Forty years ago this week the American League introduced the designated hitter, or DH, and the game of baseball was forever changed.
Once the designated hitter was introduced pitchers on the American League ball clubs were no longer burdened with the hassle of having to bat. National League pitchers would continue to take their swings at the plate.
Of course there are exceptions for when the DH is and isn’t used. For example, during the World Series and Inter League play the rules of when a designated hitter is used depends on the home ballpark. National League home ballparks continue to be DH free forcing the American League pitchers to bat while the American League ballparks use the DH and force the National League teams to designate a DH for those games.
Mention the designated hitter in polite dinner conversation and one will quickly find out how divisive the topic really is among fans.
The pro designated hitter camp will point to the fact that by eliminating the pitcher as a batter the rallys can continue without the fear of a nearly guaranteed out with a pitcher batting.
The foes of the DH rule will say that having pitchers batting, despite the almost guaranteed out they provide, is a truer form of the game and is more historically accurate while creating more cat and mouse strategy between the managers.
I grew up primarily in American League towns so the DH was a common sight for me.
It wasn’t until I moved to Houston that I started watching National League games on a regular basis and in turn saw many pitchers at the plate.
Of course with the Astros moving to the American League, Houston is now a DH town as well.
Having watched both types of games over the years I have to side with the pro DH camp.
While it happens infrequently pitchers can get injured batting and running the base paths. With the amount of money that teams spend on their starting pitchers I would cringe as a General Manager of the ball club whenever a pitcher stepped up to bat.
And for all of you out there who say surely a pitcher can’t get hurt just trying to bunt or swinging wildly I give you the story of Andy Pettitte. During a feud with the Yankees over money, Houston area native Andy Pettitte decided to take his skills to his hometown Astros when he became a free agent. While this move in turn ended up allowing Roger Clemems to also join the home team Astros it was not without its share of pain for Mr. Pettitte.
As a long time pitcher in the American League who did not have to bat regularly, Pettitte injured his left elbow while trying to check a swing in his debut game with the Astros. He missed the next three weeks with a strained elbow. And as a footnote Mr. Pettittie found his way back to the Yankees at his earliest opportunity and while he is still very injury prone he no longer has to bat regularly.
Granted Pettitte is one of the more injury prone pitchers in the game and countless pitchers bat each day without hurting themselves but the fact remains pitchers can get hurt at the plate.
Risk of injury to the pitcher is far from the only reason why I think that the day of pitchers needing to bat has come and gone.
Watching a National League game where the pitchers bat is definitely not for everyone. With few exceptions if there is a runner on base when the pitcher is up you know that they are going to try a sacrifice bunt to move the runner over. If there is not a runner on base you know that the pitcher is most likely going to strike out within three pitches.
There are certainly exceptions to the rule and some pitchers can hit. But, by and large when a pitcher is up to bat everyone in the stadium knows that the at bat will result in an out one way or the other.
Of course the manager can choose to pull the pitcher out of the game and put in another better if he wants to sustain a scoring rally but that means the pitcher is out for the game and another pitcher will have to be brought in.
With the designated hitter in place, teams are not forced to choose between a pitcher having a good day on the mound or the need for a hot bat at the plate to drive in some crucial runs.
Another factor that has developed during the 40 years of the era of the DH is the lengthening of player careers.
No, I am not talking about the use of performance enhancing drugs as a means to extend a player’s career. I am talking about the ability to DH as a magic fountain of youth that has extended many careers past their normal expiration dates.
When older players can no longer play the field regularly they can make a very decent living as a DH as long as they can still make regular contact with the ball.
It is not uncommon to see players prolong their careers well into their 40’s in a DH only role.
So who is right, and who is wrong when it comes to the DH? The answer will continue to depend on the person who asks the question. I do not see a time in the near future where the DH will go away anymore than I predict a time when the National League will start using them in their home ballparks.
So, it will continue to divide people like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. One is certainly sweeter than the other but it all boils down to which one tastes better going down to the person drinking it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about soft drinks has left me a little thirsty.
Copyright 2013 R. Anderson