Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Designated Half-Player

The other day, the mlb.com website carried a comprehensive review of the history of the designated hitter written by Jack O'Connell. He reminded readers of a few forgotten parts of that history: 1) the notion was first proposed by Connie Mack more than 100 years ago; 2) it was almost adopted in the late 1920s, in fact was approved by the NL but voted down by the AL; 3) it was almost adopted by both leagues in 1973 but fell a couple of votes short in the NL. He summarized the basic arguments for and against the DH and gave good examples of players who have excelled in the role and stars whose careers have been extended because of it.

I have never liked the DH, and I'm here to tell you the many reasons why. The first is philosophical: it violates the most basic rule of the game. I think Bill Deane was the first person I saw point to the fact that Rule 1.01--literally the first rule in the rulebook--defines baseball as "a game between two teams of nine players each." If that's the case, why do they introduce ten players when the starting lineup is announced at an American League game? Don't tell me that the rule is satisfied because there are only nine players on the field at one time, or nine players in the batting order. Football is a game between two teams of eleven players each, but those teams use more than 30 players including the offensive and defensive platoons and the special teams. Football, basketball, and hockey use continuous substitution. Soccer uses limited substitution with very specific procedures. Only AL baseball pretends to limit substitution while allowing for one continuous exception to the first rule in the rulebook. If you allow a regular substitute at one position, philosophically you shouldn't object to designated runners, a defensive platoon, or allowing a catcher to return to the game if a subsequent catcher is injured. As long as there are only nine at a time, you have no problem, right? It's absurd.

My biggest objection to the DH is not its presence in major league baseball. I have a serious problem with its presence in every other level of baseball, down to and including Little League. What is gained by telling a 12-year-old, "you can bat, but we're not going to let you play the field" or "you're the best pitcher I have, but we're not going to let you hit?" Baseball is a tough enough game to learn when you're a kid; one reason given for the current dearth of young black baseball players is that the game is very tough to master at a young age, while they can go out by themselves on a basketball court and practice shooting and dribbling for hours a day. In high school and junior high school, the use of the DH might give one more teenager a chance to participate in the game, but it deprives two teenagers of the chance to develop ALL the skills which will be necessary to progress further.

I have a problem with our society fostering mediocrity, and that statement is about as political as I plan to get in this blog. Baseball fosters mediocrity by telling players that it is acceptable to ignore any of the essential skills of the game. We idolize people like Willie Mays who are so-called "five-tool" players. Mays could hit for average, hit for power, run, throw, and field. The pitcher who is excused from the first three of those, or the designated hitter who is excused from the last two, is being told that it's acceptable to have limited skills. Do one thing well, and you can make the team. We live in an age of specialization, but specialization is effective only after a person is knowledgeable about the entire field of study. Would you let a mechanic work on your car's transmission if you thought that he had never spent a minute studying the general principles of the internal combustion engine? Of course not. It would be unthinkable that the mechanic could choose to focus on transmissions without having that general knowledge. My wife is having minor surgery today, performed by an ear/nose/throat specialist. Do you think he spent every day of medical school studying only the anatomy from the neck up, with no idea of how the general circulatory and nervous systems work, in case there's some complication? Of course not. But we tell teenagers that if they can just learn to throw a good curveball and develop that velocity on their fastball, they can be pros and make a zillion bucks. If they can figure out a way to take a few hundred swings a day off a good pitching machine, or if they're very lucky get someone to pitch to them every day in a warm climate, they can develop hitting skills that are polished enough to get them to the major leagues, without ever having to put on a glove and learn how to field a ground ball or make an accurate throw. It's a poor way to educate kids about the great game of baseball. Make them play the game! Make them develop all the skills, if they can, and if they can't, let them become mechanics or surgeons or whatever they are truly suited for.

