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The Universal Designated Hitter: A Commentary

There has been much debate about the universal designated hitter after it was used for the 2020 season. Of course, the 2020 season was a shortened season due to COVID-19 concerns. The universal designated hitter was just one of several rule changes implemented due to the extraordinary circumstances and the change to the designated hitter rule was understood to be a one-year change.

The Universal Designated Hitter: The Beginnings

The designated hitter rule was implemented by the American League in 1973. At that time, the American League and National League each had their own league president. (After the 1999 season, the league president positions were eliminated, and the two leagues were brought under one umbrella). While purists were less than thrilled at the change, the American League went ahead with its revolutionary concept.

The first universal designated hitter was the Yankees‘ Ron Bloomberg, who walked on a full count. Since that first plate appearance, the debate has raged, as many hitters have filled the role of DH in American League games. Additionally, the DH rule has been implemented in many high school collegiate, and minor league baseball leagues.

The Universal Designated Hitter: The Debate

Since its inception, the DH rule has been a source of bitter disagreement between purists and those supporting the new rule. It has also become a debate point between American League fans and National League fans. Some key areas of disagreement argued by the purists include these:

  • The DH will allow poor defensive players to hit, cheapening the game.
  • The DH eliminates the opportunity for pitchers who can hit (Madison Baumgarner, etc.)
  • The DH reduces the strategy of when to pinch-hit for pitchers, and, by extension, the ever-popular double switch.
  • The DH gives American League teams an advantage in interleague games.
  • The DH goes against long-standing traditions of the game.

While these are some of the main arguments against the DH, and, by extension, the universal designated hitter, Eli Ben-Porat offers a more detailed argument. He makes some good points, and they merit consideration.

On the other hand, supporters of the DH would counter with these thoughts:

  • Most fans really do not want to see pitchers hit. This is just a reality.
  • It is the National League that actually has the advantage in interleague games.
  • The strategy nuances affected by the DH also affect the American League.
  • The traditions of the game must be balanced with the times.

Universal Designated Hitter: Breaking It Down

Let"s compare the above points and counterpoints in more detail. The idea that defensive poor players are able to hit is a fair and indisputable point. As for pitchers hitting, one fan poll would suggest that even the best hitting pitchers generally are not good hitters. Looking at those who have pitched (and hit) most recently, here are some of the names, with their career batting averages in parenthesis.

Zack Greinke (.222); Madison Bumgarner (.179); Adam Wainwright (.200); Yovani Gallardo (.201); Noah Syndergaard (.159); Jake Arietta (.171); Travis Ward (.185); Jacob DeGrom (.188); and Steven Strasburg (.141). It seems that it would be a bit of a stretch to say that fans prefer to watch these guys hit versus big hitters like Nelson Cruz and J.D. Martinez. Universal designated hitter, anyone?

It seems clear that the National League has a strategic advantage in interleague games. Think about it for a moment. When games are played in the AL ballparks, the NL gets to add a hitter to their normal lineup, and strengthen their defense, while the AL team uses their daily lineup. In the NL ballparks, conversely, the AL team must decide whether to weaken their lineup or weaken their defense. So, they lose a hitter and have to include their pitcher in their lineup. There is no way the AL gains any advantage here.

Finally, it is time to debunk the theory that the NL requires more managing, while AL managers are on cruise control. Consider this: Yes, it is true that NL managers must think about the score when deciding to pinch-hit for the pitcher. Conversely, though, the pitcher oftentimes is asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Where is the strategy in that? One could suggest that the decision to pull a pitcher in the AL requires more thinking by the manager, based on how he looks, and not dictated by the score.

Additionally, using a DH actually leaves a manager with one less position player on the bench. Thus, one less player to use later in the game. NL managers have more flexibility in late-inning situations. In a day where teams carry as many as 13 pitchers, that extra position player can make a world of difference in close games. NL managers have that luxury, AL managers do not. Advantage: NL.

Universal Designated Hitter: Final Points

The universal designated hitter rule used in 2020 has surely sparked a debate. The debate will not end anytime soon. There is a compelling argument to be made for the universal designated universal hitter. Younger fans want to see scoring, and Stephen Strasburg strolling to the plate with his .141 average will not do it for them. Sometimes, tradition must give way to new ideas that will speak to a shrinking fan base. It is well past time for MLB to do the right thing, and implement the universal designated hitter.

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