Don't bring the designated hitter to the National League
Universalizing the DH risks the traditions of the game itself
A number of pitching injuries have cropped up in the National League this year, prompting baseball's commentariat class to engage in its semi-regular debate about whether to extend the designated hitter to the National League. The youngest, most forward-thinking baseball analysts are rapidly converging on a new conventional wisdom: a universal DH is good and inevitable. Opposition to the DH is characterized as, at best, an aesthetic preference, as if aesthetic preferences are necessarily irrational. At worst, the preference for the DH emanates from the same obscurantist impulses that bring about book-burning, witch-hunting, and other flaming idiocies.
Allow me to speak for the fire of a great tradition, which lights up not only my heart, but the Hall of Fame, and keeps baseball from devolving into a curiously pastoral imitation of the National Football League.
The main argument for universalizing the designated hitter is that pitchers are very bad at hitting. Wouldn't you rather see Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz hit than Matt Harvey or Cole Hamels? After dismissing the facile reason that pitchers occasionally get hurt doing non-pitcher things, Craig Calcaterra sums up the argument:
No, the NL rule should be scrapped because pitchers can't hit a lick, there is no rational basis for not having the DH in both leagues and, as such, the risks to NL pitchers while batting, however small, are unacceptable.
As for the first point, we can agree that pitchers can't hit, right? They're almost all awful. Even the ones who we laud for being "good hitters" suck. Zack Greinke is usually the first one mentioned. His career line: .214/.263/.325. That's an OPS+ of 62. That's worse than Mark Lemke's career line. It's roughly the same as Rey Ordonez. It's only a little bit better than guys like Mario Mendoza and Ray Oyler who are historic punchlines for their futility at the plate. And this is the best we can do with pitchers batting. This is the guy we look at and say, "Hey, for a pitcher, he's dangerous!" [HardballTalk]
Calcaterra is right about this. The player that is most valuable for his defense is usually not very valuable on the offensive side of the ball. But what is the rationale for remedying this by instituting a position that is valuable on offense but contributes absolutely nothing on defense? Calcaterra is saying that the National League should add an extra player who is only good at offense because he is better at offense, a tautological argument that implies it is plainly wrong to want to see Clayton Kershaw at bat rather than David Ortiz. It's only wrong if you're rooting against the pitcher.
And its misleading to hold up David Ortiz as the example DH. National League teams looking for a DH in an expansion of the role would be lucky to get even a David DeJesus. It might be years before they find an era-defining player like Big Papi.
Further, the use of the DH is changing precisely because there are so few Big Papis. The Yankees have been using the DH as a way of rotating veteran players into a half-rested day. Looked at this way, the DH is extending the careers of past-their-prime veterans. And it deludes American League teams into making foolishly long contracts with aging sluggers, because it gives them a plausible story about how they will get value out of a player who is likely to lose mobility before his exorbitant contract is up. So much for rationalism.
In truth, few careers are meaningfully extended by the DH precisely because in most cases the loss of athleticism at a defensive position will run parallel to losses in reflexes, bat speed, and power. For every Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz there are many more Carlos Beltrans. Beltran is batting .159 so far this year and .233 last year. So yes, in fact, I would rather see Bartolo Colon at bat than Beltran now. Colon's comical and awkward at-bats are adding to his legendary status, while Beltran is detracting from his own, even if he finishes with a higher batting average than Colon at season's end.
So no, the DH does not present a non-tautological argument for itself. And if the trends of sticking mistake-contracts into the DH spot or using it to rest players continue, then perhaps we should consider abolishing it in the American League, too, in favor of an expanded roster spot or two.
Calcaterra's favorite argument is to declare the anti-DH position "religious," a word that for him is obviously a pejorative. Michael Baumann has elegantly responded that devotion to any sport has a quasi-religious element to it. Baseball does not justify itself among other amusements by rational terms. In fact, any attachment to any rule in baseball that can't immediately justify itself in a vaguely utilitarian framework — Is it good for baseball? — can be dismissed as merely "religious." If a faction of fans in the future wanted to increase scoring by increasing the number of innings in a game, the anti-10 inning fans could be jeered as reactionaries. Why is nine innings good for the sport? Did God make baseball nine innings?
Rationalists like Brian Kenny have occasionally been tempted to set the evaluative aspects of baseball into direct conflict with the "narrative" enjoyment of baseball games. A no-hitter shouldn't be celebrated, Kenny ventured, because it can only confuse us as to the value of a pitcher. Extending this line of thought, one could justly argue that games themselves are misleading because they introduce the "noise" of arbitrary endpoints; when instead we should just evaluate the best team by measuring stats like run-differentials across a balanced schedule of innings over a period of time.
What, you think "games" ought to mean something? Who appointed you pope of baseball? What's next, an auto-da-fe for us run-liking progressives?
