NL DH?

Enough about death. Time for something more positive. Around here that means baseball. You saw that coming, right?

We’re a month away, give or take. Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training between February 17 and 21, depending on their team. The first Spring Training game, between the Phillies and the University of Tampa, is February 28.

So how do we fill the gap? What do we do for this next month? Same thing we do every year: we argue about possible rule changes. And, since there aren’t any significantly controversial rule changes going into effect this year, we’re back to our perennial argument: should the National League adopt the designated hitter?

This year’s iteration of the debate was triggered by the Cardinals’ GM saying that there’s “momentum” behind the idea. That’s pretty vague, but the baseball press is running with the story, and the Web is full of articles pro and con–mostly pro.

Count me as being a con. I don’t want to see the DH come to the NL. Not, as you might think, because of my respect for tradition, but because–well, I’ll get to that.

The primary arguments for the DH are that the current state of affairs gives the AL an advantage when the leagues meet, and that pitchers risk injury when they bat. They’re both legitimate claims, but they’re not, IMNSHO, sufficient.

It’s true that the interleague won-lost records do show the AL with a better record. The AL has won twenty-three of the forty-two World Series since the DH was introduced. On the other hand, that’s a four game margin in a small sample. The AL’s overall 2,565-2,299 record is more significant, but again, it’s not a huge margin: somewhat more than 52%. No interleague game is a foregone conclusion because of the DH.

I don’t want to minimize the issue of risk to pitchers, but realistically, the biggest threat isn’t batting a couple of times a game. It’s the act of pitching itself. The rate of pitcher injuries has climbed to the point where it’s almost harder to find a veteran pitcher who hasn’t had Tommy John surgery.* In an opinion piece at The Sporting News, Jesse Spector points out that pitchers are getting fewer and fewer at bats. That being the case, he suggests, let’s just jump to the endgame. I think he may be putting the cart in front of the horse. Several writers have noted that the rise in pitcher injuries is correlated with the increasing specialization of pitchers (segregation into starters, closers, set-up men, and so on), a trend that’s been gaining momentum since around the same time the DH was introduced. Granted, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but maybe having pitchers spend more time in the batter’s box–and in the batting cage, exercising their eyes and arms in a way that differs from what they do when pitching–would reduce the risk of injury and make them more effective hitters.

* Yeah, I’m exaggerating for effect, but it’s true that more pitchers are having surgery and at younger ages than ever before.

I’ve got two arguments for keeping the DH out of the NL.

First, there’s value in variety. Managerial strategies differ between the leagues–they have to if they’re going to maximize the effectiveness of their differing lineups. Just as intraspecies diversity helps life adapt to changes in the environment and a variety of operating systems helps the Internet fight off malware, so too does a range of strategies keep baseball interesting for the fans. Watching players and managers struggle to handle conditions they don’t normally face is one of the biggest attractions of interleague play. And on a slightly less-elevated level, watching pitchers hit allows fans a moment of superiority. Never underestimate the power of the “I could swing a bat better than that guy!” to sell tickets. Don’t believe me? Do a quick Google search for websites devoted to Bartolo Colon’s at bats.

Second, where are you going to find enough designated hitters? Admittedly, MadBum aside, just about any player would be an improvement over pitchers. But consider this: over the first four years of the DH rule, the DH raised the AL batting average by .0005–from .2567 to .2572. And, as best I can tell, the situation hasn’t changed much since then. It’s true that batting average isn’t a great way to measure a hitter’s effectiveness, but it’s a modest indicator that reinforces what intuition should tell us: there are only so many Edgar Martinezes and David Ortizes to go around. Most teams use the DH slot to give their position players a partial day off, in effect, exactly what NL teams do when they under AL rules.

A DH in the NL? Just say no.

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