I was surprised to hear Rob Manfred say earlier this week that he thinks the designated hitter is not a good fit for the National League.
This is the guy, after all, who has proposed pitch clocks, starting a runner at second base during extra innings, a higher strike zone and other blasphemous changes to the grand ol’ game.
But as the commissioner of Major League Baseball astutely observed on Dan Patrick’s ESPN radio show, the senior circuit is the last league at any level that does not allow the DH. Adopting it now, Manfred said, would render that unique brand of baseball extinct.
Extinct. The word itself represents a finality that even Manfred can’t stomach.
The DH strips away the tactics managers have traditionally employed to make the ninth spot in the batting order (or eighth if you Tony LaRussa) something other than an automatic out.
There is an entire generation of fans in American League cities that have never seen a sacrifice bunt or a double switch. Fans on the senior circuit, meanwhile, know that it’s the game behind the game that has made National League baseball the preferred brand for purists like me.
But here’s the thing: Designated hitter or not, that game may already be extinct.
We all got a good glimpse of 21st century baseball during All-Star week, when Monday’s Home Run Derby carried straight over into Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic. The game’s 10 home runs crushed the previous all-star record of six set in 1951. It was in extra innings, in fact, before any of the game’s 14 runs were scored without benefit of the longball.
According to STATS.com, of the 90 total plate appearances, barely half resulted in a ball in play. The remaining 44 ended with either a home run, strikeouts or walk.
“I certainly understand that’s where the game’s going,” losing pitcher Ross Stripling of the Los Angeles Dodgers told the Associated Press, “and so I think this game encapsulated that.”
Indeed it did. It’s boom or bust these days, even in the National League.
This season is threatening to be the first in MLB history in which players produce more total strikeouts than hits. It’s on pace, in fact, to break the strikeout record for the 12th year in a row.
Meanwhile, the game’s sluggers are only slightly off of last year’s record-breaking pace of 2.28 home runs per game.
Proportional to the steep increase in home runs and strikeouts is the decline in small-ball tactics like sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs, pitchouts and stolen bases. The systematic manufacture of runs is becoming a thing of the past.
Consider: In 2009, there were 1,635 sacrifice bunt attempts. That number has declined every year since to the point that baseball is on pace for half of that number in 2018. According to baseballreference.com, last year’s average of .21 sacrifices per game was the lowest in baseball history.
With more strikeouts, managers now trust fewer players to handle the hit-and-run. With more home runs, there’s little emphasis on moving runners into scoring position.
“Everybody’s throwing 97 to 100,” Washington pitcher Max Scherzer told AP baseball writer Ronald Blum. “You’re not going to string three hits together like that, so everybody’s just swinging for the fence.”
All of this has been egged on in an era of advanced statistical metrics, whose practitioners insist there is a greater chance of scoring a runner from first base with none out than of scoring them from second with one out.
So what’s the strategy now for the No. 9 spot in the batting order, which this season boasts a collective slash line of .115/.146/.150? Let the pitcher hit away and hope for the best?
There’s no game behind that game. And I’m out of arguments for why the designated hitter has no place in baseball.
It pains me to say it, but as long as that’s what the National League game already has become, there’s no reason to not feed the masses’ shallow lust for the longball by giving them the DH too.