As everybody knows, at the youth level the pitcher is usually the most talented athlete on the team and frequently plays shortstop when not pitching. This kid will be allowed to hit, and maybe the right fielder or the catcher will step aside to let a designated hitter take his spot. In any case, somebody is being shortchanged. As the talented pitcher continues on in competition, he will eventually reach a level where he is no longer required/allowed to hit. That will be in college ball or the minor leagues, but simply depriving him of the chance to step to the plate is doing him a major disservice. This pitcher is very close to playing in the major leagues. There's more than a 50-50 chance that he'll wind up in the National League, where there's no DH and he'll be forced to bat. Have you ever wondered why bunting is such a lost art and why so many pitchers are atrocious bunters? It's because they never get to practice bunting against major league pitchers. They probably haven't faced any pitching since they were in high school, and what they saw then bears little resemblance to the 95mph, high-inside fastballs they'll be seeing when they square around to sacrifice. The pitcher who knows how to bunt, like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, will aid himself greatly. The pitcher who can hit decently and bunt will be given that extra chance to help himself in the sixth inning, making more victories possible that his agent can use for more leverage when negotiating for that next ridiculously large contract. Fewer athletes are more competitive than major league pitchers. Many have realized how vital it is to have every important edge they can possibly have, whether it is bunting, hitting, running, or fielding. They don't let themselves be shortchanged by a system that prevents them from honing as many baseball skills as they can. But the majority of pitchers are content to let themselves fall through the cracks with the excuse that nobody's expecting them to do anything on offense anyway. They also delude themselves into believing that allowing three runs in six innings is a "quality" start just because someone else says it is. Do you think Lefty Grove or Bob Feller or Tom Seaver or Bob Gibson regarded giving up three runs in six innings as quality work? Sure. But I digress.

All right, let's talk about the DH in the major leagues. Jack O'Connell states the usual case in favor of the DH, saying, "What the rule has also done over the years is extend the careers of star players. From the beginning, AL lineups featured former All-Stars whose offensive skills were not compromised by defensive shortcomings due to aging."

Let's look at that first crop of DHs, from 1973. The dozen pioneers included two aging future Hall of Famers--Frank Robinson, 37, and Orlando Cepeda, 35--along with several other noteworthy hitters. Tony Oliva, 32 years old, was a three-time batting champion with serious knee injuries which prevented him from running in the outfield. Tommy Davis, 34, was a two-time batting champ and former MVP who was also slowed by injuries. Alex Johnson, 30, was another former batting champ who was never much of a fielder. His only All-Star Game appearance was the year he won the batting title. Gates Brown, 34, was famous as a Tigers pinch-hitter and a natural as a designated pinch-hitter, but never an All-Star. Ollie Brown, 29, of the Brewers was never an All-Star either, nor was Oscar Gamble, 23, of the Indians or Deron Johnson,34, of the A's. Jim Ray Hart, 31, (Yankees) made the All-Star team once, and Carlos May, 25, (White Sox) twice. I mention their ages because only Robinson and Cepeda were more than 35 years old when they started DHing. Three of the originals DHs were under 30 years old, and it would be accurate to say that only half of the group had their productive careers extended by the DH.

Most of the above were their team's DH for over 100 games in 1973, making them the clear-cut choices for the new role. The exceptions show further that the DH was purely an experimental role and hardly the automatic refuge for aging All-Stars. Oscar Gamble led the Indians with 70 games as the DH. The rest of the games were divided among six players (in order of games played): Johnny Ellis, Charlie Spikes, Walt Williams, Ron Lolich, Dave Duncan, and John Lowenstein. Nobody then or now would pretend that the DH rule was vital because it prolonged any of those careers. On the White Sox, Carlos May DHed in 75 games, followed by Mike Andrews, Ken Henderson, Tony Muser, Jerry Hairston, Rick Reichardt, Johnnie Jeter, and a half-dozen others who tried it once or twice. No memorable names there unless you think of Andrews, who was notoriously fired by Charlie Finley after making too many errors in the 1973 World Series, and who became a cause celebre after teammates fought to have him restored to the roster.

