To DH or not to DH: That is the question (again?)

Jim Rogash

After 40 years, is it finally time for the National League to join their American League friends and adopt the Designated Hitter?

Hey, I can follow baseball writers on Twitter as well as the next guy. It's a good thing too! Because otherwise I wouldn't have begun to think that today would be the day to argue about the Designated Hitter! My thanks to The Week's Anna Hiatt for raising an issue that will, I hope, live forever:

Nonetheless, for fans, having to dread at bats from the number-nine slot in the lineup only to suffer through watching pitchers crouch in an awkward stance, bat dangling somewhat askew, and then feebly swinging through fastballs that they stand no chance of hitting — well, it's really one of the worst things about National League baseball.

It doesn't have to be this way. It's time for the National League to yank pitchers out of the batter's box by adopting the designated hitter rule, just as the American League did all the way back in 1973.

--snip--

The DH makes games more fun. It makes baseball's growing audience even larger. And let's be honest: We're all sick of watching pitchers try (and fail) to hit.

Gosh, that's a grand claim, isn't it? That we're ALL sick of watching pitchers try (and fail) to hit?

Yes, I'm sorta sick of it. You might be too. But I'm fairly sure that if you poll Chicago Cubs fans or St. Louis Cardinals fans or San Francisco Giants fans or Pittsburgh Pirates fans, MOST of them will vote to keep those pitchers hitting. Because of course that's all they've known, and homo sapiens tend to prefer what they've known.

Quick History Lesson: The Designated Hitter was introduced in 1973 because the American League was struggling at the gate. In 1972, one American League team (Detroit) averaged more than 20,000 customers per game; five A.L. clubs didn't manage to average even 10,000 fans per game. The National League enjoyed a whopping 26-percent attendance edge over the American League. There were a number of reasons for the A.L.'s disadvantage, but one obvious issue seemed to be the hitting; in '72, scoring in the American League fell back to roughly the same level as in 1968 -- the so-called "Year of the Pitcher".

To improve attendance, the American League owners proposed two old ideas: the Designated Hitter, and Interleague Play. For both leagues. The National League rejected interleague play out of hand -- why help the American League? -- but permitted the American League to use the DH on a three-year trial basis, while rejecting the DH for itself.

Anyway, it might have worked. In 1973, American League attendance jumped 12 percent, and the National League's attendance edge dropped slightly, from 26 percent to 20 percent. In '73, only two American League clubs -- the Indians and Rangers -- failed to draw at least 10,000 customers per game.

While there were predictions, at the time, that the National League would soon follow suit and adopt the DH, it's now been 40 years and that still hasn't happened. And isn't likely to, absent a compelling argument. The National League might consider joining the American League if hitting drops off (which it has) and if attendance drops (which it has not). If you're the National League, why would you change? I can think of just one reason: because you might have a marginally better chance of keeping your pitchers healthy. Which might ultimately be compelling, but probably not anytime soon.

My preference is for the status quo. My distaste for watching pitchers (try, and usually fail to) hit is roughly balanced by my enjoyment of arguments exactly like this one.

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