But Baumann concedes too much by saying that the preference against the DH is irrational. Tradition is not inherently irrational, even if today's baseball rationalists also use it as a pejorative. "Tradition" gets a bad rap because everyone can recall an odious thing done in the name of tradition. We deliberately exculpate "progress" and "reason" for the unforgivable things done in their names.
It might be useful for the baseball rationalists to think of "tradition" as a kind of social technology in the same way language is a technology. Language is a tool for referring to things, especially things not in view or invisible, by pointing to them with sounds that are commonly understood. Tradition is a social technology for binding together the experiences of different generations of humans, and creating loyalty to practices and ways of doing things that don't immediately justify themselves, or do so in ways that are too subtle.
In this case, the NL's tradition is binding us to the idea that baseball is a sport in which players who are "in the game" play both sides of the ball, which is a definitional assertion more than an argument. But if one accepts this assertion about baseball, the pro-DH argument sounds like it could be extended to entire squads. Why not have separate batting lineups and defensive teams?
Craig Calcaterra dismisses the slippery slope argument this way:
You have a 42-year lab experiment in which every organized baseball league in the world not named "National" and "NPB Central" has utilized it without there being greedy calls for more designated positions. You have the limitation in roster size that can and has easily accommodated that extra hitter but cannot reasonably accommodate nine extra designated players. There's a clear argument for replacing pitchers with a DH and nowhere close to a compelling argument to replace anyone else. [Hardball Talk]
Here Calcaterra just observes that other leagues don't demand more designated hitters, and I suppose we are supposed to accept it as a law of nature. Why might other leagues hesitate to expand the DH? One reason might be the NL's existence. One half of the world's most prestigious baseball league actually embodies that principle, and so the "exception" to it in the AL cannot be taken further than it is. The lab experiment has the National League and its traditional rules at the top of it.
The reason slopes become slippery is because once you redefine a practice or institution by the exceptions to it, there is no reason left to not redefine the institution entirely by the rationale that made the exceptional into the norm.
So it is precisely by accepting Calcaterra's argument that pitchers are too bad at hitting to be allowed to hit, that we begin sliding. He says there is "nowhere close to a compelling argument to replace anyone else." But that is just based on what's happening in the current environment, where the NL's embodiment of this principle is still decisively influential. The universal-DH proponents have supplied the justification for further reform already: some players can't hit a lick, and it's more fun watching players who can hit. Similarly, some people are great at defense but terrible at the plate. They offer no reason that it should stop here.
Why should teams not pair an excellent defensive outfielder like Endy Chavez with a poor-fielding slugger like Dan Uggla? Because of some hoary tradition that only pitchers can be replaced with a DH? Teams could keep Jeff Francoeur's tremendous defensive arm in the outfield for years if you paired him up with the bat of Prince Fielder. Furthermore, because the hitting Fielder and the fielding Franceour are not forced into doing things they aren't great at, you reduce some risk of injury.
Roster sizes are not written on tablets, and can be expanded; the teams have plenty of revenue. Specialization is a trend in baseball after all, so why not separate the great defenders with rocket arms and high baseball IQ, from the natural born hitters in the early development process. We could have a whole infield of Andrelton Simmons-level defenders, and every team can put a murderers' row up to bat. Why wouldn't you want to see that?
The universal-DH side has disarmed itself of a principled answer. But here's one: because it isn't what my generation and several previous ones knew as baseball.
Put all this together and we have something like a utilitarian argument for resisting a universal DH. By embodying the principle that the nine players in the game play both sides of the ball, the National League stands as a bulwark against a principle that would re-order the game in such ways as to make it as different from the baseball of our fathers as their game was from rounders or pre-modern baseball. The NL's rules make the designated hitter a tolerated exception to the rule, not a rule in itself. Seeing Brandon Moss or the ghost of Carlos Beltran in National League uniforms is not worth introducing into baseball a reforming idea that can only point to phenomenological limits rather than principled ones.
Finally, even though it is vulgar to say it, tradition has plenty of utilitarian value for baseball. As baseball continues to expand to new parts of the globe, it's worth preserving a legible tradition into which Korean and Australian players can be incorporated.
No one talks about football's Canton, Ohio, the way we all talk about Cooperstown. And we can see how fragile that tradition can become, as the pharmaceutical era of the late 1990s and the moralizing counter-reaction to it have exacted costs on the Hall itself, making it partially into a site of intense generational and moralistic battle, rather than a shrine to baseball excellence.
One of baseball's strengths is that its changes — including desegregation, the minor shift in length of the season, the minor height adjustment of the mound, and the regulation of performance enhancing drugs — have not disrupted a long tradition in the game that is valuable in itself, that allows for legible comparisons between players and teams across the entire modern era of baseball. Handing this down to the future is a service not just to legends like Cobb, Ruth, Mantle, Maris, Robinson, and Clemente, but to the players of our era like Ichiro Suzuki, Mariano Rivera, and Mike Trout. Preserving those sometimes arbitrary-seeming definitions is precisely what makes it possible to call Robinson or Ichiro an "immortal" within the game.