Bernie: Designated hitter will debut in NL

2013-04-01T00:50:00Z 2013-04-02T11:43:44Z Bernie: Designated hitter will debut in NLBY BERNIE MIKLASZ bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Because you live in a National League town, I’m guessing that you despise the American League’s use of the designated hitter.

This affront to baseball tradition has been going on for 40 seasons now. Starting in 1973, and activated by the desire for more offense and increased ticket sales, AL teams stripped the bat away from pitchers’ hands. With the golden arms safely sitting in the dugout to nibble on sunflower seeds, AL general managers signed aging sluggers to deploy as surrogate hitters.

When the radical twist was announced a reporter asked Stan Musial if he planned to make a comeback to serve as a DH. The Man was 52 at the time.

"I could still hit," Musial said. "But I don't know who would do the running."  

If you’re a DH-hating purist, I don’t blame you.

If given a choice, I prefer National League ball. It's more interesting and layered with strategy. But that also leads to over-managing and unfortunate outbreaks of sac-bunt crimes.  

I have a confession: I’m a DH agnostic.

I really don’t care one way or the other. I’ve existed happily in both worlds, living and writing in DH-controlled territories (Baltimore and Dallas-Fort Worth) as well as the DH-free zone in St. Louis.

My abiding love of baseball transcends any number of annoyances that detract from this great game. Truthfully, I don’t recall feeling nauseous while watching Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Tony Oliva, Harold Baines, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome extend their careers as DHs. 

(An aside: as a teen, I was thrilled to get a chance to see the immortal Aaron swing as a DH when the Brewers played in Baltimore. Aaron, of course, finished his career with Milwaukee in 1975 and '76.  Hammering Hank was pretty much finished by then, but I didn't care. I was delighted to watch him take the at bats instead of, say, Brewers pitcher Pete Broberg. Without the DH rule, I don't see Aaron play in person. And it really made me happy to see him play in person. Maybe this explains, again, why I don't have DH tantrums.) 

The evolution of MLB has been tough on the Baseball Amish that pine for the good old days, when the game was free of interleague play, wild cards, four rounds of playoffs, bullpen specialization, the centralization of umpires, instant replay, blaring ballpark music, sausage races, intrusive video boards, etc.

This new world has benefits.

I don't want to turn back the clock; I enjoy watching virtually any game I want on my iPhone, tablet, laptop or through DirecTV satellite. I appreciate technology, the access to advanced statistics, the ability to read (and write) baseball at any time of the day or night.

I'm grateful to have a chance to expand or improve on my print-edition column by going online to update my typing. (If you are reading this paragraph, this is precisely what I'm doing now.) I like being able to discuss games online with other fans and media through Twitter, forums or other forms of social media. 

The border separating the NL and AL was eased a long time ago, and the leagues' respective identities aren't nearly as distinct as before. Sorry, but the game isn't going to go back to 1946, or '67. The proliferation continues this season, with Houston moving to the AL side to create two 15-team leagues, we’ll have interleague play from start to finish. First up: Los Angeles Angels at Cincinnati Reds. 

If you are clinging to old-world baseball convention, it’s probably time to face the obvious reality: your devotion to the cause, while noble, ended in defeat a long time ago. It's over. 

As for the DH, the only thing that fires me up is the glaring need for one set of rules. This absurdity can’t continue, especially with MLB accelerating into the era of perpetual interleague competition.

It’s crazy to go on like this. Think about how silly it would be for the NBA to have a 3-point line in the Western Conference, but no 3-point line in the Eastern Conference. Or the NHL having overtime shootouts to decide a winner in the Western Conference, but keeping the old overtime rules in the Eastern. Or the NFL outlawing field goals in the AFC, but allowing field goals in the NFC.

For no other reason, the DH conundrum must be settled, and soon, to address the pragmatic considerations of the modern game.

Having two sets of rules isn’t fair to either league. NL teams are constructed differently than AL rosters, and that creates problems for both sides.

• The American League is at a disadvantage in the World Series. The National League has won seven of the last 12 World Series. Is that a coincidence, a historical quirk? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Over the past 12 World Series, with pitchers batting under the NL guidelines, NL teams are 22-11 at home. When the AL team is at home, with the DH in the lineup, the NL is 11-20.

The “home rules” went into effect starting with the 1986 World Series. Over that time the NL teams are 42-20 at home, and 24-46 on the road.

When playing under NL rules, AL teams can’t utilize their DH asset, and that obviously makes a difference. The DH is usually a centerpiece of the offense, but in NL parks he turns into a Chicago Cub; he can't play in the World Series. The AL pitchers pick up the bat and look like fools.

Since ’86, American League pitchers have batted .097 in the World Series, with a combined onbase-slugging percentage of .242.

National League pitchers have batted .154 with a combined onbase-slugging percentage of .382.

The discrepancy between the pitchers' hitting performances is secondary. The main issue is AL teams having to compete for a World Series with a key part removed from the lineup for games in NL ballparks. 

