Arguments for and against the designated hitter in Major League Baseball are as old as the position itself. And by now, those arguments are well established and, frankly, very, very tired.
We know one side likes added offense, the other added strategy. We know one side is tired of watching pitchers punch out, while the other is immutably married to the grand old game's tradition. As is the case with many of our age-old, hotbed political issues in this country, it can be exceptionally difficult to get the proponents of one side of the spectrum to consider the merits of the other.
But Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak was right when he recently said there is "more momentum" for the DH in the National League than ever before, because there are too many factors accumulating in favor of the universal DH rule.
And so, rather than just totally rehash the same old pro-DH arguments that applied way back in 1973 (though I'm certain I'll rehash some of them), what I will attempt to do here is demonstrate why the modern game not only deserves the universal DH but demands it, and why I believe this rule is an inevitability -- and a tardy one, at that.
Hopefully, evidence and reason will trump emotion, though I can't necessarily guarantee it.
Pitchers are really, really bad at hitting
We love sports because of their ability to enthrall and entertain and, above all else, surprise.
But there is quite literally nothing more predictable in this or any sport than the outcome when a pitcher steps into the batter's box.
Let's start with a very simple premise: Making outs is bad. In 2015, just 16 percent of pitchers' plate appearances resulted in those pitchers successfully reaching base. This was actually a 0.7 percent jump from 2014. But any optimism associated with that rise is negated by the fact that 2014 and '15 provided us with the two lowest OBP rates for pitchers in Major League history. Last year, pitchers struck out once every 2.65 plate appearances -- the worst such rate in history.
Pitchers have always been bad at hitting. But they are unequivocally getting worse, as evidenced in this chart of weighted runs created plus (wRC+) marks in the DH era:
It would be easy enough to state that pitchers had an ugly .132/.160/.170 slash line in 2015. But what this chart gives us is the proper context of just how poorly pitchers rate when compared to a league-average hitter (an important point, given the fluctuations in league-wide offensive performance during this timeframe). It was already an unfair comparison in 1973, when the DH rule was instituted in the American League, but, as you can see, the production of pitchers has nosedived in the time since, with their collective performance not once registering even at or above zero since 1982.
So not once in the last three decades have pitchers at the plate been even 100 percent less effective than the average hitter. And as this chart indicates, this is an issue that will very likely get worse (yes, worse than .132/.160/.170) before it gets better.
Are there pitchers who are "good" at hitting? Well, sure, if "good" is used purely as a relative term.
Madison Bumgarner, for one, has a respectable .252/.280/.469 slash with nine homers and four doubles in 159 plate appearances over the last two seasons. But subject any pitcher, Bumgarner included, to the weight of a larger statistical sample, and he will be exposed. The best-hitting pitcher over the last five seasons (among those with at least 100 trips to the plate) was Zack Greinke, who compiled a wRC+ of 67 -- or 33 points below league average -- in that span. Position players who rated similarly on the wRC+ scale within that five-year timeframe were Yuniesky Betancourt, Alexi Amarista and Jose Molina.
I believe those names speak for themselves.
Bottom line: When you send pitchers to the plate, you diminish the quality of the competition.
Pitchers are understandably bad at this
Every light-hitting utility man in history has bemoaned his lack of consistent at-bats and the havoc such erratic opportunity plays on his stat line. Pitchers have the same excuse -- and Bumgarner's recent output, in light of his every-fifth-day schedule, is nothing short of amazing (and, alas, an outlier).
But this obviously goes far beyond the (lack of) accumulation of at-bats. Baseball, as an industry, has abandoned the concept of pitchers hitting at almost every level except the highest one. It is an unfair farce to expect a player almost totally untrained in the art of hitting to do so at an even remotely adequate level in the big leagues. And yet that's the case for a majority of professional pitchers. American Legion ball adopted the DH rule 20 years ago. The National Federation of State High School Associations allows coaches to use the DH position to substitute for any single player -- pitcher or not -- in the field. And the NCAA gives coaches the option of having a DH fill in for a pitcher at the plate.
