Alas, it is looking almost certain that the National League will add the designated hitter rule within the next few years.
The pressure to do so is coming from too many quarters to ignore. Many observers now argue it is time for the rules to be uniform across the sport. The Major League Baseball Players Association reportedly suggested it as part of a series of rules changes to consider as part of the ongoing pace-of-play conversation.
If the players want it, it’s almost certainly going to happen. The only question now is when.
I’ve always preferred the National League because it does not have the Designated Hitter. One of the reasons I ended up rooting for the Chicago Cubs despite living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a kid was this difference between the two leagues. The nearby American League teams (Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers) played a different brand of baseball from what I preferred. Once my family subscribed to cable, and I had access to WGN’s season-long coverage of National League Cubs games that mostly started during the day, my fandom was secured.
Forcing managers to decide when to make lineup and pitching changes as the pitcher’s turn in the batting order comes up is one of the aspects of the game I find most interesting to watch. Who is thinking ahead? How are managers utilizing their bench? Can the pitcher at least lay down a decent bunt (which is still a difficult skill facing a major leaguer)?
The Designated Hitter as implemented in the American League removes a significant part of this strategy from the game. But this isn’t the only way to implement it.
In 2014, Ryan Morrison explained his idea for a hybrid path forward: having the Designated Hitter only apply to the starting pitcher.
If we are to have a universal DH, this is by far the best solution I’ve seen for it. It keeps the late-game strategy I love a part of the game. And it provides a way to help solve another challenge facing the sport today, the decreased emphasis on starting pitching.
ESPN’s Buster Olney summed up several of the issues the increased emphasis on relief pitchers creates:
Major league baseball desperately needs to get off the growing front-office addiction to relief pitchers, which is helping to destroy important components of the game.
Among those: the essential pre-eminence of starting pitchers, who need to be marquee-worthy not only for the teams and their marketing departments but also for the players’ union; the scoring of runs by means other than a home run; and batters making contact and putting the ball in play. Buster Olney
While I disagree with his proposed solution to limit the number of pitchers managers can use in each game, I think Morrison’s designated hitter proposal would help solve many of the problems Olney identifies, but in a way that adds to the strategy of the game.
The universal Designated Hitter is coming. It makes no sense to continue to ignore it or hope we won’t see the National League rules change. But there are opportunities to implement the change in a way that keeps the late-game strategy in place, provides more jobs to players, and helps to reinstate starting pitching to the level of prominence it deserves.