do you keep him in, have him bunt the runner over to 3rd and hope your leadoff hitter comes through with two outs? In the AL, the only questions you would need to ask are, “Is he tired?” and “Can I count on him to pitch this next inning?”

At the same time, there is value to the DH. It forces a pitcher to face a full lineup of true hitters and your team doesn’t need to punt one lineup spot for a couple turns. The AL has more offense as a result, and provides a greater challenge for starting pitchers because the lineups are stronger overall, and there isn’t that free out in the nine hole (well, most of the time) to pad your stats with. The DH position allows you to get a bad fielder with a good bat off the field, or allows you to give a good player a rest from the field without benching him. It minimizes the need to tinker with the lineup and allows a manager and coaches to just focus on the action on the field.

Seeing the value to both sides, I don’t think either option should remain unique to each individual league. I believe that each league should get to do both: Play with the DH, and play traditionally with the pitcher batting.

Here’s how: For the first half of the season, have every team in both leagues use the DH. After the All Star Break and for the rest of the season all the way through the World Series, scrap the DH rule in both leagues and put the pitcher in the lineup.

Here’s the logic: Early in the season, the DH slot allows you to get serious lineup time for your bench players, which will help them build their chops for the 2nd half, when they’ll come off the bench as pinch hitters. It will also give you the chance to hide power hitting bad fielders for half a season, but force you to play that clunker in the field down the stretch. It will give you the chance to rest your tired star while getting his bat in the game during the 1st half… but force you to bench him entirely to give him a rest in the 2nd half. It will also give your pitchers a chance to work on their hitting and bunting for a while before being asked to actually do it in a game. Hell, they might hit better if you give them a while to train for it.

In an indirect way, it will help starting pitchers down the stretch. Since chances are more likely they’ll be pinch hit for, their 2nd half outings will be shorter on average, which will help reduce their workload as the season wears on. Also, by replacing that pesky DH with a no-hit pitcher, you make the average start an easier one. The bullpen will get more work as the season wears on, reducing the chances of rust that tends to develop with AL relievers on 12 man pitching staffs.

And while the DH will minimize strategic lineup juggling early, ditching the DH and forcing the pitcher to bat will test the savvy of every manager down the stretch. It will test the depth of every team’s roster, as while the DH rule helps you lean on 9-10 guys while hiding 3-4 bench players with infrequent use, the lack of a DH will typically require lots of pinch hitting and substitutions, plus require several relievers. This will lead to every one of your roster’s position players and your entire pitching staff getting a fair share of action. The 1st half will simply set the table with straightforward baseball. The pennant race in the 2nd half plus the playoffs will be a test of entire 25 man rosters and a manager’s strategic ability.

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