The big key, though, is what happens at the professional level, where pitchers bat only at the Double-A and Triple-A levels and only then when both teams are NL affiliates (and to say batting instruction is not a high-level priority at said affiliates is an understatement).
This means a pitching prospect drafted by an AL team, traded to an NL squad just ahead of his Major League debut and summoned to bat in said debut could very well be appearing at the plate for the first time since 12th grade, if not earlier.
Yeah, that seems reasonable.
We are now multiple generations into the DH era, and it has infiltrated virtually every level of the sport. The divide between pitcher and position player is further widened by the increased emphasis on specialization early in a player's development. And while we can certainly find issue with a parent or coach compelling a kid to focus solely on pitching at a young age, there's no denying the divide exists.
By and large, the regression in production demonstrated above is a natural byproduct of the times in which we live.
The unnecessary differentiation between leagues
MLB has been breaking down the barriers between NL and AL for years, with rampant player movement that is an obvious byproduct of free agency and umpires no longer confined to a single circuit and the "league president" title now nothing more than a ceremonial one.
The DH rule is the last remaining distinction in DNA. But the eventual implementation of the DH in the NL began to feel like a fait accompli when MLB moved the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West to create the uniformity of five teams in each division in 2013. That created the everyday Interleague schedule in which the illogical arrangement of having two different sets of rules is now spread throughout the season -- including the crux of the September playoff chase -- as opposed to two small and distinct windows of time midseason.
Given the careful construction of rosters at this level, it was already categorically unfair to ask AL teams to abandon their DH and NL teams to suddenly turn their fourth outfielder or backup infielder into a DH on the fly. But to do so in the midst of the pennant race is especially cruel.
Just as you wouldn't expect the NBA's Eastern Conference to operate without a 3-point line or the NFL's National Football Conference to operate without extra points, it is nonsense to have baseball's two leagues operate under different sets of rules -- all the more now that said leagues are so seamlessly blended in every other way.
The unnecessary injury risk
At last count, teams have invested 80 contract years and more than $1.1 billion in free-agent starting pitching this winter.
But sure, let's watch a guy like Adam Wainwright tear his Achilles running out of the batter's box to keep the tradition of 19th century baseball (when, for the record, pitchers tossed the ball underhand from a spot 45 feet away from home plate and attempted to cater to the batter's preferred pitch position) alive.
The ever-rising price tag placed on premier pitching talent makes it increasingly indefensible to ask those same pitchers to perform an athletic feat they are, generally speaking, ill-equipped to do.
Specialization is everywhere
The average game today features more than six relief pitchers, and the incidence of those relievers facing a single batter has risen more than 20 percent just in the last decade. You can't bemoan the existence of the DH position any more than you can bemoan the existence -- in both leagues, of course -- of the LOOGY reliever or, for that matter, the implementation of the data-driven defensive shift. It is deeply woven into the fabric of today's game.
Is a bat-only player any more of an abomination than a matchup specialist out of the 'pen? Of course not. Heck, if you have a problem with the existence of DHs on the grounds that they are one-dimensional athletes, you might as well take issue with the very existence of relievers, for they made a grand total of just 267 plate appearances in 2015.
At this point, pitchers and designated hitters are both specialists -- one with a specialization in run prevention, the other a specialization in run production. And to claim that the DH is anything other than a legitimate position is to ignore more than four decades of the game's history.
In fact, if you want to get truly technical, the DH is no more an affront to the game's origins than the pinch-hitter is. In the game's earliest origins, players were expected to complete their role for the entirety of the game, except in case of injury. The "pinch-hitter," therefore, was an invented specialization that evolved out of the evidence that this restriction was not essential to the spirit of the sport.
The DH fills the same role, protecting us from the increasing futility of pitchers at the plate.
