Kucinich and the DH

You may or may not have seen this, but Dennis Kucinich was destroyed in a primary Tuesday in Ohio. Don’t worry, this is not a political column — it’s actually about the designated hitter. But it begins with Kucinich, who was the mayor of Cleveland when I was growing up there. Kucinich is universally seen as a character — as in “a person marked by notable or conspicuous traits.” Love him, despise him, anyplace in between (as if there is anyplace in between for Kucinich) you would probably admit that he’s one of a kind. Now, he’s out. And The Washington Post sees a trend.

“The one thing that’s being tamped down here is we’re losing characters,” Rep. Stephen C. LaTourette (R-Ohio) told the Post. “The place needs character and characters.”

You may or may not agree with the idea that Congress needs characters, but again the point here is not Kucinich or Congress or politics at all. It’s the designated hitter.

Our own Tom Verducci wrote a strong and interesting story about how trends point to the day, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, when the pitcher will no longer hit in baseball. He doesn’t say this WILL happen, only that everything — interleague play, an odd number of teams in each league and the scheduling it provides, the power of the Players Union and so on — points in a direction where (perhaps over the next 10 years) the National League will adopt the DH.

I have thought a lot about the DH over the years. I grew up with it. I grew up in Kucinich’s Cleveland, an American League city in default. I was 6 years old when the designated hitter was adopted. I really do not have any recollection of American League pitchers hitting. I know I was at some games where pitchers hit, but those individual memories do not stay with me … probably because the Indians had such colorful DH’s in those early years: Oscar Gamble with his huge Afro and enormous swing; Frank Robinson at end of one of baseball’s most brilliant careers; Rico Carty who it was said wouldn’t slide because he carried his wallet in his back pocket.*

*I loved Rico Carty. Loved everything about him. He almost never swung at the first pitch. He was the first hitter I remember who spun his bat round and round before the pitcher was ready, almost like nunchucks. And the guy could flat hit — he had led the league with a .366 average in Atlanta in 1970, and as a seemingly-ancient relic in Cleveland he still hit .303/.372/.455 in his three-plus years.

So for me, growing up, the DH wasn’t a gimmick or an abomination the way it might have been for people who had been baseball fans for years and years. No, it was part of the game (and a wonderful part). I imagine it is this way for people who can’t remember the NBA before the three-point line or college basketball before the shot clock or the NFL before the illegal contact rule. Rule changes, in time, simply become rules.

It really wasn’t until I got quite a bit older that I fully understood how much antipathy some people had for the DH and how National League fans were pretty certain that their league was the only one playing “pure” baseball. Funny: As a kid I had always thought National League baseball was kind of boring. I mean, you give me a choice to watch Rico Carty wind his bat and glare down a pitcher or watch Buzz Capra bunt … that was no contest for me.

But then I found myself watching a lot of National League baseball — Braves and Cubs on the two superstations, my best friend was a Mets fans, so these were really my only options as a North Carolina kid in the 1980s — and I came to appreciate the wonder of the NL. It wasn’t so much (as people constantly pointed out) that there was more STRATEGY in National League baseball. I have never thought that was exactly right — there are a lot of automatic choices in the NL.

Instead, I thought, there was more RHYTHM in the NL. In the American League — especially after we started getting some middle-infielders who could hit — the innings started to blend together. Sure, you always kept an eye out for the stars, but the truth is that just about everybody could hit at least reasonably, and so every inning was a potential scoring inning, and in that way the innings and place in the lineup didn’t matter so much.

In the National League, though, that pitcher’s spot was always there as a marker. If the pitcher was due up, you knew it would likely take some unusual circumstances to score — a two-out rally, an unlikely single by the pitcher, an error or something. As a fan, I found myself subconsciously separating the innings, thinking about pinch hitters and double switches, doing the math — sort of the way I do when watching a golf tournament and looking to see how many par-5s are left on the golf course or in football when calculating a comeback.*

*OK, if they score here and get the onside kick and score again and get the onside kick …

So, I liked that a lot. Anything that gets your mind buzzing in sports is good. My first newspaper jobs took me to many Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds games, and I really came to love National League baseball and appreciate the pitcher hitting. I liked the rhythm, I liked the simplicity of nine against nine, and there really isn’t anything else in baseball quite like the little jolt of a pitcher getting a hit. Everyone in the ballpark shifts just a little, there’s a bit of embarrassment, a few smiles, it’s a nice little moment. I very much liked the game without the DH.

