The Sports Revolution: The NL and the DH

Let me set the scene for you: It is the World Series, and designated hitter Hideki Matsui goes 8-for-13 en route to winning Series MVP for the Yankees. The men the Phillies add to their order in the Bronx, Ben Francisco and Matt Stairs, go 1-for-11.

Let me reset the scene for you: It is the World Series, and designated hitter Hideki Matsui has a tremendous hot streak en route to winning Series MVP for the Yankees. The Phillies, however, acquitted themselves nicely, stretching the series to seven games with the aid of their own designated hitter, Jim Thome.

Now, Pierre should not need to tell you that he is against the designated hitter. Pierre is a man of reason, and that should inform you of his stance on that issue.* But since he sees no hope for the elimination of the designated hitter in the near future, he is forced to advocate for an even more extreme solution: The National League must begin using a designated hitter, as well.

*Just to enumerate, briefly, the reasons why: The DH to solve two problems that no longer exist: sagging American League attendance and a lack of offense. The problem it solves now—that pitchers cannot hit—is one it largely perpetuated.

“Blasphemy!” you say. The National League is the home of wily managers, pitchers that can bunt, and versatile utility players. It is where double switches and butcher boys* survive as endangered species. It is baseball the way baseball was meant to be played.

*Anyone who doesn’t know what a “butcher boy” is is clearly unfamiliar with the career of Al Leiter.

I agree with all of these sentiments. But I also acknowledge these dangerously modern times of ours, and the clear mandate handed down by Matsui’s Yankees in the World Series: In order to compete with the AL, the NL must betray its principles.

Matsui’s performance confirmed my long-held suspicion that the designated hitter gave the American League a distinct advantage in interleague matchups. My reasoning: In games held in American League parks, a National League team is forced to use an inferior bench player as its DH. Simply look at the Phillies, who used Matt Stairs—a man who hit below .200 for the season—and Francisco*—a man who hit .250 and had but 97 at-bats in the final two months of the season.

*I understand that Raul Ibañez was technically the Phillies’ DH in games Francisco played. But Francisco was the hitter added to the lineup for these games, as Ibanez started even in Philadelphia.

Contrast their numbers with those of Matsui, who during the season had 456 at-bats and hit .274 with 28 home runs.

Now, the counter to my argument is that, while the AL has an advantage in AL parks, the NL gets it in NL stadiums. Losing the designated hitter is a crushing blow to many AL lineups, which are forced to trot out anemic half-lineups with Nick Swisher hitting fifth as the Yankees did in Game 5 against Cliff Lee. Some even extend this argument, saying that National League pitchers hold a distinct advantage at the plate over their American League counterparts.

The problem here is this: Most designated hitters are able to play the field for three or four games without major incident. For instance, the Red Sox were able to play David Ortiz at first base in both 2004 and 2007. Instead of losing the biggest bat in their lineup, they lost Kevins Millar and Youkilis, respectively, probably the fourth or fifth best hitters in those lineups.

Second, those designated hitters that can’t play the field (read: Matsui, who still couldn’t crack the starting lineup over a struggling Swisher or Brett Gardner in Philadelphia) could never play in the National League to begin with! The NL team has “lost” that presence in their lineup before ever even having it! Just look at Matsui’s suitors this off-season; what rational National League team will pursue him?* And even if he signs with an NL team, what are the chances he plays in as many games and supplies as much production during the regular season, let alone still having the legs to go 8-for-13 in the World Series?

*The Mets do not qualify as “rational.”

Now, we get back to my initial hypothetical, and the reason I used Jim Thome specifically as the Phillies’ designated hitter. You may forget that four years ago, Jim Thome was on the Phillies. He was their best hitter. He got hurt, and they called up Ryan Howard to play first base. Ryan Howard turned out to be very good. And so the Phillies, with two great players that played the same position, were forced to make a decision. They traded Thome to the White Sox, who also happened to have a great first baseman, but who could make Thome a DH.

You don’t need Pierre to tell you how potent the Phillies’ lineup could have been these last four years if they never needed to trade Thome,* who likely would have batted seventh for them this season.

*Yes, in return for Thome, the Phillies received Aaron Rowand, who they played ahead of Shane Victorino in 2006 and Jayson Werth 2007. Suffice it to say, their lineup probably would have been better served sans Rowand and with Thome and Victorino/Werth. I mean, they did win the World Series after letting Rowand walk as a free agent.

The point of all this is that the American League holds a distinct advantage in constructing a lineup in the off-season. Adding Matsui is a smart move this winter for an AL team and a very dumb one for an NL team, as was the case with David Ortiz in 2003 for Boston. National League teams would love to be able to stockpile a quality hitter for the World Series, but this doesn’t make long-term financial sense (who can spend $10 million on a pinch-hitter) or really any baseball sense, since whoever starts for the National League at DH generally has so few recent at-bats as to render them ineffective, regardless of how good they are.

Furthermore, having the DH allows AL teams the opportunity to keep stars in the lineup while simultaneously resting them. Think of the turn-of-the-century Mets. First, they never would have needed to trade Todd Hundley after acquiring Mike Piazza. Second, they could rest Piazza throughout the season by playing him at DH, thereby meaning he would not have missed multiple playoff games in his career and he would have been fresher for the ones he did play in.

And if you think the American League doesn’t have an advantage when it comes to playing these World Series, well, just look more closely at the few NL teams to win the Fall Classic this year. The ’01 Diamondbacks practically had a designated hitter in Erubiel Durazo, who split time with Mark Grace at first base. The ’03 Marlins, once they called up Miguel Cabrera, had nine regulars with Cabrera splitting outfield time with Jeff Conine. The ’08 Phillies benefited from playing the Rays, a rare AL team who didn’t have a regular DH (Cliff Floyd got a plurality of starts there with 80; the ’08 Rays are the only AL team to use multiple DHs in a World Series since the ’01 Yankees, who also lost). And the ’06 World Series never happened. You can see that the NL teams that won weren’t particularly disadvantaged at the designated hitter position.

It says a lot indeed about who the NL plays at DH when Erubiel Durazo is the best the league has started at the position this decade. Here is the complete list of other players to start at DH in the World Series for an NL team this decade (regulars who started at DH but at their normal position in games at NL parks have asterisks next to them, along with the player the team had to add to the lineup in parentheses): Raul Ibañez* (Ben Francisco), Matt Stairs, Gregg Dobbs, Chris Coste, Ryan Spilborghs, Scott Spiezio, Chris Duncan, Jeff Bagwell,** Marlon Anderson, Reggie Sanders* (So Taguchi), Jeff Conine, Pedro Feliz, Shawon Dunston, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Erubiel Durazo, Lenny Harris, and Mike Piazza* (Todd Pratt). Those 17 players are a combined 13-for-79 this decade. That’s a .165 average. Their AL counterparts, buoyed by Matsui’s 6-for-10 this year, are 23-for-83, or .277.

**Before you castigate me for calling Durazo better than Bagwell, remember that the latter had an even 100 at-bats in 2005, the year the Astros appeared in the World Series.

Not so coincidentally, NL teams are 16-12 at home in the World Series this decade and 6-19 on the road. That is, I think, a big difference, and the main one holding the National League back in these Fall Classics. And so, NL, it is time to step, albeit begrudgingly, into modernity. Release your general managers from the shackles of tradition and sign yourself a DH. You’ll thank me in October, or November, or whenever the 2010 World Series ends.

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  1. […] And we are… « The Sports Revolution: The NL and the DH […]

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