Last weekend, the New York Yankees placed Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list after he strained both hamstrings running the bases at Citi Field. He’s expected to miss about a month.
Thanks, in part, to Ben Lindbergh’s editorial, introducing the Designated Hitter to National League baseball has the attention of the baseball commentariat right now. It’s 2018’s “pace of play” canard, if you will. Lindbergh’s argument is great if not novel. On the heels of such a silly injury, it does feel necessary. Forcing pitchers to flail like blind tennis players a few times per game is not entertaining unless you’re a sadist.
As his piece points out, the best people in the world at baseball play in the MLB, and fans watch the product, in part, because of that. But a 10% success rate is not the same as success outright. There is no other corollary for this in sports. Nobody is as bad at anything in professional sports like pitchers are bad at hitting. On a subsequent podcast episode, Lindbergh mentions a common comparison he hears is that of free-throws in basketball, which is a terrible one. Bartolo Colon whiffing himself into a cold sweat is not the same as a brick from Shaquille O’Neal. It’s closer to asking the place kicker to take four snaps every quarter.
In fairness, I’ve heard other counterarguments defending the practice. It adds strategy to the game! This is true, in the sense that each manager is forced to work around a veritable blackhole in his lineup for at least eight innings. The double switch is essentially a roundabout admission that pitchers stink at hitting. The skipper will pinch hit for his outgoing starter with a benched position player and then replace said hitter for a reliever to take the mound. Sure, substitutions are more compelling in the playoffs, when a single hit off a fatigued pitcher can change the course of the entire postseason. In the aggregate though, the strategy amounts to little more than matching lefties against righties and doing simple math. But hey, if more ad breaks are your thing.
The DH isn’t a position. Well, neither is the reliever. Joe Sheehan, equal parts snark and insight, is my favorite sportswriter and in a recent newsletter, he argues: If you accept one-inning relievers, you should accept the DH. “They’re two sides of the same coin.” Relievers rarely, if ever, see at-bats. Even in the National League. If your criticism is to count the DH as too niche of a skillset, you’d better have some thoughts on the LOOGY, too.
By far, my favorite argument for this sports travesty is pitchers should hit Because that’s the way it’s always been. Hey, baseball has been around for almost two centuries in some way, shape or form. Forcing pitchers to bat is the how the game should be played, right? Baseball has changed in its tenacity, in its rules, in its ethical mores since Abner Doubleday. Designated Hitters have been a part of that fabric for 45 years and counting. They’ve given Mariners fans this and Red Sox fans this.
Perhaps this will forever be an issue of aesthetics, and that’s fair. Many of my closest baseball friends grew up listening to Bob Uecker and Harry Caray ingraining this as the norm. I know they’d probably scoff at most of the points here. What I also know is that Masahiro Tanaka is not being paid millions to take a few at-bats against the Mets in June.