A guest post by PNV
The Designated Hitter Rule. Baseball’s most talked about, most dissected issue, was seemingly solved this year. Universal DH for the COVID-19 season. Most writers seem to believe this is the end of pitchers hitting, and we will never go back. Time marches forward, and all that. However, maybe we should pump the brakes. The DH debate has always been binary. You are for or against it, or maybe you just don’t care, but ultimately, it has always been a question of getting rid of the DH or not. Here I will propose a new way forward. Some might call it a gimmick, but I call it strategy.
Many years ago, maybe it was 2005 or 2008, or some such years where the Mariners were having trouble, a reader of Lookout Landing made a startling proposition. Thinking him or herself smarter than the rest of the baseball community, this fan asked the simple question, “If teams control the ground rules, why can’t the Mariners solve their DH problems by forfeiting the DH rule?” The idea that if everyone’s DHs were better than the M’s, perhaps a good strategy was for the M’s to eliminate their DH’s and play NL ball. This fan was confused about the rules of baseball clearly ingrained deep in most baseball fans’ minds. The DH exists and no team, not even the home team, can force it away. However, in this misguided fan’s mind, maybe there was a bit of genius.
I read FnA’s (not sure of the exact handle) fanpost many years later as it was archived on another website. I believe there were comments missing, so I didn’t read all of the onslaught of criticism and mocking that the fan received for the suggestion — this “sabermetric” crowd was so focused on attacking the ignorance, which the poor fan stubbornly defended, digging the hole deeper and deeper. Further, this allowed a comments section intent on crushing its easy target to bits to thoroughly destroy the idea. But they missed the bigger picture. Not if the plan was strategically valid, it was not. Baseball rules forbid it, but maybe they missed the real question. That question being, should FnA’s proposal be legal?
Every single fan has got an opinion on the DH. There’s famous quotes from movies about it, and there is even a country song that mentions it. DH debates are boring and cliché, and yet every winter we get a column from Passan, Olney, or Rosenthal about the future of the DH. Well, as uninformed as FnA’s was so many years ago, I think that he or she was on to something. The question of the DH is boring, but how it could be modified? Now that there is an entirely new discussion.
Now I know what you are going to say: practically, that just means DH all the time. You are absolutely correct. Rarely would teams opt for no DH, even if FnA’s rule did apply. Not even a team that gave Tug Hulett eight starts at DH would forfeit the DH and risk injuries, or risk the challenges of pinch hitting and player changes over the ease of the DH. Heck, the M’s probably would not have gained an advantage even with a rotation of Dontrelle Willis clones. No, that rule on its own doesn’t work. However, what if we limited the times you could use the DH? A simple enough solution, to ensure half the games are played with a DH and about half without.
Here’s the proposal: a rule where the home team’s manager has a maximum of 41 out of 80 games where they are allowed to use the DH. Also let’s say 35 minimum games with the DH, although I hardly think a minimum is necessary. This rule makes it so still half of baseball games, or thereabouts have a DH, but mixes it up. Not only does it mix it up, it creates a long and short-term strategic decision to be made before the game even starts. This adds a whole new level of discussion to the lineup reveals.
Ever go to a bar to watch baseball, or ever been on any game thread ever? What’s the thing everyone has an opinion on? Lineups. That’s right. Lineups are boring — countless research basically says they matter, but maybe only a little, and it is over a season, you can never plan a perfect lineup for a game. Now, add the responsibility of picking whether the game has a DH or not, and whether to spend that DH choice on any singular game. Talk about a potential game changing situation. And think about the discussion, the arguments, the fun. Do you save your DH games to ensure Madison Bumgarner doesn’t hit at Coors Field? Well that is easy. But what if you are running an opener out there — do you DH, or hope you can manage the changes along with pinch hitters? So much fodder for discussion.
The sabermetric blog community would have a major puzzle to solve. What are optimum DH strategies combined with pitching plans? Is it better to save the DH games for the end of the season? Do you manage your rotation to get good hitting pitchers more home starts in order to save DH slots for others, and allow the advantage of the DH? What is the best way to manage against Ohtani at home? DH, or force him to bat on a pitching day? The creativity and discussion that would begin on the blogo-sphere could lead to a writer someday going from blog to dugout on the strength of her DH decision-making matrix. Who knows, right?
I am not saying this is perfect. Maybe we would have to tweak the rules, and yes the old sluggers like Nelson Cruz would have to play a bit more in the field. So yeah, I hear your “the Players Association will never go for it” argument. No matter. The Trident Commissioner rules with a heavy…well, trident, and like Poseidon was king of the sea, Trident Commish is an all-around dictatorial bad ass. And we have more player-friendly proposals later, this one is for the fans.
The Designated Hitter rule, an old rule, has been suggested many times over the history of baseball. When it was adopted in 1973, no one really knew if it would stick. It did, and the conversation about it continued, oh so much conversation, but fans love that conversation. Now with our proposed rule change, that conversation can continue each and every game. We should move beyond “to be or not to be.” The DH exists, and we can’t fight it. But we can now make the question “to use or not to use?” And that is way more fun.