Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is It Time for NL to Add Designated Hitter?

Being a National League-oriented baseball purist, I have always scorned the American League and their use of the Designated Hitter.  We've heard all the reasons why the National League-oriented baseball purists don't like it.  I won't even bother to rehash all the anti-DH rhetoric.  Whatever has been said before hasn't changed the reality of the situation; the Designated Hitter is not going away.

Next year, the long-time National League franchise - the Houston Colt 45's/Astros/Colt 45's - is switching from their role as doormats of the National League Central to super-doormats of the American League West.  At that time, both leagues will be comprised of fifteen teams, and thanks to that even balance of teams in each league, the novelty of inter-league play will be long gone, as inter-league play in 2013 will be happening somewhere in MLB, for a full 162-game slate; no exceptions.
I suppose for some pitchers in the American League, having the opportunity to bat in a real, live game when  playing a National League opponent in their ballpark is an exciting adventure.  For others, it's a terrifying experience, especially if they somehow manage to reach base.  Of course, the best strategy for accomplishing that unlikely feat is to stand in the batter's box like a statue, and never, ever swing at anything.  Occasionally, the opposing pitcher will psyche himself out and begin "guiding" his pitches to the plate, which of course, results in a total loss of control, known as the "base on balls".

God forbid, the number eight hitter reaches base with less than two outs, forcing the pitcher to attempt the dangerous act of bunting the runner to the next base.  Baseballs travelling at 95 mph with sharp-breaking movement - up, down, over, in, and all around the plate - are dangerous projectiles; just ask AJ Burnett, the former Yankee-now-Pirate pitcher, who hasn't had much experience at the plate in recent years.  AJ was attempting to perform some rudimentary bunting drill shortly after arriving at the Pirates' Spring Training facility in Bradenton, Florida in early March, when he fouled a bunt attempt straight back into his face, breaking a bone beneath his right eye socket, which required surgery.  He'll be out of action for another couple of months, giving him plenty of time to contemplate how much he's going to enjoy playing in the National League again, where pitchers get to hit!

Aside from getting hit by a pitch that breaks a bone, causes a contusion, or causes potentially significant head trauma, there are a variety of other ways for pitchers to jeopardize their safety; merely swinging at a pitch could cause a strained oblique (the latest injury trend these days), or other such muscle strains and/or tears.  Although a lot of pitchers are great athletes who love to compete, many aren't so adept at running the bases; consequently, if they happen to reach base somehow, they greatly increase the risk of sustaining some sort of freak injury; maybe even the "career-ending" type.

Back in 1972, the Cardinals had a colorful and very talented up-and-coming young pitcher by the name of Scipio Spinks.  In addition to a blazing fastball, Scipio also had blazing speed on the bases; in fact, Cards manager Red Schoendienst used him to pinch run from time to time.  Unfortunately, on July 4, 1972, in a game at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Spinks singled, then later tried to score all the way from first on a double; running through the third base coach's frantic "stop" sign, Scipio tore ligaments in his right knee while sliding into home, which was being guarded by Reds catcher Johnny Bench - an immovable object.  The only good news for Scipio:  He was safe.  The bad news:  He was lost for the season.  Prior to that collision, Spinks had compiled a 2.67 ERA in 16 starts; however, thanks to notoriously low run support from his teammates, his won loss record was only 5-5; which probably explains why he tried to score on that play to begin with - runs were hard to come by when he was pitching!

Spinks returned to the starting rotation the next season, but he wasn't the same; he pitched poorly in '73, compiling a 1-5 record with a 4.89 ERA before having shoulder problems which essentially ended his career.

The moral of the story:  Even athletic pitchers who know how to hit and run the bases should not be allowed to hit nor run the bases, because they get hurt a lot.  Even the great Cardinal pitching legend, Bob Gibson - a tremendous all-round athlete - got banged up running the bases late in his career; the bum knee he got as a souvenir for his base running exploits hastened his retirement after the '75 season.

Most people know Dodger great, Sandy Koufax retired from baseball shortly before his 31st birthday, after the 1966 season, due to severe arthritis in his left (pitching) elbow.  Certainly, pitching didn't help his condition, but the elbow was originally injured while on the bases; diving back to the bag on a pick-off attempt, Koufax landed hard on the elbow, and the trouble had begun.

Why run the risk of having someone like a Roy Halladay or a Tim Lincecum running wild on the bases when their specialty is keeping the opposition from running wild on the bases?  It makes no sense, especially from an economic standpoint.  There are too many millions of dollars at risk nowadays to justify an antiquated adherence to the National League rules (I thought I'd never say that).

It's not really the extra offense that makes adding the DH a logical alternative now for the National League to adopt; it's more about allowing normal position players (who actually know how to handle a bat) to hit and run the bases, instead of pitchers.  So yes; it's time for the National League and American League to get on the same page, especially when the increased inter-league activity happens in 2013.

The two leagues have played by different rules for over 40 years now.  Although the DH position hasn't generated as much offense as originally expected, it's still more compelling to watch them swing the bat and run the bases than the average pitcher.  Ten or fifteen years ago, there may have been a few good-hitting pitchers out there - Greg Maddux, Mike Hampton, Tom Glavine, and Rick Ankiel (now an outfielder) - just to name a few; but that number seems to be dwindling to the point of absurdity.  Some of these guys are actually so inept at handling a bat, they're putting themselves at great risk just stepping into the batter's box.  Should I mention AJ Burnett again?

The bottom line is quite simple:  By adopting the Designated Hitter rule, the National League will be creating a bit more offense for the fans to enjoy, while giving its teams added flexibility with their lineups, and of course, protecting its most valuable commodity - pitchers - from banging bunt attempts off their noggins and whatnot.

Yes, baseball fans; it's time!

No comments:

Post a Comment