Why The National League Should Have Designated Hitters


Haha! Didn’t think I’d make my comeback with a post about baseball, now did you? Well, to be honest, I also wrote a post on whether the electoral college should exist, but it was too short.

This post is my response to Tom Hitchner’s characteristically excellent post at Wrigleyville. Everyone should be reading him, especially people who don’t follow sports. He will make you sound much smarter than your friends who do.

I’ve been away. I’m glad to be back.



Dear Tom,

Your post made me confront an issue I haven’t concerned myself with in a while. As a Braves fan, my position on the DH was simple: I thought it was “realer” baseball to do without one, since I was strictly a National League fan. (You know, the Golden Era of baseball, Babe Ruth was a pitcher, blah blah blah.) And, from this comfortable standpoint, I occasionally turned my attention to the American League with an uncomfortable feeling of jealousy.

I cannot support your position on the two leagues because I’m a Platonist. Imagine that the American League did not allow instant replays for disputed calls, and the National League did. Obviously, this would be unacceptable and short-lived. Well, that’s the situation with the designated hitter. The rules of the game are absolutes. There’s no chess game in the world where you can’t capture a pawn “en passant.”

This unresolved situation appears to produce “good arguments on both sides,” but that’s really a function of the randomness inherent to any game. Of course some non-DH games produce interesting dilemmas. By the same token, some poker players actually believe that having had pocket aces “cracked” means they should play pocket aces more cautiously. They are wrong.

The reason we need designated hitters is very simple: player management in general — and pitcher management, in specific — has become overly specialized. (It seems, as James Joyce once wrote, that Buck Showalter is to blame.) The obsessive use of the bullpen, combined with double switches, pinch runners, and so on, ruins the narratives unfolding within each game. Would “Casey At The Bat” be equally good if Casey was pinch-hitting in the ninth? Is a combined no-hitter as awe-inspiring as a solo no-no?

It might seem like making pitchers hit encourages them to be more “well-rounded,” but since they don’t ever swing the bat at the most epic moments in a game, that’s a non-starter. In the rare instances when a pitcher stays in, after an agonizing managerial decision, he is usually replaced with a different runner if he does reach base. The story of the game disintegrates into a collage of managerial decisions and moving parts — and the worst of it is, Buck Showalter was wrong.

I’ll say it again: he was wrong. If pitchers were really as specialized as their portfolios suggest, John Smoltz could never have become a closer. The main advantage of changing pitchers (namely, that the batter hasn’t faced them yet) is also what makes those match-ups less interesting. Instead of a story about why a batter is 0 for 3, we hear commentary about how the batter did last May, facing this reliever in Cincinnati.

The fantasy players can keep their expensive trades for statistically overvalued closers. At baseball’s heart is its stories. To paraphrase Darryl Zanuck, when there’s a DH, the kid stays in. The pitcher. With but one inning more to play.