Adding the universal DH rule is the right move.
There’s a war against “baseball purists” going on right now. The MLB and Player’s Union are trying (maybe?) to get back to baseball-ing and within those negotiations the MLB is trying to get creative to attract both new fans and new sources of revenue. Some of those tactics are being met with disgust by “baseball purists”. I wanted to take a deeper dive into some of those tactics to find out why MLB is willing to make the change and face the backlash of the “purists”. In doing so, I found which side of the fence I now fall on and plant my flag.
The players rejected the owners’ proposal that included a universal DH for both 2020 and 2021, but there will still be a universal DH for this year, as part of the agreement owners made with players back in March. There has been a push for a universal DH rule for years, and for at least one season, National League pitchers can put their bats down.
For most of us members at the Royals Review community, the universal DH might be the easiest pill to swallow in these changes to the game. We’ve all gotten pretty used to having a designated hitter and only recently have we seen a primary DH in the Royals lineup instead of the revolving DH some teams go with. But even within our own community there’s been push-back on that front and I’m here to definitively tell those pushers: you’re just wrong on this.
Why mess with it?
Now that I’ve lit your flame, let’s start with the “why”. You might be saying to yourself “Josh, I’ve been watching pitchers uselessly flail at pitches since 1898. Why do they need to change the game I love so much just to appease a generation of hyperactive indolents?”
Well there’s one simple answer: to grow the game. (End of article)
Oh you need more? OK, I’ve got you.
Evening the playing field
It’s time that all teams within the MLB play under the same rules. The irregularity across the two leagues is bonkers to me. No other sport has half the teams playing with one set of rules while the other half plays by another set. It’s a very strange thing. And don’t even get me started on every ballpark having different dimensions. It’s not a quirky thing; it’s a weird thing. If we’re truly out here playing to find out who the best team in the world is then we’ve got to be playing on as equal playing fields as possible, and adding the universal DH is an easy place to start.
Speaking of World Series champions, did you know that 13 of the last 20 teams to win it all had home field advantage? Did you know that home teams in the last 20 World Series have a record of 64-49 (.566 win %)? And it’d be even more one-sided had it not been for the exceptional 2019 series where the home team went 0-7. Meaning not only does the home team get to play in their city in front of their fans, but they also get to play by the rules that they’ve played within and built their roster for all year.
Yes, I hear what you’re saying. There ARE a lot of factors that go into home field advantage and I KNOW I’m not breaking any news that home field advantage is a big deal. My point is that the home team is getting a solid advantage on top of the usual benefits of playing in front of your home crowd. In interleague play since 2002, National League DHs have a .717 OPS versus .774 OPS of the AL teams that are used to having a DH. Inversely, AL pitchers in that same time frame carried a .278 OPS versus .351 for NL pitchers used to taking cuts. There is always at least one spot in the lineup that favors the home team’s rule system.
Another part of the proposals that went back and forth between the MLB/MLBPA is expanding the playoffs and that has been met with a LOT of backlash. No one wants a hot but undeserving team to win the title and I understand that opinion. My question for you is: how do we know we’ve been crowning the best team all these years when the home teams are getting such a large advantage and we all just accept it? Have we been crowning the best team or just the most advantageous team all these years?
Pitchers getting hurt
This one is the most common argument for the universal argument and the most common argument to that argument is that injuries are just part of the game. And that is true, every athlete that has ever played the game has been injured. But to that point, I say that it’s more of a “risk/reward” thing than a frequency thing.
Take, for example, Adam Wainwright’s torn Achilles in 2015. The Cardinals were coming off of an NLCS loss to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The Cardinals were returning most, if not all, of their key players for 2015 and probably had a better roster if we’re being honest. Then in his fourth start of the year, this happened to Wainwright:
Achilles torn, his season is over, gut punched. All for a weak fly ball half-way up the baseline. Now, the 2015 Cardinals team overcame that loss and won the NL Central before losing to the division rival Chicago Cubs in the NLDS (ya hate to see it). So all’s OK that ends OK, right?
WRONG!!! AND YOU’RE STUPID FOR EVEN SUGGESTING THAT!!
Achilles injuries are incredibly serious across all sports. They can legitimately end one’s career and in the case of Wainwright, he was never the same again. Prior to the injury, he posted a 3.41 xFIP in all of his seasons from 2005-2014. Since then, he’s at 4.26, going from great to below average in just one missed season. Granted he was 32 years old when he was injured and 34 when he came back so there’s certainly some blame (probably the majority) to place on Father Time, but that injury did not help.
But yes, injuries are a part of the game and aren’t necessarily frequent enough to be the primary focus of a rule change. But there is definitely a question of whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze. What’s the absolute best case scenario for a pitcher batting? It’s unequivocally this:
Poor Big Game James…
Now weigh that against the Wainwright story above and try to tell me that the risk side of the scale balances the reward side. It’s just not worth it (even though watching Colon’s face round those bases is very fun).
