The Designated Debate: To Hit or Not To Hit?

Mandatory Credit: cbssports.com

Mandatory Credit: cbssports.com

Since its inception, the concept of the designated hitter has been a central topic of debate in baseball circles. The notion of a designated hitter– a player who has no fielding position and replaces the pitcher in the batting order– was floated for decades before it was adopted by the American League of Major League Baseball in 1973. Once adopted, the rule (6.10) has sparked backlash, praise, and every form of reasoned and unreasoned conflict.

As the rule stands today, it doesn’t appear that the DH rule will be dissolved; it is so thoroughly entrenched in the AL DNA that suspension of the rule would be counterproductive and chaotic. As recently as last week, when rumors were floated that the DH rule was an inevitability for the National League, uproar and debate came to the forefront again.

Most who weigh-in have very strong feelings one way or another, and as it stands today there are three options: 1. To make the designated hitter a universal rule throughout MLB; 2. To abolish the designated hitter in the American League and return to the pre-1973 AL-NL dynamic; or 3. Maintain the existing status quo. With valid arguments on all sides, and recently ignited questions of the value and legitimacy of the DH position, it’s time once again to dive head first into the great DH debate.

To Make the Designated Hitter Rule Universal:

If Major League Baseball were to make the designated hitter rule universal, it would certainly lend the game to a more offensive spectacle and the inevitable reduction of small ball and the disappearance of double switches. Such changes would allow for more robust offensive stats and more mammoth home runs, characteristics not necessarily doted on by purists but those that could tend towards attracting more youth to the sport. And, as many know, baseball is always looking to engage young fans and keep them coming back for more.

Moreover, from a financial and longevity stand point, a universal DH theoretically allows for players to extend their careers beyond ‘position’ primes. It allows for those who may have lost a step– but can still swing a bat– to extend their careers a few extra years. Truthfully, the more progressive managers elect to use the DH spot to give a player ‘rest’ without pulling them from the lineup, but the sentiment and the potential to preserve the careers of aging hitters is something the MLBPA will always support.

To the detriment of the league, however, a universal DH rule would almost completely remove baseball from a major piece of its history. From the first games played in New York City to the present day, pitchers have filled their position role on the mound and their hitting role in the lineup. With such a change to the NL rules, all that present-day history would disappear. So too would go the joy of watching interleague games, where moments like Bartolo Colon spinning like a top and Felix Hernandez hitting an eyes-closed grand slam off of Johan Santana come freshly to mind.

The most damning piece of the proposal draws deeper into the division of MLB. With universal DH rules, the NL and AL would be indistinguishable aside from cities and uniforms. So what would slow complete divisional realignment? MLB officials would relish the opportunity to schedule 18 Yankees-Mets, Angels-Dodgers, and White Sox-Cubs games each season. They would redraw the American baseball landscape, benefitting TV deals and rivalry intrigue. Though not all bad, this major series of shifts would render the game very different from where it stands today.

It seems inevitable though, in the long-term, that the designated hitter rule will be implemented universally in Major League Baseball.

To Abolish the Designated Hitter Rule from the American League:

The most obvious argument in favor of abolishing the designated hitter rule would be a swift return to the original rules of the game of baseball. But with pitchers hitting in both leagues, the argument back and forth of the safety of it would certainly escalate. Even just last season, a small back and forth developed between Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgarner, both with equally valid reasons for arguing their respective sides.

Adversely, though, such a decision would damage the reputation of baseball, giving the impression that the DH was a failed experiment, or worse that MLB thinks the rules fit for dramatic changes back and forth over the course of decades. At the most basic level, such a reversion wouldn’t make sense for the sport. And in the grand scheme of things, a decision to remove the DH rule is as likely as Barry Bonds coming out of retirement to play shortstop for the Yankees.

To Maintain the Status Quo:

In the end, the most likely of all the scenarios, in the short and medium terms at the very least, is the perpetuation of the existing system. The DH rule provides a distinguishing characteristic– and therefore distinguishable game strategies– to differentiate between the American and National leagues. It allows for those fans of tradition to watch the NL as spectacle of the great history of the game, while those who enjoy the lineup depth of the American League can enjoy the consistency and power it provides.

The only major downside to maintaining the status quo is the continued arguments and debates over the existence of the DH rule. But if that’s all it can muster by way of negatives, it seems the most equitable, and most likely, solution for a game that provides all the history and development that most any fan could ever want.

 

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