Then, I moved to Kansas City, back to the American League, and fell in love with the DH all over again. The Royals’ DH for most of those years was a wonderful guy named Mike Sweeney who kept his legs so far apart in the batters box you wondered if he was trying to do a split, and he would wave twirl his bat ever so slightly behind his head and — I remember this detail so clearly — he would blink like 5 or 6 times just before the pitcher threw, as if he was trying to get an eyelash out or something. Sweeney had once been a catcher, and he had tried valiantly to play first base and sometimes played the position to a draw — one of my all-time favorite quotes was a coach saying, “Mike Sweeney would rather face Nolan Ryan on Christmas Day in a phone booth in the dark than field a ground ball” — but he really WAS a designated hitter at heart, and for four or five years, from 1999 to 2002 or 2003, he was one of the best hitters in the world.

Well, there were a lot of wonderful hitters who at some point didn’t or couldn’t play a position — Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, the aging Chili Davis and Darryl Strawberry and Paul Molitor and Harold Baines — and the games were so much more alive because of them. And so, I liked the DH again.

Finally — and it really crystallized for me reading Tom Verducci’s story — I realized something: I don’t really like or dislike the DH. What I really like is that one league has the DH while the other league does not. See, the older I get the more I see that one of the things I love most about sports is the variety of it, the diversity of it, the CHARACTERS, to get back to the Dennis Kucinich opening. Men’s tennis is at its best in many years because, for the first time in a long time, the top three or four players all have wildly different styles. The Tim Tebow story was fun on so many levels, but one of those levels was that he was just SO DIFFERENT in how he played — I’d say we are entering a great time with quarterback because Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning and Drew Brees and Michael Vick and Cam Newton and Tebow and others are not really alike at all.

What really stands out for me from when I was young was the way Joe Morgan flapped his left arm before at-bats, the way Jamaal Wilkes shot basketballs from behind his head, the way Al Hrabosky stomped around behind the mound, the way Billy Kilmer’s passes fluttered, Greg Pruitt’s tearaway jerseys, Lester Hayes covered in stick-um, Fidrych smoothing out the mound and talking to the baseball (or himself), Gretzky perched behind the goal, Billy Smith seemingly trying to hit players with his stick as they skated by, Reggie Jackson swinging so hard he would fall to one knee, Luis Tiant’s windup, Fernando Valenzuela’s windup, John McEnroe’s serve, Mike Singletary’s eyes, on and on and on. In other words, what I remember is the stuff that was really DIFFERENT. Yes: Different is good in sports.

The AL and NL have been eliminating their differences for years. They started to play each other in interleague play. They started using the same umpires. Players started going more freely from one league to another. Next year, inter league play will go on all year, and so will become even less special. I’m not saying these are good or bad trends, they just are trends. And so the leagues have mostly lost their identities, baseball in many ways has merged into one 30-team league.

BUT, there’s the DH. And as long as there’s the DH in the AL and not in the NL, the two leagues are not alike. As long as the DH separates the two leagues there will be arguments, drama, complaints, bragging, strategy … and these are some of the things that give baseball life and flavor.

I’m not saying that baseball should have introduced the designated hitter in the first place. Baseball people in general have a tendency to come up with short-sighted and brazen solutions to problems that may or may not exist — and the DH was probably one of those half-developed ideas. But the fact is they did put the DH in almost 40 years ago, and for millions of fans who lean American League, it’s the only game we ever knew, and we get to see and enjoy men like Travis Hafner, who may not know on which hand to wear a glove but who can really swat. And the fact is that for millions of others who lean National League, it’s a point of pride that the league still has its pitchers bunt runners over and hit .163 when they are allowed to swing away.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to lose that. It’s one thing to have a Congress without characters like Dennis Kucinich around to give the place atmosphere. It’s quite another to have baseball without the DH to argue about.

43 thoughts on “Kucinich and the DH

  1. ditmars1929

    Joe, do you take reader requests on topics of which to write? I read this Verducci article, and the first thing I thought was, “Joe writing a curiously long post about the hitting stats of pitchers would be pretty interesting.”

    Every fan can tell you who has the most career HRs (hell most could rattle off the top 10 in order), most RBI, walks, etc.

    But what about a “most” list of batting stats just for pitchers? Quick, off the top of your head, which pitcher has the highest batting average all time? I couldn’t tell you that if my life depended on it, but it sounds interesting.

