With commissioner Rob Manfred’s announcement yesterday that Major League Baseball will hold off on the universal designated hitter, it took me back to this scene when I was playing in the American League for the first time at the ripe old age of 32.
“Seriously, their starter is still in the game?” I wondered.
It’s 2003. I am an outfielder with the Texas Rangers; a lifelong National Leaguer on a one-year free agent deal in the AL West. Where am I?
Earlier in the game that day, we had knocked the starting pitcher around. My internal National League clock told me the pitcher was out of the game because he would have come to bat by now. It was the fourth inning. No way the manager would keep him in after all the hits we just racked up. He cannot get anyone out.
But he is still in there. How?
I grew up in northern New Jersey, so I had a balanced baseball experience between the AL New York Yankees and the NL New York Mets. But my favorite team was the Philadelphia Phillies, so I was an NL fan.
At the time, it was not so much about passing judgment about the caliber of the players. I saw the AL, DH-happy, Yankees steamroll their way to championships, stomping the Los Angeles Dodgers a couple of times. The same Dodgers that knocked out my Phillies many times to get to the World Series. For this reason, my eight-year-old logic told me that the Yankees, AL or not, were a good ballclub.
It helped that the NL had some very good hitting pitchers. I did not roll my eyes when Pirates pitcher Don Robinson came to bat, or pretty much anyone in the Phillies' rotation. Steve Carlton could hit, Larry Christenson, Randy Lerch, and across the league, Rick Reuchel, Rick Rhoden…. These guys were serious at the plate, and no pitcher took them lightly. It was far from an automatic out.
So, after Cubs drafted me, it locked me in as a National Leaguer. It was not until I had many years in the big leagues that my AL–NL thoughts would become a live experiment in Texas.
When you are an everyday starter, and thankfully, I was for most of my career, you don’t pay as much attention to the details since whether AL or NL, you are just in the lineup. Once in a while, you may get caught up in an NL double switch, but it is nothing personal. Just timing.
But coming up in the NL as a young player, I had to sit on the bench, platoon, pinch run, pinch hit, go in for defense. That is a different experience in the NL. At any minute you can be called on because the pitcher is coming up to bat. The first time you go in during a double switch whether in the minors or majors, it is totally confusing.
I had understood these dynamics from a distant perspective, but in Texas, I lived it. The starting players could literally play all nine innings, especially when your lineup has Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Michael Young, Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett. Ridiculous; who would pinch hit for these guys?
If you come off the bench in the AL, it is for hitting matchup reasons, late defense, or a late inning pinch, but you live independently of your team’s pitcher. He throws, and if he gets knocked around, you bring in another arm. There is no natural way to use the lineup to get him out of there, so bench players could wait on the bench, hoping for an opposing reliever in which they have good splits against to enter. Tick Tock.
I was slowly becoming a role player in Philadelphia. By 2002, I had to watch Phillies manager Larry Bowa like a hawk to see when he might call me into the game. Then it was like a five-alarm fire. “Glanville! You’re hitting here!” So you learn to be a few steps ahead (makes for a good foundation for a future manager). There weren’t quite as many fires in the AL.
The Cubs would be beneficiaries of a universal DH coming to a baseball town near you. All the debate about Kyle Schwarber’s defense or how to use Ian Happ, David Bote, or Albert Almora Jr. start to calm down when you have an extra permanent bat in the picture. You can leverage offensive firepower every time in the DH slot if you so desire, as his glove does not matter much at all. Kris Bryant, under the DH model, could bring even more gloves to the stadium to maximize any given lineup Maddon wants to slap up there. I think Maddon’s offensive chess game will now become 3D chess. Contreras, grab an outfield glove!
But keep in mind, the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds also get an extra hitter….
For Schwarber, it isn’t necessarily a great thing to be pigeon-holed as a DH as a young player. He improved last year in left field. Despite the simplicity of the concept, DH-ing takes some planning. You have to be ready after sitting on the bench for innings at a time; stay warm in Chicago Aprils. This discipline favors experience, especially when many DHs (like an Edgar Martinez) may have injuries from age and can’t do much else.
Young players are less likely to have some irreversible physical issue that makes them the perfect DH. Can’t throw? OK, go DH. Not that simple when you are a rookie and have an upside in other facets of the game. Or, you could get healthy. David Ortiz at the end of his career simply shut down defense unless it became absolutely necessary
The platooning will still be in full-effect, strategy-wise. Lefty-righty matchups; use the DH to give Zobrist a day off. It is not always who is the best bat from the rest of the bunch. A manager still has to think about what matchups will come later in the game and who needs a defensive day off.
In the meantime, spring training would sort all of this out anyway. The designated hitter debate will rage on a little longer with Manfred’s announcement, still ranting about watching a pitcher hit. I understand that, given pitchers' .150 slugging percentage in 2018. Not ideal, but we cannot dismiss the early strategic decisions managers in the NL have to make under that model. That is what made me a fan in the first place. Those days may be numbered since pitchers do not go deep in the game anymore, anyway, AL or NL.
Yet with years of Interleague play, it will be familiar territory should MLB accept the universal DH. All managers have familiarity of running a game under either set of rules. No more surprises will sneak up on these managers. Analytics will help sort it out anyway.
But while we wait, let’s cherish the NL tradition and look behind the bad swings to remember there was a time when a pitcher was in, could hit, and was going nine innings. That time may have passed (complete games are rare now) so the game must adapt, and the players will soon have to follow.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.