Among my non-baseball pursuits is my frequent playing of Magic: The Gathering, the original collectible card game. For those unfamiliar with the concept, you buy packs with 15 cards, much like you would baseball cards, except that the cards correspond to fantasy creatures and sorceries and such and you build a deck out of them and try to beat someone else who’s done the same thing. The game’s been around for 16 years and has over 10,000 unique cards, so there are a lot of options. There’s a Pro Tour and players who make a living playing on it, and it was even featured on ESPN2 in earlier days. (I can’t wait for ESPN to come up with about 50 more channels to make competitions out of random things. “And the Which Wall Will Dry Fastest Competition is on ESPN39 today…”)
Over the last two weeks, the head Magic people announced that with the next set there would be some rules changes, most of them minor terminology changes but one biggie: how creatures fight each other. The change is largely a reversion to how things were pre-1999 (they’ve only done major changes twice in 16 years, in ’99 and now), but it has players saying the game is dumbing down and how they’ll quit and all this hubbub over what is largely a restoration to original rules on the point.
All this got me thinking about the similarities with the designated hitter rule and rules changes in general. Purists howl, but the American League hasn’t suffered from it one bit. Like in Magic, most minor rules changes have been beneficial. The rule that makes all stadiums built or modified after 1958 have fence distance minimums has standardized the game in more important ways than its spot in the rulebook suggests, literally leveling the playing field and making sabermetrics a lot easier in the process. I don’t know if there were pro-Polo Grounds purists running around back then, but baseball is assuredly better without home fields that are ridiculous places to play the game. As for the DH, for my part, I enjoy having the variety between leagues (especially after Bud Selig quietly consolidated all power under his office by abolishing league presidents) and oldster hitters getting to ply their craft against hapless young’uns. But as much as it pains me to say it, now may be the time to remove the rule, if ever it should be removed.
Bob Costas, in his book Fair Ball, makes reference to an MLB proposal to the union in 1997 that would have increased rosters to 26 and removed the DH. (The whole book is on Google Books, believe it or not.) Costas assumes that the union couldn’t see past the salaries that DHs command to find a spot for more players. It’s plausible that the union believed it, too, though if it did it was mistaken for reasons I’ll look at in a little bit. But the concept of a 26-man roster is intriguing. Bullpens have bloated since the book has written, and I suspect every team would love to have an extra roster spot to compensate for that by getting another position player on the bench. And it seems fairly clear that eliminating a high-profile, potentially high-salaried office like the DH would require some sort of tradeoff for the union’s sake. The pinch-running fan in me wants to see a 26th spot regardless. But what are the tradeoffs for eliminating the DH? At this point in time, relatively few, and it’s for this reason I think that it’s soon or never for the DH/26th man plan. Well, maybe soon or never is overdramatic, but the reasons that would recommend eliminating the DH are as clear now as they ever will or can be.
Is it even a position?
I assumed there were all these DHs running around that we’d be eliminating. It could be that my Red Sox fandom or irrational love of Harold Baines made me think this. As it turns out, however, DHs are a bit like the two hole in the lineup: there’s general consensus as to what it’s there for (at least to old-schoolers) and no one player who embodies its traits. I took the AL from 1973-2009 and looked up how many players started at least 100 games at every position in that time period. The results:
C 251 1B 335 2B 340 SS 362 3B 334 LF 236 CF 335 RF 273 DH 178
Though it’s clear that full-time left fielders are down because of the DH, left field is the lowest non-catcher position for the NL as well. Still, there have been twice as many full-time shortstops as DHs in the AL. One-hundred and seventy-nine is just south of averaging five per year, which is to say that the hitter is rarely designated. Twenty-two of those 178 seasons are from players before they hit their age-30 season, five of them from David Ortiz and Travis Hafner. It seems that regular DHing is up this year, so maybe the practice is trending upward. Nevertheless, the number of AL teams with regular DHs hasn’t hit seven since 1998. Last year, there were only three (Ortiz, Hafner, and Jim Thome); the last decade has averaged under four per year, bottoming out with two in 2002 (Ellis Burks and Frank Thomas). Only 10 players have been regular DHs for at least five years:
Harold Baines 11 Edgar Martinez 9 Hal McRae 8 Paul Molitor 8 Chili Davis 8 Don Baylor 7 Frank Thomas 7 Willie Horton 5 Andre Thornton 5 David Ortiz 5
Of these, Thomas and Ortiz could have played the field if need be; it was the luxury of their league that allowed them to DH, but by no means did their physical condition necessitate it initially. So in terms of serious DHs, we’re looking at approximately eight players whose careers would not have been meaningful without the position. George Brett didn’t become a Hall of Famer off his 1991-1993 seasons, and Carl Yastrzemski didn’t become a Hall of Famer off his 1982-1983 seasons either. While the position is a nursing home for a few players, the rarity of such use makes the DH more a halfway home from a roster management perspective: it’s a way to tinker with your lineup, give some rest here or there, and let a designated fielder play for the slugging oaf. In the sense that it’s used this way, I wouldn’t call DH a position or a concept as much as it is free rest and defense. When the AL gets to give breathers to its most important pieces without losing their bat, of course the team’s going to be superior to an NL counterpart. It’s like a final exam where half the class is allowed to get sleep the night before and the other half is forced to stay up.
