A Rules Rule Of Thumb

When St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright hurt himself–and thus ended his season–while batting a few weeks back, the baseball landscape frothed with new manifestations of an old argument: Should we eliminate the DH entirely from the game? Maybe both leagues should use the DH? Can we at least, dear God, agree to use one set of rules, whatever they may be? Oh, the agony!

All these questions have very simple answers. What should we do about the DH? Nothing, of course. No need to fix what’s not broken…

The DFR: BaseballThe only novelty in this latest round of Designated Navel-gazing comes from the fact that it was inspired by on-field incidents. Along with Wainwright, Max Scherzer helped fuel this thing when he too hurt himself batting. Wainwright and Scherzer are hardly the first pitchers hurt while batting; one wonders why so much angst boiled to the surface just because a couple of guys found batting too challenging to their physical beings.

Of course, that perspective is needlessly narrow. Baseball’s babbling class is always on the lookout for a reason to argue about the DH. It’s a perennial favorite, like “the game’s too slow,” or “who belongs in the Hall of Fame (steroids era edition),” or “the balls are juiced.” (Come to think of it, it’s been a while since we heard much about the balls being juiced; given the relative lack of offense lately, maybe winding those cores a little tighter may be in order.) Just like politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table, the DH is sure to raise an argument if you bring it up within earshot of baseball fans.

The rule of thumb for rules is simple: if there’s no real problem, don’t break your neck looking for a solution.

Usually, the anti-DH partisans argue their point based on half-baked notions about the “purity of the game.” (Note: this is different from the “integrity of the game”–a concept with real validity and largely the subject of this week’s Tom Brady debate.) The anti-DH crowd will wax nostalgic about the good old days, when the game was “better” and pitchers hit because they were real athletes, dadgummit. Wainwright’s exploding Achilles tendon might argue against the athleticism of today’s pitchers (though Madison Bumgarner–he of multiple home runs last season–can supply a good counterpoint). But the gist is more about people looking backward through rose-colored glasses; theirs is a desire to see baseball revert back to its innocent, Garden of Eden state.

Funny thing about that: There actually is a book titled Baseball in the Garden of Eden. In that book, author and researcher John Thorn covers several topics related to baseball’s foundation: the game’s origins, who was responsible for creating the major leagues, what rules were laid down and what suggested rules were rejected back in the day. It’s that last part that pertains to this discussion: according to Thorn, proposals for a designated hitter rule were presented way back in the 19th century–before Whitey Ford pitched and hit for the Yankees dynasty (during the period over which the Bob Costas types get all misty-eyed); before Babe Ruth made the transition to the outfield (and all-time status as a hitter); before the American League even existed, let alone adopted the rule.

Why did baseball’s poobah’s reject the DH back in the day? Probably for the same reason some of them would like to get rid of it now, and why today’s MLB Players Association would fight such a move: because having a DH means having to pay another player’s salary. For the magnates who founded the National League and the American Association, keeping the costs down was the biggest imperative. Purity of the game? There was no such thing–nor is there any such thing today, nor will there be for the foreseeable future.

Even legitimate arguments in favor of eliminating or expanding the DH have very little validity. National League teams claim to be at a disadvantage when they play games with the DH, because they don’t have ready-made players who fit the DH mold. Too bad–get better players, and more of them, if you need to fill a lineup spot. Or better yet: wave your team’s right to use a DH; just submit a lineup with the pitcher hitting. The rules do not obligate a team to have a DH bat for their pitcher (Rule 6.10[3]; a PDF of baseball’s Official Rules is available on mlb.com). Or just start the game with a DH, then have him replace a fielder: Poof–you no longer have a DH in your lineup, and the pitcher has to hit. Are NL teams going to do that? Any takers? Are there any National League managers who are that concerned about the “integrity of the game?” Of course not.

The same goes for the obverse of that coin: is your AL team at a disadvantage without the DH? Then make sure your pitchers know how to hit, or at least that they can to bunt. Better yet, score your runs with the rest of your lineup; if the other eight players you send to the plate can’t get it done, then get better players. Problem solved.

What it all boils down to is this: changing a rule is only merited when something is actually, truly wrong with the sport. Legislation against head-hunting is necessary in the NFL, because the cost (in all ways) of guys getting blown up in helmet-to-helmet hits is simply too high. Conversely, getting into a tizzy and demanding the NBA change its rules to prevent intentional fouls against bad free throw shooters is stupid and unnecessary. The strategy only really applies to two players in the league right now; it just so happens that those two players (DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard) have been playing against each other in a playoff series–which makes the ploy’s lack of aesthetics stand out like a sore thumb. Should you really change a game’s rules just because of two players? Sanity says no.

So too with baseball and the designated hitter. If two pitchers get hurt batting, that’s no reason to change the sport’s rules. The rule of thumb for rules is simple: if there’s no real problem, don’t break your neck looking for a solution. Stop getting hysterical, keep your illusions about the good old days to yourself, and relax–and, more to the point, let the rest of us relax and enjoy the games.


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