That leaves one more team to discuss: the Royals. They used 13 different players at the DH position, led by Hal McRae with 37 games. McRae was a three-time All-Star, but the first time wasn't until 1975. In 1973, he was a 27-year-old part-timer who had never played 100 games in a season. He split his time between DH and the outfield for a few years, but hit only .234 with 9 home runs in 1973, so by no stretch of the imagination was he either a star, a veteran, or a player whose career merited extending in 1973. He became the most prolific DH of his generation, but only after he proved himself inadequate in the field. After McRae, the next choice for Royals DH was Gail Hopkins, with 36 games. The best thing that be said about Hopkins was that he didn't have the most girlish name in major league history. That award would go to Barbra "Neil" Chrisley. Rick Reichardt, a six-game DH in Chicago, was traded to Kansas City, where he spent 31 games sitting on the bench for 45 minutes at a time waiting for his next turn at bat. Other who logged double-figure games at DH for the Royals that year were Steve Hovley, Jim Wohlford (22 years old), and Amos Otis. Hey, we found another All-Star! Otis was an All-Star every year from 1970-73. In 1973, he was 26 years old and just coming into his own, so he doesn't fit the definition of a star whose career was extended by the DH rule.

During the next few years, the DH did become a refuge of sorts for some star players playing out the string. In 1974, Al Kaline was a full-time DH, hanging on to make a run at 3,000 hits (he finished with 3,007). In 1975, several aging stars were hired by AL teams to DH. Hank Aaron, 41, went from the Braves to the Brewers; Harmon Killebrew, 39, from the Twins to the Royals; and Billy Williams, 37, from the Cubs to the A's. They batted .234, .199, and .244 respectively. Aaron and Williams stuck around for 1976 as well, batting .229 and .211. So yes, their careers were extended, but not in any positive way apart from raising Aaron's career home run total from 721to 755.

Over the past three-plus decades, the DH has been far from the exclusive province of "former All-Stars whose offensive skills were not compromised by defensive shortcomings due to aging." The most famous and successful DH--Edgar Martinez--had great offensive skills and defensive shortcomings, but those shortcomings were evident midway through his career, and like many other less outstanding hitters, a decision was made when he was relatively young to abandon any hope that the was a strong all-around player and to let him stick to hitting. Martinez was always dangerous in the field, and was 31 years old the last time he played the field most of a season; he lasted another decade as a prolific DH.

Paul Molitor is the only player elected so far to the Hall of Fame who spent more time as a DH than at any specific defensive position. He DHed in 1173 games, 44% of the games played in his career. He was a good fielder when he was young, playing key positions like shortstop and center field, but repeated injuries slowed him down, and when he was 34 he became a full-time DH, as much to protect him from killing himself in the field as to protect him from killing the team, as was the case with Martinez.

All too often, however, the DH job has been turned over to a player early in his career who will clearly always be a liability in the field but can contribute on offense. I'll bet that a lot of these players were used as the DH before they became pros, and being relieved of defensive obligations at a young age prevented them from developing any skills that would qualify them as all-around major leaguers. Why spend a half-hour clanking ground balls when you can get in another 50 swings off the pitching machine? Players who were profiled early on as strictly DH material include Ron Kittle, Ken Phelps, Kevin Maas, David Ortiz, and Travis Hafner. Ortiz and Frank Thomas have played the majority of their games in the majors as the DH, and while I am glad to have watched them hit, would it have been such a terrible thing to make them keep playing first base? Thomas played nearly 1,000 games at first base; he could have stayed out there. They didn't need the DH rule to prolong their careers, not if they became full-time DHs when still in their twenties. Travis Hafner is 30 years old and, entering this season, had logged 672 games, 600 of them as the DH. Make the guy play first base!

