Sunday, July 14, 2013



Although I have been opposed to the designated hitter since Ron Blomberg took the first swing at that “position” on April 6, 1973 (and walked with the bases loaded against Luis Tiant of the Boston Red Sox), I’m also a realist and realize that this well-entrenched facet of modern American League baseball is dear to the hearts of the Players’ Association and is going to be an issue when the Basic Agreement expires.

It has been stated of late that the DH is “non-negotiable,” but some analysts have also written that the union would consider negotiating it away in favor of, say, 26-man rosters, among other concessions.

How, then, to deal with the designated hitter in a manner that would be beneficial to both pro- and anti-DH forces?  Simple. Merely keep the DH.  In fact, put it in both leagues!  But  . . .  in only one game per series.

That’s right.  What sounds like something anathema to so-called “purists” would, as I will show, be an asset to the game rather than a detriment and would mollify the union by providing employment for at least a few older or one-dimensional players.

The new DH regimen would work like this: Once in a series, a manager could elect to use the designated hitter—even if the opposing manager was not using it in that game. (See Surprise Element below.) What is central to this idea is that it counters the anti-DH forces’ argument that the rule eliminates a lot of the second-guessing that is so much a part of the traditional game; my idea, in fact, creates more fodder for the armchair manager.  You could have a three-game series in which the visiting team uses the DH in Game 1, no one does in Game 2, and the home team uses it in Game 3.  Or, the middle game could have both teams using it, with the first and last games DH-less.

Consider some possibilities:  You have your No. 1 starter going against the other team’s No. 1 starter.  Is it a no-brainer that you use the DH in such a matchup . . . or do you reason that your No. 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 starter needs the help more than the No. 1 guy?  Or . . . how about a matchup pitting your No. 1 guy against the opposition’s No. 4 or No. 5 starter.  You could reason that it would be a waste of the DH opportunity in that situation, but what if the No. 1 starter has had a run of hard luck/non-support lately? You might then want to give him the added bat to help his confidence/morale (Not to mention another W in the standings).

Another possible factor with the Once-Per-Series DH: Is your starter that day also a good hitter, a la Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs back in the proverbial day? Then you might want to save the DH for another day in that series.  But not all the time, because you don’t want your complete-athlete ace to feel that he is never going to get the benefit of (a) the added bat and (b) the chance to stay in a close game longer.  And, of course, there’s always the added risk of injury every time your ace steps into the batter’s box or runs the bases.   And if it's late in the season--or a very hot day--well, the extra exertion may cost him mound effectiveness and minimize the "importance" of the two-out single he got in the fifth.

This DH system would give pinch-hitting specialists such as Jason Giambi and Eric Hinske more AB opportunities and help them stay sharp. They could get eight or ten ABs in two days (the last game of one series, the first game of the next), making them theoretically more prepared for their next game-on-the-line pinch-hitting assignment.  (All without having to put them in the field, where they have never distinguished themselves.)

Let's say the Brewers' catcher Jonathan Lucroy had two homers one night, but in an 11-inning night game.  Normally, manager Ron Roenicke wouldn't start him in the day game that follows, but Lucroy practically "owns" that day-game pitcher.  No problem here: Make him the DH, giving him half a day off and keeping his bat in the lineup--but only if Roenicke hasn't already used the DH in this series.  Again you see the myriad possiblities and the fun of first- or second-guessing.  The complexities are the heart and charm of this idea.

Yet another possibility: The DH use could backfire on a manager.  Suppose the 1998 Cubs were playing the Mets, and manager Jim Riggleman decided to use Glenallen Hill as DH in this particular game. With the score tied in the 9th inning and a left-handed hitter due up, Mets manager Art Howe brings in lefty closer John Franco.  This normally would be a perfect spot for Riggleman to pinch-hit with Hill, who has three lifetime pinch homers against Franco.  Alas, he is already in the game, having been used as the DH.  So again, even though DH has been used, the strategy/second-guessing element is very much alive, something absent in the current AL-only system.

There's even more up side. A player who might normally be placed on the disabled list (in the NL) because of an injury that hampers primarily his throwing might be kept on the active roster because of the new rule. He could still contribute while he heals. Or a player who is actually on the DL could be brought back sooner (say the 15-day rather than the 21-day list) for similar reasons.

And, of course, central to all of this is that the DH would, many times, be in use by only one of the teams in a given game. (The surprise element idea, if workable, would help promote this possibility.) So you might have a crucial late-season Yankee-Red Sox series unfold with the visiting New Yorkers using the DH in the opening game of the series, hoping to get off to a good start, and the host Red Sox saving it for the last game, just in case.  All, of course, leaving room for speculation and second-guessing by the paying customers.

Baseball’s current schedule quirkiness would make this idea all the more fun.  They’re trying to eliminate the two-game series, but there will always be four-game series, so which of the four games will the manager pick?  What about those late-season five-game series created by rainouts? And what will the manager’s record be in DH games vs. non-DH games (giving stats junkies yet another category to play with)?  And does a poor record necessarily mean that the manager picked the wrong games . . . or that his DH du jour hit four screaming liners right at someone?

Postseason?  I see it working this way: The DH would be restricted to one use in a team’s road games, one at home.  Think of the second-guessing/strategic possibilities there!  (You used your DH in the opener at home, and now it’s Game 7 at home and you can’t do it) And think of the mental aspect vis a vis closers in such a format.  One guy has more tough outs than the other if he has to face a DH type.  True, this DH could be the guy he’d be facing as a pinch hitter anyway in the current NL system, but the difference here is that the man isn’t coming up ice cold from the bench—he has had three or four previous at bats.

Too gimmicky? Baseball has not only survived but prospered following the advent of such once-heretical proposals as inter-league play and the wild card and now even a second wild card and instant replay.  But as the years pass, the controversy and debate engendered by those innovations begin to fade.  But this Once-Per-Series DH idea would provide for an endless round of discussion, debate and second-guessing, something the current DH does not.  It’s just there, and although you can debate its raison d’etre, there’s no specific-situation “should he have or shouldn’t he have” material for debate.  At least not as much as is the case with my idea.

Is the designated hitter the way baseball “was meant to be played?”  No.  But the so-called purists neglect to mention that the game originally was played with—what?—nine balls and five strikes? With fans standing in the outfield.  With gloves about one-fourth the size of today’s variety.  With the high mound. With the spitter legal. Without batting helmets, batting gloves and all of the other body armor that today’s players wear. Without lights or domed stadiums. At least this DH idea would have both leagues playing the same way.

At the very least I think this idea merits a one-year trial.

Surprise element:  Though this might run counter to current baseball protocol (the protocol that has managers providing their starting pitching plans a week or so in advance), I envision a surprise element making this DH idea even more intriguing. That is, the opposing manager wouldn’t know until the lineup cards were exchanged if his opponent was using the DH or not. If a manager did want to keep the surprise element alive, he could easily have an extra player or two take batting practice with the regulars, just to keep people guessing.  Then again, managers might figure that the negative aspect (not knowing) cancels out the advantage of keeping the other manager in the dark, so, as with the declaring of starting pitchers, it might be better to just put all the cards on the table and be done with it.

But all that can be worked out if my idea is adopted. Remember, you read it here first!  I'll be glad to lend an innovation to the Grand Old Game, and who knows?  There could be a Jim Szantor Bobblehead Night coming to a stadium near you.

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