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February 06, 2012
The DH has enabled AL teams to overspend on free-agent sluggers. Now it's time to let the senior circuit play the same game
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February 06, 2012

Imbalance Of Power

The DH has enabled AL teams to overspend on free-agent sluggers. Now it's time to let the senior circuit play the same game

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Reacting swiftly to the loss of designated hitter Victor Martinez to a torn left ACL, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch dipped into his dough and served up $214 million for Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. The nine-year contract returns Fielder, 27, to the city where his estranged father starred 20 years ago, and seals Ilitch's reputation as a man thoroughly committed to bringing a title to Comerica Park.

Detroit signed Fielder despite having Miguel Cabrera entrenched at first base. While the Tigers have made happy noises about playing the perennial MVP candidate at third—despite the fact that Cabrera made five errors in 14 games at the hot corner in 2008, the last time he played the position—there's no way they could have signed Fielder if the rule book didn't allow them to bat both mashers while playing only one in the field. The designated hitter, which will mark its 40th season in the American League this year, has shaped team rosters since its inception, but never more aggressively than it has this off-season.

Consider where clubs are spending their money. The biggest contracts doled out to corner players have nearly all come from AL teams for the simple reason that aging bat-first players with no position to field still have a place to hide. This winter Fielder and fellow first baseman Albert Pujols switched leagues. In 2007 the Yankees signed third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the biggest contract in MLB history. Over the last three-plus years Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez and Cabrera himself have signed long-term deals. The AL has been crazy for corner players because when they get older, the league has a cozy semiretirement home for them.

The NL hasn't been able to do that. The league's money has traditionally been committed to up-the-middle players who, as they age, can move to other positions on the field. Some of the NL's biggest deals have gone to Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki and such pitchers as Johan Santana and Barry Zito. You can certainly debate the usefulness of such spending, but the underlying philosophy is clear: NL teams are less likely to tie themselves to hitters who might not be able to play the field during the later years of their contracts.

This gap between what the teams in each league can do with their money is entirely due to the accident of history that is the split-DH rule. Back in 1972 the AL was struggling with a dearth of offense and addressed it by adding, for a three-year trial beginning in 1973, a player to every lineup who would replace the pitcher (and his .145/.184/.182 line) while not playing the field. Purists lost their minds, but when scoring jumped from 3.5 to 4.3 runs per AL team per game, the DH became permanent. That wouldn't happen today, because no league has that kind of autonomy. The signature change of the Bud Selig era is the end of the leagues as distinct entities. They now exist as conferences under the MLB umbrella, and decisions are made by the commissioner's office in conjunction with all 30 teams.

But since the leagues are now unified, it's also time to unify the rules. For all the quasireligious objections to the DH, there are two generations of baseball fans who remember no other kind of American League baseball. DHs have won World Series MVP awards and had careers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. In the near future DHs are also going to be some of the highest-paid players in the game, as Rodriguez and Fielder age, as Cabrera hits the market after 2015. There's no longer any stigma attached to the role. The NL has lost the larger war. Designated hitters are the norm at nearly every level of baseball in the U.S. and around the world. It's time to make them the norm in the National League, too.

More critically, pitcher batting has become worse and worse with each successive generation, and the vast majority of pitchers are automatic outs, voluntarily or otherwise. This is evolution; pitchers have almost never been selected for their skill at the plate, save for occasional mutants like Micah Owings or Brooks Kieschnick, and when a trait isn't necessary for survival, it's bred out of a species. NL pitchers hit .171/.211/.210 in 1950, the first year for which we have data. They were down to .142/.177/.184 last year, and because of that, they laid down more than half of the NL's sacrifice bunts. It's not strategy when everyone in the park knows that with a runner on base and less than two outs, the guy in the very clean helmet standing well off the plate is going to lay down a bunt.

There are other practical concerns. Beginning in 2013 there will be interleague play every day of the season, making the awkwardness of teams playing under different rules a major issue. There may even be an increase in the number of interleague games. Should late-season games with postseason implications be impacted by the awkward hacks of some AL pitcher with nine professional plate appearances? It's like forcing the Patriots to go with Rob Gronkowski under center for a handful of snaps in the Super Bowl.

The difference between having the DH and not having the DH is no longer quaint. There's never been a better time to fix this accident of history. When the leagues realign for 2013, they should do so under one set of rules, one that includes a designated hitter in all games.

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