While it’s been a bit of a quiet month in baseball, especially for the “Stand pat” Jays, it’s not been without things to comment upon. In particular new commish Rob Manfred marked his one year anniversary on the job by having some Q&As which are telling as to how the game may look different soon. Possibly as soon as next year after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached (we hope!) next winter. First and foremost on the agenda – the DH.
Says Manfred, in an Associated Press interview, “Twenty years ago when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment… there has been turnover and I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change.” Sounds a lot like “like it or lump it”, you traditionalists from Wrigley, St. Louis, along the Ohio River, your team’s going to have the DH in 2017. I say you should like it anyway.
First off, the numbers don’t lie. The last time the NL won the interleague competition over the course of the season was 2003. Last year the AL took 167 of 300 total interleague games, a solid .566 percentage. The overall balance of talent comes into play here, but the DH also seemingly plays a role (as much as our AL teams are at a disadvantage in NL parks). While the National teams have the upper hand at home, since their starting pitchers are used to getting a few ABs and the visiting American Leaguers aren’t (Marco Estrada was the hitting star among Blue Jays pitchers last year going all of 2 for 6) . But given how few solid hitters there are among the NLers, the advantage is marginal. Our American League teams have a solid advantage at home of course, being able to use the DH. Few NL teams have players of the calibre of Edwin Encarnacion or David Ortiz riding the pines. Why would they, with the expectation of using them for only ten games a year?
That considered, it might seem odd that this Blue Jays fan would want to alter the status quo. After all, Toronto were 12-8 against the NL last year, and in fact every AL East team posted a winning interleague record. However, I’m first and foremost a baseball fan and – yes, I’m going to say it – the AL model is more fun to watch. Nothing kills excitement more than a pitcher coming to the plate with runners on and two outs. Hell, even the few pitchers who can hit are sometimes told to waste their at bat because the management is worried about injuries with the pitcher running. Among NL pitchers last year, Taylor Jungmann of Milwaukee led (among those with 25 or more at bats) with a .270 average. However he managed to drive in exactly zero runs in his 37 times up. Madison Bumgarner might be the cream of the crop with a .247 average, five homers and respectable .743 OPS. But for every Bumgarner or Tyler Ross (.250/1/6) there are a ton of John Lackeys out there. Lackey hit .113 last year and sports a career .108 average with 5 RBI in 120 at bats.
Adding the DH will add a little offense to the game, which let’s face it, fans like. Last year there was an average of 8.5 runs/game, up from the previous year but still way below the 10 per game at the height of the steroid era. Likewise, last year’s overall batting average of .254 was up a couple of points but well below the .271 clip set in 1999. Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that attendance has stabilized at about 30 400 per game in the last few years, decent but about 2300 fewer butts in the seats per game than in 2007. A run or two more per game might reverse that trend; likewise a little quicker pace. And the DH will deliver that as well. In 2015, MLB set a record high of 8.2 pitchers used per game on average. That’s a lot of pitchers and a lot of warmup pitches, a lot of minutes lost while hurlers jog across the field. Part of that of course is the extreme specialization of many bullpens in this day and age but part too is from NL teams pulling the plug on pitchers prematurely in order to bring a pinch hitter to the plate. If adding the DH to the National results in even one less pitcher used per game there, you get a savings of a couple of minutes on the games which we’re always being told drag on too long.
And of course, the main reason to implement the DH across the board now is continuity. Young pitchers coming through the minors aren’t taught to hit, they live and die by the DH. Even most Japanese pitchers don’t hit, although their situation mirrors North America with one league Nippon Central, using pitchers hitting while another one, Pacific League, using the DH. The interleague Japan series works like our World series, with DH used in parks of teams that normally use it. It hardly seems wise therefore, to expect young pitchers coming to Atlanta or Phoenix to suddenly perfect a skill they weren’t taught in the minors and wouldn’t need if they ended up in Toronto or Boston.
Players will like the expansion of the DH; it will lengthen careers of weak-fielding, hot hitting veterans (can anyone say “Ryan Howard”?) . As well, with 30 teams bidding for the services of their like, instead of 15, it should drive up salaries based on supply and demand. Owners might not like that aspect, but will be relieved not to worry about their stud investments like Adam Wainwright injuring themselves running out grounders or trying to steal bases. Fans should like the increased offense and potentially quicker-paced NL games as well as getting to see aging favorites for a season or two more. Think back if you will, to the impact Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor had on the championship teams for Toronto… two players who’d have been out of the game by the time the Jays got them, were it not for the DH.
Manfred’s first year has had a few blips but has been reasonably good for baseball. Installing the DH across the board in 2017 will be a great start for his legacy in the game.