Of the 14 players who started at DH this past Sunday, half are 35 or older, one is 32years old, and the other six are 30 or younger. That just doesn't seem right to me. I can buy the argument that it's convenient to have a way for aging stars to pursue milestones, letting us keep enjoying their hitting exploits. It helped George Brett get 3,000 hits, to give one heartwarming example. Fine. But look at Billy Butler, a highly regarded 22-year-old playing for the Royals. He played 92 games last season, his rookie year; he started at DH in 75% of those games. He was the DH on Sunday. Is this his destiny? To be a career-long DH, so helpless in the field as a 21-year-old that his manager is afraid to give him a chance to develop? That's what wrong with the DH in the major leagues. It isn't just a tool for wedging 39-year-old Gary Sheffield into the lineup. It's a crutch for extracting a hit a day out of a youngster like Butler or Hafner without ever challenging him to be a real ballplayer.

Enough carping. Here's my suggestion, a serious proposal that will retain what the proponents of the DH insist are its benefits--chiefly that it relieves fans of the horrifying spectacle of watching pitchers hit (never mind Micah Owings, the Arizona pitcher who's one of the two or three best hitters on his team), it provides more offense and (therefore presumably) more excitement, and it allows us to watch our heroes hang on when they're too old and/or banged up to bend over to field the ball. It keeps all that, but it restores some sanity to the way the rule is used.

Here you go. Allow the DH, but forbid any team to use a player younger than 35 years old in the position. Make it the exclusive domain of the popular veteran, and prevent it from giving teams an excuse to accept mediocrity from its budding stars. Okay, it doesn't have to be a 100%-of-the-time rule. If a team is carrying one such veteran, he needs a day off now and then, too, or he might get hurt occasionally. Say that you have to start a 35-year-old at DH 140 or 150 games a season. You can take him out during the game, most likely for a pinch-runner in a key spot in the late innings, and leave a young substitute in the game. Make him come to bat at least twice before taking him out. If one of your regulars is hobbled but can still swing the bat, you have those dozen or two dozens games to work with, letting your regular DH have the day off and pinch-hit instead. Or, if you don't have half your roster tied up with pitchers (that's a hobby horse I'll ride some other day), you can employ two players who are over 35 and platoon them at DH. It doesn't have to be one guy. Just make him someone we've seen enough of to know that we're happy to see him hit and be spared the spectacle of him taking a pratfall in search of a routine pop-up.

Suppose this rule existed already. Most AL teams have someone already qualified. David Ortiz is too young, but the Red Sox could put Manny Ramirez at DH, Ortiz at first base, and move Kevin Youkilis to the outfield. The Yankees have Jason Giambi and, when he returns from an injury, Jorge Posada. The Orioles have Kevin Millar and Melvin Mora. The Blue Jays just unloaded Frank Thomas, but they still have Matt Stairs. The Rays of Tampa Bay are a young team, and their only candidate, Cliff Floyd, is currently on the disabled list. Maybe they could pick up Mike Piazza.

In the West Division, there are plenty of likely suspects. Frank Thomas has landed back with the A's, the Angels are already using Garret Anderson as their DH, and Raul Ibanez could do the job for the Mariners. The Rangers would have to find someone, but Rangers fans will tell you that their players play as if they're 45 no matter what age they are.

Moving to the Central Division, there are lots of likely suspects. The Tigers have Gary Sheffield and Ivan Rodriguez. The White Sox have Jim Thome, the Twins have Mike Redmond, and the Royals have Mark Grudzielanek. The Indians would have to find someone; their oldest hitter, Casey Blake, doesn't turn 35 until August.

Some of those nominated for the position aren't that formidable, but if my rule is adopted, there would always be a fresh crop of aging former National League All-Stars ready to switch leagues and coast along on a few at-bats a day. Consider Ken Griffey, Carlos Delgado, Mike Cameron, Brian Giles, Jeff Kent, and Luis Gonzalez as DHs-In-Waiting. They're just biding their time until the rule changes.

Just because the Players Association opposes abolishing the DH with the argument that it would cost current DHs their jobs, it doesn't mean that the damn thing is etched in stone forever. The NL has existed since 1876, the AL since 1901. That means that this year the two leagues are competing in their combined 241st season. The DH has existed for only 36 of those seasons, making it hardly something so entrenched that we can't live without it. I know I can live without it, and I believe there are a bunch of 15-year-olds and 20-year-olds around the country who'd be better off without it, too.

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