Designated hooey

The Designated Hitter rule in baseball may make the game more exciting. It’s still a travesty.

SBNation’s Al Yellon, a lifelong Cubs fan who writes one of my favorite sports blogs, Bleed Cubby Blue, has written an intentionally provocative essay arguing for the National League to adopt the DH.

Yellon says he’s always opposed the DH, but has now come around for one key reason:

Pitchers can't hit. And I'm tired of watching pitchers not hit.

This is no surprise. Pitchers have always been terrible hitters. This makes sense, because being a good hitter takes a lot of work, and so does being a good pitcher, and aside from fringe-y anomalies like Brooks Kieschnick, baseball players really don’t have enough time to be even adequate at both hitting and pitching. Pitching is what they’re paid to do, so they spend all their energy getting good at that. National League teams, where pitchers have to hit, take any offense they can get from their pitchers as a bonus.

American League teams don’t have to do this; they have a special offensive player who bats in place of the pitcher. The NL way of doing it, Yellon argues, just isn’t fun to watch:

So far this season, major league pitchers are hitting .116/.150/.139. This isn't a small sample size, either; that covers 1,056 at-bats. In which pitchers have struck out 443 times. That's 42 percent of all pitcher at-bats resulting in a strikeout. (The comparable percentage for non-pitchers in the NL this year is 20.9 percent, about half as often.) How is that good baseball? With the result more than 40 percent of the time a K? Or the automatic sac-bunt attempt when the No. 8 hitter gets on base with less than two out? Many pitchers aren't good bunters and fail. How is that good baseball?

If you grant Yellon’s frame of reference, arguing is tough. Pitchers aren’t good at the job of hitting, and what’s the fun in watching people who aren’t good at their job? Sure, there’s all the things baseball teams do to compensate — the small ball of bunts, the strategy of double-switches — which have their own pleasure. But those also slow the game down. If all you care about is fun, the DH is a step forward.

But a blind pursuit of making the game more fun can sometimes have counter-productive results. Adding a bunch of gimmicks to the game, each one increasing the “fun” factor, will leave you with a gimmicky game. And there’s no denying that the DH is a gimmick.

The original, non-designated hitter baseball rules, are elegant in their simplicity. There are nine players per side. Each one plays both offense and defense. Players bat in order, and either get out or on base. Three strikes, four balls, nine innings. No clock — to win you have to record at least 27 outs. No ties — you keep playing until someone wins.

Over the years, all sorts of rules have been proposed that fit a common theme: you make the game a little bit more complicated to make it a little bit more fun.

The DH is exhibit A. Also in this category are things like sabermetrics hero Bill James’ “double intentional walk,” which gave a hitter who was walked the chance to redo the at-bat — risking turning getting on base into an out — and if walked again would end up on second, in scoring position and out of the double play. After all, fans hate walks, want to see pitchers go after batters, and a rule like this would add new, fun strategy options for managers and players.

It would also make the game more complicated, and is thus a bad idea.

I’m not trying to be a killjoy here. These kind of rules changes are fun. A friend and I made a game of making up rules for what we called the XLB, or Xtreme Baseball League, which took this concept to the max. Teams had a 10th fielder running around in the stands; if he caught a home run, it was an out. If a player hit a home run, he kept batting until he hit a ball that was not a home run.

But as fun as these changes are to contemplate, I wouldn’t want them in the game. They’re the kind of thing the NFL does all the time — tinkering around the edges with new rules to try to make the game better or solve a flaw, with the result that many times games come down to judgment calls about incredibly tiny flinches by linesmen, whether a ball was jostling as a knee touched the ground, and other things that almost demand the use of replay after every play.

Sure, baseball has its own arcane rules, but it’s my contention — and feel free to disagree — that most rules like the balk and infield fly rule are for special cases and not routine, repeated things like pitchers batting.

You can do a couple tweaks here and there, sacrificing simplicity for the sake of fun, but over time they add up. And the designated hitter rule is the most egregious example. It should be eliminated altogether, and certainly not expanded to the National League.