Pitchers' ineffectiveness at the plate is contagious
With the acknowledgement and understanding that the Joe Maddons of the world like to bat their pitcher eighth, thus affecting these numbers somewhat, let's look at how each position in the lineup fared in each league, in terms of OPS, over the last five seasons:
1. .721 .723
2. .717 .728
3. .818 .793
4. .791 .785
5. .745 .745
6. .714 .721
7. .696 .696
8. .655 .678
9. .467 .630
You might be surprised to see the NL has fared better than the AL in the heart of the order -- the Nos. 3 and 4 spots -- and that it doesn't have more than an 11-point deficit in any spot in the top seven. But then that eighth spot comes along, and the difference between leagues becomes stark -- a 23-point gap. And the ninth spot in the NL is, of course, an offensive wasteland.
No. 8 hitters in the NL are in the rather unwinnable position of either being attacked aggressively or avoided completely as a function of batting ahead of the pitcher. In our five-season sample, they were 38 percent less likely than their AL counterparts to hit a home run.
What this means is NL pitchers have a distinct advantage over their AL counterparts in two of nine lineup spots -- or the equivalent of two full innings on a night the starter goes through the order three times.
And what it amounts to for fans is a heck of lot of intentional walks to light-hitting No. 8 hitters to bring up the pitcher in a key spot.
The "strategy" argument is weakening
With all due respect to those who believe it takes a Mensa candidate to execute a double-switch, the argument that the NL has more strategy has always been dubious.
More often than not, replacing a pitcher with a professional hitter in a key situation is a no-brainer. And making a defensive replacement rather than risk having a relief pitcher's spot come up in the batting order the following inning is even more of a no-brainer. Over the last five years, those weak-hitting No. 8 guys in the NL have been intentionally walked far more frequently than their AL counterparts (1.7 percent of total plate appearances versus 0.4 percent). That's not strategy; it's common sense, because pitchers are even weaker than No. 8 hitters.
If anything, the pinch-hit and bunt decisions are more difficult in the AL, where managers must choose between one professional hitter and another and where sacrificing outs is substantially more risky, given that professional hitters don't make outs more than 80 percent of the time, as pitchers do.
But anyway, that's not the primary point here. The point here is that the NL is more closely replicating the AL game all the time, in that pitchers are trusted with the bat less and less. This, too, is common sense, because you can clearly see the chart above that demonstrates the ever-diminishing returns associated with sending pitchers to the plate.
But here's another chart -- one showing the percentage of total plate appearances in the NL that have been occupied by pitchers in the DH era*.
*Because STATS LLC did not have data available for the number of plate appearances by pitchers in 1973, this chart begins in '74
Save for an aberrational spike in the strike-shortened '95 season, managers have increasingly taken the bat out of their starting pitchers' hands.
Because, you know, they're not stupid.
More than 40 years after its introduction, the DH is still decried by some as a gimmick, when, in fact, there is nothing more gimmicky than making pitchers do something they are untrained and unqualified to do. When Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about the DH rule potentially being adopted by the NL last year, this is what he said:
Commissioner Rob Manfred: "Not having NL pitchers hit would deprive us of the entertainment Bartolo Colon has given us this year."— Anthony Castrovince (@castrovince) June 2, 2015
It was a good -- and irrefutable -- line, and it showed the Commish is certainly in touch with his sport's social media sphere.
But when one of the strongest arguments for pitchers hitting is the entertainment value associated with watching a rotund man swing a bat and lose his helmet, it's really not much of an argument at all.
As performance and opportunity continue to diminish for pitchers at the plate -- and as the price tags on those pitchers continue to rise -- it is only a matter of time before MLB takes the next, natural step in its long process of blending its two circuits together and brings the DH to the NL.
Granted, this won't -- and shouldn't -- happen overnight. NL teams deserve several years of lead-up time to adequately prepare their rosters and their farm systems for the application of the DH rule. But given the compiling evidence, an increasing number of people in and around this industry believe it is going to happen.
Colon will be retired by then, anyway.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.