    Let me know what you think, please.

    Reply
    1. David in NYC

      Depending on where you put the cutoff for minimum PAs, it depends.

      If you set it anything up to and including 86, the answer is Terry “Immense Fat Tub of Goo”* Forster at .397 (31 for 78).

      *According to David Letterman. Terry was actually a very good sport about Dave’s nickname, and even appeared on the show.

      Reply
  2. Brett

    This has pretty much always been my response whenever the subject of the DH comes up. I like that the leagues are different. It makes absolutely no difference whether you’re an AFC or NFC team. I can’t even tell you which teams are in the Western or Eastern conferences (other than guesses based on geography). But in MLB, being an American League team means something different than being a National League team, and I like that.

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  3. nickpa1

    not on the same level as a player as joe morgan, but the phillies’ richie hebner had a great at bat routine where he would tug at the back of his collar.

    the morgan arm flap and hebner collar pull were staples of any whiffle ball game back in the day.

    Reply
  4. yefrem

    The NL-pitcher math in late innings is a good exercise to distract yourself from the fact that you’re watching a kids game. Great article, Joe.

    Reply
  5. The Stork

    Richie Hebner was the Pirates third basemen, he would tug at his collar, and he also had the litte toes on both feet cut out of his shoes. Willie Stargell had his windmill, Funny how you remember that stuff.

    Reply
  6. Mike

    Granted, adding the DH to the National League would lessen the amount of strategy used in late-inning situations. But for the rest of the time, watching a pitcher hit is terrifying. It would be like if they asked an NFL punter to block on the offensive line for one play every series.

    Reply
    1. Chris M

      No, more accurately, the punter = the DH. Not having a DH is like asking one of the players who plays the field to also kick the ball away on 4th downs, which, IMO, is a not unreasonable idea, and one which would probably make football more fun to watch.

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  7. Mark Daniel

    Good point. If you get rid of the DH in the NL, there will be no difference between the two leagues, especially if they play each other all year long.
    It will be like the NBA, actually, except the NBA has a geographic separation between the Eastern and Western Conferences. The AL and NL don’t even have that.

    Reply
  8. bluwood

    I’d like to have differences between the leagues (starting immediately with the cessation of interleague play), but I don’t want the difference to be the DH. I want the NL to adapt the DH – pitchers simply should not hit IMHO. Waste of baseball time.

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  9. Luke Martinez

    Let’s not forget the huge bonus having a DH gives the AL in shining guys to long term deals. If he gets crappy towards the end. He can still DH. So teams in the AL can make Punols deals.

    Reply
  10. KHAZAD

    I would like to see the DH in both leagues. The “strategy” factor is overrated, and we could probably get a trained monkey to do a double switch. Watching pitchers hit is like watching paint dry.

    In games where the pitchers hit, they only get about 2.29 PA’s per game. This means that a team that played every game without a DH would only have about 371 pitcher PA’s. In 2011, this would work out to the pitchers going 45 for 317, with 7 doubles, 2 home runs, 12 walks, 122 strikeouts, 17 runs, 18 RBI’s, 2 stolen bases, 1 CS, 1 HBP, 4 GIDP, 1 sac fly, and 40 sac bunts. .142/.175/.183.

    If pitchers are average bunters, with 40 sac bunts, that would work out to 77 PA’s where there was a bunt attempt on the action pitch or about 21% of all PA’s. (This does not count failed bunts switched to swinging away after a two strike count, of strikeouts while attempting to bunt, which MLB does not keep track of.) An average bunter would go 15 for 37 on the bunts not counted as successful sacrifices. So about one third of pitcher hits are on bunts as well.

    So, if you take the PA’s that do not end in a bunt, pitcher’s triple slash on PA’s when they don’t lay down a bunt is .107/.146/.154. They only put the ball in play (including home runs)54% of the time when not bunting, and less than 19% of those turn into hits. That means really weak balls in play.

    I just don’t need to see this. I don’t want to see it. If you ever get a pitcher that can hit, you can use him as a pinch hitter on his days off, or let him hit when he pitches, though I don’t see the latter happening.

    People always point out a rare example of pitchers that hit OK. (e.g. Zambrano and Owings) but in my memory, I can’t remember a team EVER taking a pitchers bat into account when deciding who your starters are. We are better off making the DH universal and moving on.

