By Larry Dierker
As a pitcher, I’ve never been a big fan of the DH; and most pitchers, if not all, agree with me on that. It does stimulate more offense, which both leagues sorely needed in 1973 when it was adopted by the American League. When I ask fans about it these days, I notice that casual fans like the DH and ardent fans do not. What if there was a way to get the best of both worlds?
Perhaps there is.
American League & National League
As a former manager, I managed in both leagues because of interleague play. The difference between managing with or without the DH is dramatic. The A. L. is like playing checkers, while the N. L. is chess. I asked most of the managers I know who have managed in both leagues, which they would prefer. The list includes Art Howe, Phil Garner, Tony LaRussa, Jim Leyland, Bobby Cox, Bobby Valentine, Joe Torre, and Bill Virdon. Every single one of them preferred managing in the National League. I assume the reasons are first, it’s more challenging strategically, and second, it requires you to keep all your bench players involved because you need to pinch hit often.
Strategy is important to managers and avid fans, but the most important thing a manager can do is to influence team chemistry – to keep everyone on the same page, focused, and up for every game. Strategic genius isn’t enough. I wasn’t bad at that part of it, but a lot of managers were better. Still, the bottom line is having good players, which is the general manager’s purview. It’s not a chicken and egg thing. You have to win first. Good Karma follows. The most important thing the manager can control is the allocation of playing time. When you keep everyone involved and put together a winning streak, you’re on your way. But it’s a long season. Doing it all year long is a bigger challenge than making strategic moves. Even in the National League, getting everyone in there is challenging. With the pitcher in the batting order, it’s a lot easier.
That’s why there is another group of insiders that favor the National League game – utility men. Veteran bench players languish in the A. L. while they are right in the thick of things in the N. L.
Still, many, if not most fans groan when the pitcher comes up with two outs and men in scoring position. They say, “chicks love the long ball.” Let’s face it, everyone loves the long ball. And there is no shortage of home runs these days in both leagues. In 1973, there was a long list of starting pitchers who would end up in the Hall of Fame. There were some great hitters playing then too, but the ratio has changed. Now, there are more hitters heading for Cooperstown than pitchers.
What if the pitcher never had to bat with two outs and men in scoring position? What if the manager could pinch hit for him without taking him out of the game? What if the pinch hitter couldn’t come back into the game? Talk about excruciating decisions. N. L. managers have to make them in the late innings of many games now. With the option to hit for the pitcher and leave him in the game, but the requirement that the pinch hitter cannot come back into the game, managers would be biting their nails throughout many games. Think about it.
Let’s say you have the bases loaded with two outs in the second inning. Clearly, you are going to pinch hit. But are you going to spend your best pinch hitter that early in the game?
Say you have men on first and second with no outs in the fourth inning of a close game. Would you let the pitcher hit, hoping he could bunt the runners along and you could save a pinch hitter for later? Or would you spend your speedy utility infielder, who may be a better bet on the bunt and would surely be a better option with two strikes after failing to bunt? Either way, you would not use your typical DH, a power-hitting pachyderm who might hit into a double play. Would the sacrifice bunt come back into play? Would fans be just as excited to see if the pitcher could get the job done? Or would they still prefer to see a batter swing for the fences? What would the analytics tell you?
I could go on and on with hypotheticals, but you get the idea. There would be more strategy, more need for bench players, and less need for relief pitchers. In the arena of unintended consequences, most A. L. teams are way out of balance. Last year, the Astros carried 14 pitchers and only 11 players for a part of the season. That left A. J. Hinch only three players on the bench and one of them was his backup catcher. That’s all he needed because he had the luxury of four or five players who could play multiple positions. And no matter who he put in the lineup — and he started all of them — he had at least eight good hitters in the game every day. Excluding the backup catcher, he still had an RBI man to pinch hit and a speedy player who could play several positions and pinch run in the late innings.
The 2017 Astros didn’t need more position players. They needed better relief pitching. This year they have five bench players. If I had to guess, I would say that they have chosen to go with only (only!) seven relievers because they have better starting pitchers this year. They got help for the bullpen over the winter too and are just a better-balanced team this year. Now Hinch has three players on the bench and two backup catchers. Evan Gattis is more of an emergency catcher, but he serves a greater purpose than that. When he is not in the lineup as the DH, he can pinch hit. When Max Stassi is in the lineup, Brian McCann, still a decent RBI man, can pinch hit. If you only have one backup catcher, you usually don’t want to spend him pinch hitting because an injury late in the game could leave you without a catcher.
If I were managing again, I wouldn’t want too many guys in the bullpen. To pitch effectively, you need to pitch at least once a week. With nine pitchers, the manager and pitching coach may find it difficult to allocate bullpen innings because circumstances dictate whom you bring into the game. There will always be a pecking order. With nine relievers there will likely be at least two who feel like they are not getting enough work at all times. This creates a challenge for a manager. How do you maintain overall team chemistry with a few players who are unhappy? On a winning team, it is a lot easier to handle this situation because it’s hard for anyone to complain when the team is winning.
If managers could pinch hit for the pitcher any time, rosters would necessarily include more bench players and fewer relief pitchers. The problem would solve itself. But what would the Players Association say about it? They probably have the right to approve rule changes that affect their members (the players). Because the best-designated hitters are proven veterans who are past their prime defensively but still valuable when they can get three or four at-bats every day, the union would balk. Guys like Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, David Ortiz, Harold Baines, Paul Molitor, Jim Thome and Don Baylor are expensive. They drive the salary scale up for everyone. If the union would accept a twenty-sixth man on the rosters, I’d give it to them. The managers would need the extra guy anyway.
Looking at attendance figures, the powers that be will likely conclude that there is no problem. The two leagues have had different rules for forty-five years now, and though some teams are still having trouble drawing a crowd, most middle-market teams are in good shape because of ancillary income that is shared by all teams.
“If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It”
The Reds, White Sox, Pirates, A’s, Rays and Marlins may disagree. Most of these teams have had attendance problems even in winning seasons.
And now MLB is contemplating adding two additional teams. Thirty-two teams would be great for scheduling. In that regard, moving the Astros into the American league to create symmetry with 15 teams in both leagues was a ludicrous idea from the start. There is no way to avoid strength of schedule problems unless there are twenty-four teams or thirty-two. But that’s a subject for another day. I have already heard and read a lot of opinions on expansion. I’ll weigh in on that issue soon.