If teams aren’t going to use the position as a position on the whole, then I fail to see how it justifies its existence. If interleague isn’t “well, at least Paul Molitor doesn’t face us in our home park” but “the AL team just shuffles its lineup a bit and loses a mediocre hitter,” then things will stay as unbalanced as they’ve been over the last few years. Maybe it’s too much conjecture for me to go down that road, but I don’t see how the NL can gain an advantage unless their AL opponents are just bad teams.
Are they even good hitters?
On the whole, yes; DHs are good hitters, and they’re obviously better than the pitchers they’re replacing. But take a look at this breakdown, which is the historical percentage of times each batting order slot has been the DHs (figures as of Monday’s games):
1 4.0 2 4.3 3 15.7 4 28.7 5 20.8 6 14.4 7 8.7 8 2.7 9 0.7
AL teams have used the DH 77,981 times, so DHs have batted ninth 522 times. While DHs are clearly good hitters the vast majority of the time, 12.1 percent of the time they’re in the bottom three slots. So historically for every four AL games, one of them has a DH who’s relatively weak. While that may seem like a low figure, in the context of this discussion it matters quite a bit. What’s really being asked is whether the DH is a working concept, and with a waste of 12.1 percent I’m not so sure it is. One-eighth of the time, the manager’s question of “can we find a good hitter to replace the pitcher today?” is answered no. The DH was conceived as a way to bring offense and excitement into the league, and while many of the bottom-slot DHs have been decent hitters, they don’t justify a whole rule. While the 1982 Brewers were an exciting team, they were not so because Roy Howell (the all-time leader in batting seventh as a DH) got to hit instead of ride the bench. More to the point, Roy Howell did not make them one-ninth more exciting than an NL team, which is what the DH rule on balance ought to achieve.
Is it better than having another roster spot?
I don’t think so. The flexibility of an extra roster spot is obvious. Smart teams have been using the Triple-A yo-yo and 15-day disabled list as though they had extra players anyway, so why not face facts, save some bus and air expenses, and expand the roster? (“Go green…expand rosters.”) As alluded to earlier, the roster shuffling is more important now with bloated bullpens than it was in 1997 when the idea was initially pitched. Will the new Fehr-less union be amenable to the idea, assuming MLB would try it again?
The idea was much easier to reject in 1997, as there were more full-time DHs then. Now it’s just Ortiz, though Travis Hafner will join the list soon. Five players versus two is a drop in the union bucket, but as the players involved are all high-profile it’s a bit more complicated than that. Still, it wouldn’t be difficult to implement an agreement that phases out the DH in, say, five years. Ortiz and Hafner are only a year apart, and neither look particularly Bainesish in their odds of lasting forever; why not agree to the change soon, let teams adjust, and put an end to a strange position?
The DH was birthed as a bit of a gimmick, a distraction from the massive talent disparity in the leagues, which disparity many AL owners brought on themselves through years of ineptitude or racism. If anything, it now reinforces the talent disparity in the leagues but the other way round, it’s not often used meaningfully, and a decent portion of the time the hitter isn’t great anyway. In the long run, these things may not matter much, but it seems clear to me that the rule isn’t earning its keep. From that angle I see no reason to have it over a 26th roster spot. There would be hue and cry over the change, but baseball didn’t die from instant replay, standardized fields, or even the DH. I think MLB and the union owe it to the health of the game to improve the game, especially when it’s easy, and an extra player would be healthier than a DH slot that’s amorphous and neglected.
References & Resources
The usual. Obviously, the Costas book I read a long time ago was also part of it.
Former Magic Pro Tour player and card developer Randy Buehler had a blog entry in which he compared the Magic rules changes to the DH rule as a parenthetical aside. It got my gears whirring for this article. If you’re particularly interested, it’s here.