Hey Peyton Manning!

You can play quarterback _ but not in NFC stadiums.

You're permitted to play QB in AFC stadiums only! 

• NL teams are at a disadvantage in interleague play. The American League has a .525 winning percentage since the advent of interleague play in 1997. The more recent trend is even worse; since 2004 the AL’s interleague winning percentage is .550.

Since 2004, NL designated hitters have batted .244 with a .719 onbase-slugging percentage. The NL has had its share of robust performances from DHs. It gives the manager a chance to give an older and/or injury-prone player a break on defense.

(During the interleague era, the Cardinals have been the NL's best DH team. In 523 plate appearances St. Louis designated hitters have 23 homers, 98 RBIs, a .319 batting average and a .523 slugging percentage.) 

Because the AL makes the DH a full-time position, finding a good one is a priority. Obviously the AL will have a better collection of designated hitters. The AL's DH position has hit .260 with a .781 onbase-slugging percentage and higher home-run rates since the launch of interleague intermingling. 

The gap likely will become more prominent now that each MLB team will play an increased number (20) of interleague games each year. 

• That’s because AL teams build rosters that include the DH as a core role, and they’ve invested accordingly. I checked the AL payrolls for 2013, to see what teams are spending on designated hitters.

Seven of the 15 teams are paying projected DHs at least $5 million in salary. Nine DHs will be paid at least $2.9 million, and five are at $8.5 million or more. The highest-paid DHs are Adam Dunn ($15 million), David Ortiz ($14.5 million), Victor Martinez ($13 million), Lance Berkman ($10 million), Billy Butler ($8.5 million), Mark Reynolds ($6 million) and Kendry Morales ($5.25 million.)

National League teams can’t do that. Because of the NL style of ball, teams have to stock the rosters with utility players, a one-AB pinch-hitter, or extra relief pitchers. Serious funds can’t be set aside for DHs.

With so many DH at-bats to go around, AL teams have the luxury of sliding their wealthiest stars into the DH role to ease the daily grind of having to play a position, or to protect an injury.

When Albert Pujols strained a calf muscle last season the Los Angeles Angels decreased the risk of further damage by using him at DH. Pujols had 144 plate appearances as a DH in 2012.

More than a few "name" position players had at least 100 plate appearances as designated hitters in 2012 including Joe Mauer, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria.

• AL teams have a clear edge over the NL in the competition for free-agent hitters. AL teams can offer extra years to elite producers such as Pujols and Prince Fielder, knowing that they can move them to DH later in their careers.

In a somewhat related note, the Reds had to be careful with their first baseman, Joey Votto in 2012. Votto's return from knee surgery took longer than anticipated, in part because the Reds couldn't ease his transition by parking him at DH for a while. 

Votto signed a 10-year, $225 million deal early last season. But when his legs begin to go, and his defensive range deteriorates, the Reds won't have DH as a transfer option for him. 

• With the new interleague system in place, AL teams will expose their pitchers to an increased risk of injury. In the former setup, interleague play was confined to two blocks of games before the All-Star break. To prepare, AL teams could give their pitchers a crash course in hitting and bunting, and then be done with it.

Now that interleague games will be played from the beginning of the schedule until the end, AL pitchers will be wielding bats and running the bases all season. I wonder what the reaction would be in Detroit if Justin Verlander shreds a hamstring while trying to score from second base on a single?  

• Speaking of Detroit, here's another potential travesty of the DH debacle: The Tigers close the regular season with an interleague series at Miami. They appear to be an excellent team, so it probably won't matter. But suppose the Tigers need to win those games? They'll have to do so with their $13 million DH, Victor Martinez, sitting on his rump.

This is a ridiculous situation for all concerned.

Commissioner Bud Selig and the owners have to man up and make a choice: go all-in with the DH, or do away with it.

I know how most of you’d vote. Of course. Dump the DH.

There's no chance of that happening. NONE. The Major League Players Association will never agree to eliminate high-paying DH jobs. 

Besides, it's not as if this DH thing is some gimmick, a carnival act, that soon will fade. It's been in place for 40 years.

The "tradition" argument is weak.

Why? The DH is now part of that tradition. 

The DH is used in the minor leagues, the colleges, high schools, and right on down the line.

The NL is the oddball here. 

Like it or not, the National League will adopt the DH rule. The day is coming; most baseball people think we'll see the DH implemented within 10 years. 

Look at it this way, Cardinals fans: if the full-time DH comes to the NL in a few years, at least your team has brawny Matt Adams locked and loaded to fill the job. Or, depending on the Cardinals' roster configuration at the time, Allen Craig could take over at DH.  

One day, many years from now, when Oscar Taveras is in his 30s and slowing down, he can finish his long and illustrious Cardinals career as one of baseball’s top designated hitters instead of leaving to sign a massive free-agent deal with the Angels.

Bernie Miklasz is a columnist at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on twitter @miklasz.

Copyright 2015 stltoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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