Adding the DH to the NL is a half-measure; here's the full measure

May 15, 2020

Should Major League Baseball owners and players agree that the National League would use a designated hitter if there is a shortened baseball season this year, it would make all sorts of sense. For decades, it’s felt inevitable that the NL would adopt the DH because players want another starting job, owners don’t want weak-hitting pitchers to get at-bats, and apparently the parties felt that coronavirus negotiations would be the right time to finally go through with it.

In recent years, I’ve come to to accept the NL’s inevitable capitulation on the DH, even though the DH, as a concept, still feels incorrect. Yes, every league I’ve ever played in — youth through high school through adult rec leagues — had some version of one or multiple DHs allowed in the lineup, but there’s something smoothly satisfying about a lineup that has nine players, all of whom hit and field.

But as long as there’s a DH in MLB, and we’re completely dispensing with symmetry and the principle that each player who hits is assigned a position in the field, it’s worth thinking about whether even greater specialization would make baseball better. What if the manager were allowed to use as many DHs as they wished in the lineup?

There are all sorts of implications for roster construction, player salaries, and so on, but I think this would result in a net positive for fans’ enjoyment of the game.

Consider a roster with 26 players. Right now, teams tend to carry either 12 or 13 pitchers, so let’s say our imaginary team carries 12. That leaves 14 position players: perhaps two catchers, seven infielders, and five outfielders, with some secondary positional flexibility.

If a manager were allowed to use as many DHs as they wanted, that means they could use as many as six DHs — one for the pitcher, then five more guys who would bat in place of individual fielders. Three players would both hit and play in the field.

At least to start, with rosters as they are now, I suspect few teams would use more than three DHs regularly: for the pitcher, the catcher, and perhaps as a way to get a slugger with a relatively weak glove off the field. Teams also wouldn’t often go with a maximum DH strategy because they’d still want substitutes in case of injury or for late-inning platoon purposes.

To pick just one team, take the Reds. Besides pitchers, they’d likely DH for whoever is their catcher that day, and then perhaps have Nick Castellanos DH so a better outfielder could take the field. They might even have Aristedes Aquino DH, if they can find enough quality defenders to make it worthwhile.

Longer-term, the Reds, and just about every other team, would probably adjust their player development strategy to give more opportunities to defense-only players while at the same time giving extra weight to players who prove they can play both ways at premium positions. Someone like prime Buster Posey would be even more valuable because his ability to both hit and field at a top level would open up a DH roster spot for someone at another position that might not ordinarily get DHed. Another effect might be that more top fielders would get time at first base as players like Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo — perfectly competent fielders, but hardly artists with the glove — get moved to DH. In other words, top teams really would have no weak spots in the field or in the lineup because they would be able to make use of one-or-two-dimensional specialists.

In the end, I’d still much rather see a game of nine fielders who are the same guys in the lineup. Failure and inability to execute are part of what makes a sport dynamic and exciting. But as long as we’re embracing the idea that fans want to see the most skillful competitions possible, then more specialization makes sense, which means allowing teams to figure out how to get more good fielders on the field and more good hitters to the plate, and thus liberalizing the DH rule.

(Photo: “Baseball Player Hitting a Ball at AT&T Park in San Francisco” by Nan Palmero. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)