    Reply
    1. Matt

      Khazad, by that logic, why not just have 9 fielders and 9 different batters? Why should I be forced to see Brendan Ryan or Mike Matheny hit, just so their gloves can be in the game?

      Answer: Because then it wouldn’t be baseball.

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    2. KHAZAD

      A good hitter can win a job despite his glove. A good fielder can win a job despite his bat. A pitcher wins or loses his job solely on his pitching skills. Micah Owings, who is the best hitting pitcher in major league history, (of those who were primarily pitchers in their career)has not been able to keep a starting pitching job, and has gone back and forth between the majors and minors. Why? Because no one cares how well he hits when they are building their pitching staff.

      Nobody ever considered removing Ben Sheets from the rotation because his lifetime OPS is .199 (OPS+ of -46) and he strikes out in 42% of his plate appearances. His lifetime BABIP is .148. Do you know how weak your contact has to be for that to happen? (2011 BABIP for all pitchers: .221)

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    3. Matt

      “A pitcher wins or loses his job solely on his pitching skills.” So?

      I thought your point was that you hate watching pitchers hit. How do you feel about watching your typical shortstop or catcher hit? I mean, they’re generally mediocre to terrible.

      Think of how much more *exciting* baseball would be if they just let someone else bat for those guys too. All the paint-drying would be gone! If you’re in favor of the DH because you don’t like watching pitchers hit, how would you feel about allowing multiple DHs, for anyone who you don’t want at the plate? If you’re against it, why?

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    4. Dinky

      Don Drysdale regularly batted 7th in 1965 (a World Series title year) had an OPS+ of 140 on .300/.331.508 with 7 home runs. That season was an outlier (career OPS+ of +46) but it still makes one wonder what some pitchers might have done given coaching and BP.

      Reply
  11. Michael

    I think the person who had the idea for the DH is in hell, burning, with bamboo shoots being put in his toenails. That said, there really used to be distinctions between the two leagues, and Bud Selig is trying to bleach that out of baseball, along with everything else that made the game great, including that at the end of the season, 1/3 or more of the teams didn’t wind up in the playoffs because the length of the regular season was supposed to winnow out the teams that didn’t belong.

    One difference I miss: the AL umpires using outside protectors (they went away, for the most part, in the late 1970s). Umpires hated to admit that the AL called higher strikes as a result, but it also was a distinction between the two leagues, and it made life interesting for those traded between leagues or fans watching a team they were unaccustomed to seeing.

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  12. 5c493860-68fd-11e1-be92-000bcdcb5194

    Having watched NL baseball my whole life, I shudder at the thought of the league-wide DH. Call it preference, call it tradition, call it whatever, but excluding exhibition games (spring training and the All Star Game), pitchers should hit. That’s just baseball.

    Reply
    1. Josh

      1973. They’ve been playing baseball with a DH since 1973, and they still call it baseball. Many people exchange money in order to watch it happen.

      In fact, more people watch baseball games with DHs than without.

      Things I hate in baseball:
      (a) Joe Jackson apologists
      (b) Pete Rose apologists
      (c) Yankee fans, on principle
      (d) Listening to Rick Sutcliffe transition any topic to a discussion on the brilliance of Derek Jeter
      (e) Anyone who claims baseball with a DH isn’t real baseball.

      Yankee fans, you can stay. You make life more interesting. The rest of you, just stop.

      Reply
  13. Tampa Mike

    I really don’t like all this added wild card, moving Houston, interleague play all year business. I’m more concerned with it right now than the DH.

    I’m kind of split on the DH myself. I grew up with the DH, so I’ve never known any different. I can see National League fan’s point about the strategy and purity of the game, but pitcher’s batting is pathetic. Even lifetime NL pitchers who should be used to hitting can barely even lay down a bunt. Until that changes I can’t put much urge into eliminating the DH. I like someone else’s analogy of comparing the DH to a punter. Well said.

    Reply
    1. Owen Poindexter

      Not crazy about the added wildcard either. I would be more okay with it if wi inning your division meant you got a spot in the top 5, but not necessarily the top 3, meaning the al central winner would be in the play in game. The whole thing is still kind of silly, but I think that would help.

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    2. Tampa Mike

      I’m not following you on how that would be helpful. So there would be no differentiation between wildcard and division winners? If you want to do that you might as well eliminate the divisions and seed teams by league. That sounds worse to me.

      If it was up to me I would go back to two divisions and no wildcard.

