Compromise on the Designated Hitter

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Rules harmony does not require one league to adopt the DH (or non-DH) rules of the other. Hybrid solutions are feasible, and linking the DH to starting pitchers would keep many of the best aspects of both kinds of baseball, without significant drawbacks.

Personally, I like having the DH in one league. Variety is the spice of life, and there are things to like about both sets of rules. Most previous discussions on whether both leagues should have the same rules end up being about which rules are better. Last March, Beyond the Box Score’s Lance Rinker acknowledged that season-long interleague play makes the DH differences a little harder to reconcile, noting that it would probably be the American League’s rules that get adopted throughout baseball. But what if we could keep most of the best aspects of both?

During a stint at ESPN, Tom Tango suggested four hybrid DH solutions that would keep aspects of both leagues’ rules alive. While the first solution is just a matter of letting the home manager choose, the other three solutions are true hybrids -- all of which are very interesting and feasible. Unfortunately, the rich comment section is now blank, but I suggested a fifth solution there that Tom found interesting, and now that I have a platform to explain it, I’d like to do so. I do wish to disclose, however, that what I’m about to suggest was inspired by Tom.

Ask fans of National League baseball, and you’re likely to be told that their favorite aspects of not having a DH involve the substitutions that transpire. Sometimes a National League pitcher is lifted a bit early for particularly important batting situations, but most of the NL substitutions occur late in the game, whether it’s a simple pinch-hitting scenario or a more complicated string of double switches. Many American League fans claim not to miss seeing a starting pitcher bat two or three times per game, and there are many pitcher-pitcher showdowns that are less than compelling. There’s also something to be said for seeing professional hitters hit, and allowing some players to do what they do best without having to retire or play atrocious defense.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but in many respects, the best things about National League rules happen late in games, whereas the principal benefits of having a DH are generally accomplished during the first six or seven innings. That’s why I found Tom Tango’s "My Bodyguard" solution very interesting:

As long as the starting pitcher remains in the game, so does his DH. Once the starter comes out of the game, so does the DH. In short, the DH becomes a pitcher's personal batter. If the starter is pulled for a reliever, the manager can pair a new DH for that reliever. But since relievers rarely come to bat more than once, this DH would become a de facto pinch hitter.

My suggestion is this (call it "Solution 5"): what if only a team’s starting pitcher got a "Bodyguard"? What if, after a team’s starting pitcher left the game, the DH rules were no longer in place? When it became time to bring in a relief pitcher, they could get plugged into the DH’s spot in the lineup, or a manager could double switch the DH into the field by replacing a player who had been fielding. For instance, if Prince Fielder was Yu Darvish’s DH caddy, when Darvish got lifted, a reliever could replace Fielder in the lineup, or he could replace Mitch Moreland, with Prince Fielder taking over in the field at first base.

There are several benefits to this plan. All of the late-game National League rules benefits would remain; we’d see every kind of substitution in most games, and we’d get to enjoy all of the strategy involved in where the pitcher’s spot is in the order. On the flip side, though, we’d only see starting pitchers bat about as often as we currently do in American League games, and teams could still rotate players into a DH role to keep them fresh. Also, there would never be an incentive to take a starting pitcher out an inning or two earlier than a manager might otherwise have done just to bring in a pinch hitter. And while American League teams with money to spend are likely to resist change, I believe there are only two drawbacks of significance to adopting Solution 5.

Perhaps the most obvious drawback of linking the DH to the starting pitcher is that the number of plate appearances given to DHs would diminish. Although a manager might choose to move him to the field in close games, a player like David Ortiz would get fewer PAs per season. For that reason, MLB would do best to give teams some lead time for adopting Solution 5 (or for just about any other hybrid solution, for that matter), in order to accommodate existing contracts.

But is this really a big drawback? By my count, only four players got at least two-thirds of their teams’ DH starts in 2013 -- Ortiz, Billy Butler, Kendrys Morales, and Victor Martinez. Fewer and fewer American League teams have chosen to devote most DH starts to a single player in recent years, preferring instead to rotate others into that slot as a way to stay flexible and keep players fresh. This rotation approach to the DH slot is highly compatible with hybrid DH solutions, including Solution 5.

The second main drawback is the stress on the 25-man roster -- in this environment, all of the normal demands on a National League roster would still be in place, except that the need for a position player to pair with the starting pitcher would constitute an additional demand. This issue is not a minor one -- having one fewer player available late in games could threaten the number of the late-game NL substitutions that Solution 5 works so hard to keep. It may be that without yanking SPs out early for offensive reasons, teams can get by with one fewer relief pitcher. But if the additional stress on the 25-man is too much for it to bear, there is a simple remedy -- expand the 25-man roster to 26.

In a stellar 2011 piece on the topic of expanding active rosters, Jerry Crasnick reported that for a period of time in the late 50s and early 60s, the active roster limit was actually 28 on Opening Day, with teams required to winnow down to 25 within a month. And Jim Leyland’s plea from within the Crasnick article for an extra spot for doubleheaders was actually adopted for the 2012 season -- teams can carry a 26th man for both games of any doubleheader that is scheduled at least 48 hours in advance. September games can be crazy, but MLB proves every year that expanded rosters can function without the sky falling.

It may be that both leagues can continue on in the current fashion, with DH rules determined by home park. As I noted above, I like it the way it is. But if the leagues are to have the same rules, it’s not necessarily true that the choice is to DH, or not to DH. There are hybrid solutions that are very feasible. I believe that linking the DH to the starting pitcher keeps most of the best aspects of both kinds of baseball -- although I realize that most people would be unhappy with such a change. Isn’t that the mark of a good compromise, anyway?

. . .

Ryan P. Morrison is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a blog on the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsidetheZona.

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