Offense puts asses in seats
The name of the game for the MLB is to gain a younger audience and we all know that the younger audience has the attention span of a coked up parakeet. And I’m part of that audience; I spent way too much time on researching this article because I was simultaneously researching, binge-watching The Outsider (very good), and facilitating fantasy football trades (there is no offseason in dynasty leagues). We’d much rather watch a barn burner than a pitcher’s duel even though the majesty of the latter is not lost on me. MLB thinks that I am in the majority of the very fans they’re vying for the attention of.
You’re not going to get offense from the pitcher. The best collective season of pitchers hitting was 2005, where pitchers had an average of .148. That’s a hit in every 7.8 plate appearances. That’s Chris Owings territory and Royals fans collectively ran him outta town. Owings was playing pretty good defense at the time according to most defensive metrics. So it’s similar to a pitcher who pitches decently and hits like a pitcher. But only one of those scenarios is acceptable to a fan base because of a stupid rule.
And really, in the vacuum of one at-bat, how could could “purists” possibly WANT to watch this
more than this?
One, and only one, of those examples is actual baseball.
What to expect when you’re expecting (a universal DH).
Well…probably. Theoretically if you’re substituting a .774 OPS hitter for a .278 OPS hitter, there’s probably going to be a smidge more offense. But that kinda depends on your metric. Since 2002, the American League has a higher collective OPS (0.747 – 0.734) but the National League has actually scored more runs (201,090 – 195,141). Breaking those collective seasons down season by season shows that the AL has had the higher OPS every year while also producing more runs in the last seven seasons. Prior to the that, the National League had the upper hand in producing runs the 11 seasons before that. So while more offense makes sense in theory, it’s not definitive. It’s not as big of an impact as, let’s say, a juiced ball does.
More jobs for bats with no gloves
If this change becomes permanent, I think the long term effects means a higher demand for guys like Jorge Soler/Nelson Cruz and less for players like Chris Owings/Erick Mejia. Teams will have to commit more to offense in order to keep up with the rest of the big leagues. And I think that is going to have a very real influence locally with the player mentioned above.
A league that demands more designated hitters will cause bidding wars for players like Jorge Soler. When teams don’t have to open themselves up to his defensive vulnerability, they will be willing to pay him more. The same goes for a guy like Kyle Schwarber. Both of them hit free agency in 2022 and both of their clubs love them. But the higher demand will mean higher salaries for extending them.
I think it also increases the value for utility defenders that can produce every day player levels of offensive stats. Someone like Whit Merrifield that creates flexibility for a team to carry a primary DH on their roster becomes almost a necessity, especially for small market contenders. With 26 man rosters, 13 of them are probably pitchers and 13 are positional. Carrying a player that only brings his bat to the park every day means you only have four players left on the bench to use strategically in-game or as injury protection.
Decrease in value for pitchers that can also hit
Just from a numbers stand point, this will also happen. I’d be very curious as to how NL front offices actually value this. Obviously these players are getting paid more for their arms than their bats, but having a pitcher that can actually take some rips in the box 2-3 times a game IS a strategic advantage over your opponent (as long as the pitcher can pitch).
And there are definitely pitchers out there that can be exactly that advantage. Since 2002, there have been 25 seasons from pitchers able to produce a .700+ OPS in at least 50 plate appearances. And that’s out of 868 qualifying seasons. Yes, guys like Greinke, MadBum, Zambrano, and Mike Leake are all on there multiple times and those types of players will probably lose some value. But none of those guys are losing their careers because of the rule change. If you’re still able to pitch, you’ll have a job.
The war on the purity of the game.
Let’s get to the bottom line here: Major League Baseball is not concerned about you baseball purists. They’ve already got you. They know that you’re going to watch a universal DH hit a juiced ball 600 feet and you’ll take to social media to exclaim how much of an abomination baseball has become, then proceed to watch the rest of the game. Sure you’ll tune out sometimes, but you’ll catch that fever again when your team starts to make a run and be right back in the thick of it like you were.
The game needs a fan injection. If you’re not getting younger, you’re getting older. And the damage done to the potential of gaining new fans via death by negotiations of 60 games in 2020 has likely cost the game so much already. The league is going to have to make some drastic changes to appeal to a new generation now more than ever. And that should be fine with ALL of us baseball fans. Loss of fans means loss of revenue and loss of revenue means loss of talent. The players will inevitably go where the money goes. Would you rather see the game itself die in order to maintain the sanctity of the game or would you rather see them make a few changes that, yes, change the game fairly drastically to appeal to a different audience in order to survive?
And while we’re visiting the sanctity/purity of baseball, let’s take a moment to reflect on your own views. Is the outlawing of the spitball more pure than allowing the tackle box of aides behind a pitcher’s mound/arm/hat? Are steroids and PEDs less pure to the game than paying guys enough to focus on baseball only as a means to support themselves so they can focus on getting better at baseball all year round rather than picking up some job in the off-season? Should the pre-Jackie Robinson legends be on as high of a pedestal as they are before people of color were allowed to play in the same parks as them? Where’s the line on these things that determines what change is pure and what is not?
I stand with the MLB on this one and only have one thing to say to the “baseball purists” out there: