MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed changes to improve offense are likely coming after adjustments for pace-of-game issues. He’s considering serious changes like outlawing shifts, lowering pitching mounds and tweaking the ball to make it fly further.
He also suggested forcing the designated hitter (DH) upon the National League.
A brief history of America’s pastime – baseball as we know it took form in the mid-19th century under New York-style rules. The Cincinnati Red Stockings became America’s first professional baseball team in 1869, prompting creation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA) two years later to handle allegations of fixed games. The NA collapsed in 1875 with games left unplayed, league mismanagement and continued allegations of cheating. In 1876, a Chicago businessman at the helm of an NA team organized a meeting in New York City to create a more stable successor. The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was born.
The National League had rather strict rules as a result of the previous shenanigans. Teams were forced to play their whole schedule even if they couldn’t make the championship game, players were restricted from moving between clubs and suspicions of cheating continued. Multiple competitor leagues formed, the most successful being the American Association in 1882. Both leagues merged to form a 12-team NL in 1892 before eight formed an American League in 1901.
Back then, pitchers in both leagues batted. The concept of a DH was first introduced in 1906, but found little momentum until the late 1960s. Attendance was way down in AL games, with nine of the 12 teams drawing fewer than a million customers in 1972. The DH was approved for a three-year trial the following year. Meanwhile, a NL vote on the DH in 1980 ended up failing 4-5 with three abstentions because Philadelphia Phillies management couldn’t contact ownership about their vote. St. Louis fired their general manager – the leading proponent for the change – five days later and the measure has never since been considered.
The argument to institute the designated hitter across both leagues is the same now as it was then – pitchers looking pathetic at the plate. The average hitter in 2015 sported a .721 OPS, with pitchers earning a paltry .329 OPS. Perhaps it’s due to small sample size, but seven of the 15 teams with highest on-base plus slugging came from the American League. Small sample size, however, is not an issue with the comparison between team and pitcher OPS. Those figures have been very similar even going back into the steroid era at the turn of the millennium. Where was the clamoring for pitchers not to hit back when offense was king and everyone wanted a roided-out bopper to hit 70 home runs?
I’ve also heard the argument that a DH-led American League clobbers the National League weaklings. It is true the AL won nearly 56 percent of the 300 interleague games last season. What’s also interesting is how the senior circuit had fewer than 1.5 percent less wins than their junior counterparts, revealing how little impact the interleague series actually have on a full season.
It’s not like the designated hitter is powering AL teams to title after title either. In all 113 years since the first World Series was held in 1903, the American League has won 64, or almost 58 percent, of World Series. However, the DH was not implemented until the 1973. Counting from that season on, the junior league has only won 23 titles compared to the senior circuit’s 19. The argument could be made that adding a tenth hitter in one league has actually led to parity between the leagues, although it holds just as much water as claiming the AL’s DH is a disadvantage for the NL. It’s worth noting both sets of numbers include the New York Yankees league-leading 27 series wins, significantly skewing the figures.
Attendance was the other argument in favor of forcing the DH upon the NL. Supposedly fans are so disinterested in watching pitchers bat it’s damaging the game. But the funny thing is the facts don’t seem to support that. Nine of the 15 MLB teams with the highest total attendance figures for 2015 were National League clubs. Some familiar faces like St. Louis, Detroit and Boston are high on the list, but the lowly Colorado Rockies sit at no. 14 with 2.5 million paid attendance compared to playoff-bound Houston Astros at no. 22 with 2.15 million. Speaking of postseason play, all five National League teams to punch their ticket for the dance finished in the top 15 in total attendance, but the AL West winning Texas Rangers finished at no. 16 with 2.49 and their Houston counterparts even further below.
Perhaps the most damning argument against pushing the DH into the National League are the overall offensive numbers from last season. League A finished with an average slash of .253/.316/.397 and a 284.8 WAR. League B finished with an average slash of .255/.318/.412 and a 285 WAR. The numbers are close, so close I won’t reveal which is which.
We’ve reviewed how the designated hitter is a johnny-come-lately in a sport with a rich history; pitchers aren’t hitting any worse lately; the American League’s World Series dominance is eroding; National League teams saw larger crowds at the ballpark last season; and comparing 2015 offensive stats between both leagues is a waste of time. I’ve yet to see a pro-DH argument that isn’t just that.