A play that would, on any other occasion, be lost in the annals of thousands upon thousands of box scores sparked one of baseball’s oldest debates.
As Cardinals star pitcher Adam Wainwright took an awkward lunge out of the batter’s box following a routine pop up, he suffered a season-ending Achilles tear, which again opened Pandora’s Box. Questions as to why a pitcher was forced to hit and when the National League would finally axe its outdated rulebook rose to the surface, where they will likely remain for some time.
The debate can essentially be boiled down into two major arguments. The first is held by the majority of pitchers across the league, a position articulated by Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who, by some strange twist of fate, also jammed his thumb batting last week.
Scherzer’s take is fairly simple: who would you rather see at the plate, him or Red Sox slugger David Ortiz? His argument is far from unfounded; National League pitchers hit a paltry .125 last season, the lowest it has been in history. And it undoubtedly brings more buzz to the highlight reels to see Ortiz crank one out of the park than to see Scherzer lay down a bunt.
The reality of a designated hitter could well be upon us. New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is an extremely progressive change from the prehistoric Bud Selig. As such, he adheres strongly to his main goal, which is to get baseball on more television screens and to get more fans into ballparks. Home runs and fireworks are certainly one approach to that.
I hope, however, that the conclusion is not forgone.
In my mind, the addition of the DH to the National League would be a farewell to the beautiful intricacies that the game of baseball is all about. It reflects an acceptance of the fact that baseball is becoming a game of marvel, of big plays and excitement. While that may be fine for the average fan, that has never been fine to me.
If we accept that such an offense-happy game is the only way to keep young fans interested in the sport, we are buying in to a reality that paints our generation as one engulfed in attention deficit and incapable of engagement on a deeper level.
That, in my estimation, is what has always separated baseball from other games. It’s not about brute force. It’s not all about who can hit harder, or who can jump higher. Physical gift can only take a team so far.
As a game develops, each decision a manager makes is amplified to the utmost. Each individual matchup must be evaluated, and every pitch counts. That there is still a pitcher in the number nine spot (or, as some teams have begun to implement, in the number eight spot) is another wrinkle in what happens in a dugout. A nod to the incredible history that the game encompasses, of an era where pitchers couldn’t specialize as much as they do in this day and age.
When pitchers like Madison Bumgarner come around in the National League, they provide a distinct advantage for their club. Bumgarner hit a pair of grand slams last year, which add up to more grand slams than the illustrious Derek Jeter totalled over the course of his major league career. It’s incredibly fulfilling and undeniably exciting when a pitcher can hit, an art that is being lost more and more as time passes.
Admittedly, much of this argument is not tied up in reason. It’s tied up in emotion and passion for the incredible history of the game. And at the end of the day, it’s possible (and probable, some would say) that this could just provide another chapter in the rich history of baseball.
Manfred has said the right things, attempting to remain largely impartial to this point. “I try not to be too swayed by particular events that happen in a given season,” Manfred said Tuesday during an interview on ESPN. “My view on the DH is that the difference between the two leagues is actually a point of debate among our fans, and that those sorts of debate are good for the game over the long haul.”
That said, it appears to be a matter of time before the rule changes more than anything else. The Major League Baseball Players Association has said it would be open to a change, which has historically been the largest barrier to having a DH in both leagues.
The injury to Adam Wainwright will likely be the straw on the camel’s back. Nobody wants to see star athletes get hurt, and moreover the league wants its star pitchers to stay on the mound as long as possible to fill as many seats as they can. It may not happen soon, but my money says that it will happen.