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    3. Owen Poindexter

      I agree on two divisions and no wildcard, and yes, I’m essentially proposing a seeding system. I feel like second place in the east with 93 wins ought to trump first place in the central with 85 wins.

      Reply
  14. Owen Poindexter

    So here is my proposal for the dh. Eliminate the al/nl thing, the home team decides before each game whether or not there will be a dh. More markets for sluggardly sluggers, fun strategy decisions, pitchers who can hit some can still do so, versatile managers are rewarded… The only issue I have with it is that it wo uld probably end up being a step toward the dh becoming universal.

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  15. David in NYC

    The DH is, and always has been, an abomination.

    The whole point of using just 9 players is that everyone has to play both offense and defense. Sure, Joe Shmoe may be able to hit .400, but if he also fields .400, now you actually have to think about whether he’s worth putting in your lineup.*

    *Or in your bed. As Annie Savoy says in her opening monologue in “Bull Durham”: “Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs or was a great glove man up the middle.”

    The DH is for people who don’t like to think (or have to). And those claiming that the double-switch is not a hard thing to figure out obviously never saw Tom Kelly manage in the World Series.

    Slightly OT: I never saw an announcement or anything about the return of the comments, so imagine my surprise when they were available again. All I have to say about that is: HOORAY! THANKS, JOE!

    Reply
  16. Skirra

    I wish the DH was flipped in interleague play at least during the the regular season. Under this there would be a DH in NL stadiums during interleague games and no DH during AL games in interleague play. That way the diversity would remain and even be increased so I could see the pitchers hit in my AL town. It would have been great if I could have seen Grienke hit after all of his talk about it while he was here.

    Reply
    1. David in NYC

      I have never understood why that wasn’t implemented when interleague play was first started. Wasn’t one of the prime reasons for interleague play was giving fans the opportunity to see the “other” league? If so, then why wouldn’t you use the “other” league’s rules to show the neophyte fans?

      Reply
  17. ub

    I agree that tennis is the best it has been for a while, but it’s not because they have different styles. The top four players, who are driving the tour, are pretty similar in styles. Federer may be slightly different, and Nadal because he’s a lefty.

    But they are all supremely fit, get to every shot, don’t have overpowering serves (like in the 90′s), and have great returns (Federer the weakest because of one handed backhand).

    Certainly there differences, but they all have similar games and of similar size, with fitness and mobility being the key for all.

    Reply
  18. spinstripes

    Joe, this has been my position for the longest time. The variety is part of what makes baseball great. Standard dimensions to the diamond but a wealth of variety outside of it, with differing fence configurations, heights, and foul territory. I’ve only known MLB with an AL DH and pitchers hitting in the NL and I hope it stays that way as long as possible.

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  19. Bucky

    I would like to see DH (and punters) limited to 3 ABs (or punts) per game.
    It would eliminate “automatic” decisions and add a whole lot more strategy, while still allowing that there are benefits at times to the activity in question.

    Reply
  20. Bucky

    I would like to see DH (and punters) limited to 3 ABs (or punts) per game.
    It would eliminate “automatic” decisions and add a whole lot more strategy, while still allowing that there are benefits at times to the activity in question.

    Reply
  21. Rufus

    Joe,
    I’m a little sad you allowed the comments to come back. I really enjoy your writing. However, I wouldn’t get to compliment you on such a great essay. I was always against the DH; living in Minnesota, the Twins would be better in the NL I think. But I would have missed characters like Paul Molitor (what class and hustle), and other players who left a mark on me. I agree with you 100%: Keep the DH in the AL but don’t allow it in the NL. We need diversity in many areas of our life. Sports is just one of them. Thanks.
    Rufus

    Reply
  22. N

    The one thing I always loved about Carlos Zambrano’s time in Chicago was watching him wildly swing for the fences at every pitch.

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  23. Kansas City

    Most fans only get to see one league on a close up basis (New York, Chicago, LA and SF excluded). Joe certainly is entitle to enjoy the differences in leagues (it does nothing for me), but you just can’t say there are not more strategy decisions in the NL. Of course there are more. There have to be more because there are additional issues to consider, e.g., when to pinch hit for the pitcher.

    Reply
  24. brhalbleib

    Hmm, it all depends on how cagey your manager is on the strategy decisions and the DH. For instance, in the very first year of the DH in the AL, the manger of the World Champions took the opportunity given him by not having to pinch hit for his pitcher to constantly pinch hit for his crappy 2nd basemen.

    Reply

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