Those ‘purist’ arguments against the DH are dead
Jacob deGrom hyper-extended his elbow swinging a bat, but I promise I am not overreacting to the Mets ace landing on the DL to stump for the introduction of the DH to the National League.
This is not about a singular event, as troubling as it may be for the Mets.
This is about how the game is collectively played now.
Support for the DH comes down to tradition and tactics. The tradition argument — “leave the game alone” — is folly. The game has never been left alone. When the AL introduced the DH in 1973, it was revolutionary. Forty-five years later, it is tradition.
As for the tactical argument, think about the fate of the strategies being defended.
The “purists” worry about the loss of small ball (notably the sacrifice bunt) and managers having to decide whether to deploy a pinch-hitter or let a succeeding starter continue on in a close game.
Psst, come close, I want to let you in on a secret. Closer. If you haven’t noticed, small ball is dead and so is extending starting pitchers. And not just in the AL.
Teams now pretty much roundly dismiss the sacrifice bunt as a valuable strategy. This would be the seventh straight year sacrifices decrease in the NL. On average, an NL club now executes a sacrifice bunt less than once every four games. (It is less than once every 10 in the AL.)
Teams don’t want to bunt runners over any longer. Having a pitcher bat is forcing them into a strategy they don’t want to use.
As for sticking with starters, this is the NL average the last five years: 6.0 innings, 5.8 innings, 5.6, 5.5 and a record-low 5.4 this year. Having a starter removed for pitch count even when throwing a no-hitter, such as with the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler last week and the Yankees’ Domingo German this week, is now commonplace.
More pertinent is teams only want their best starter or two navigating a lineup no more than twice — even when succeeding.
As recently as 2014, there were just 92 instances of a starter not being allowed to face the No. 3 hitter a third time (or 20 batters faced or fewer) while holding the opposition to two or fewer runs. It has been 153 and 152 the past two years. In 2014, an NL starter was removed after facing a lineup twice or less 104 times. The past two years it is 214 and 205.
Teams believe multiple relievers prevent runs better than a starter being exposed to a lineup a third time, and that trumps any decision on whether to pinch-hit or not pinch-hit for a starter.
So the tactics that purists say they love already are going, going …
There also are aesthetic reasons to make the DH universal. Notably, the desire to get the ball in play more, which purists should love because it is about old-fashioned batting average. A combination of more precise individual scouting reports, defensive shifts, more use of power relievers and record velocity has put batting average on an extreme diet.
The overall major league batting average was .244, the lowest since 1972. The next season, the AL introduced the DH. The NL batting average this year was .240, the only time in the modern game it was ever lower was 1908, when it was .239. That is 110 years ago.
NL pitchers were hitting .126. That would be the second lowest ever (.125 in 2014). No surprise. Pitchers essentially never hit. From high school on, the DH is used everywhere except Japan’s Central League and the National League.
The lack of balls in play on the field has led to problematic, historic inaction. NL pitchers are striking out in 42.9 percent of plate appearances — more than 4 percent higher than the previous record. So simply having the NL adopt a rule the AL has used for 45 years would help with more balls in play — higher batting average and fewer strikeouts.
Also, since the DH is not used elsewhere, NL pitchers are doing something generally unfamiliar, thus, raising the potential of injury (like with deGrom) as each team is furiously hunting ways to decrease DL days.
Removing the DH from the NL hardly came up in 2016 CBA negotiations, as consensus was lacked on both sides. But this should be an important financial issue for the union because teams have roundly rejected older positional free agents, in general, and the lack of a DH in the NL makes it even harder for such players to land jobs.
But this is not about jobs as much as recognizing the current condition of the game. Teams don’t sacrifice much. They don’t push starters. The ball is not in play enough. Injuries are a scourge. Adding the DH to the NL is not a panacea. But it would be an improvement.
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