Myths About the DH
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 15, 2005

THOSE IN THE media who dislike the designated hitter rule continue to act as if there’s a chance it will be dropped; the last such column I saw was in The Chronicle last Sunday.

Not going to happen. The DH is used in the minors and in college ball. It’s the National League that’s out of step, not the American League.

The DH rule was adopted before the 1973 season for the same reason that other changes have been made in baseball: to promote offense. This philosophy goes back to 1911, when the lively ball first came into the game. Because hitters of that era didn’t think in terms of home runs, that change produced more hits, not home runs, and that ushered in an era of .400 hitters; in 1911, Joe Jackson hit .408 but didn’t lead the American League because Ty Cobb hit .420.

Babe Ruth was the first to show the long ball potential with the lively ball, starting in 1920, when he obliterated every season and career home run records; the career record when Ruth started his onslaught was only 136.

The owners would juice up the ball even more in 1930, to get people out for Depression Era games. Before that, in 1920, they banned trick pitches like the spit ball, emory ball, etc. – though some pitchers still found ways to throw those pitches.

After the 1968 season, which featured a steady string of low-hit and low-scoring games – there were back-to-back no-hitters at Candlestick Park – owners lowered the pitcher’s mound, to aid the batters.

Even that wasn’t enough in the American League, so the DH rule was adopted to boost scoring more. In the ‘90s, they juiced the ball again, and hitting statistics took another jump.

n all these cases, owners made the change for economic reasons: Most fans prefer more offense. (Changes made in football and basketball have been done to promote offense, for the same reason.)

The DH has certainly made a difference for the American League. The team average in the AL last season was 811 runs scored; in the National League, it was 751.

The anti-DH crowd likes to claim that this extra scoring slows the games down, and I believed that argument until I started checking average game times last year. In the 2003 season, AL games were, on the average, a minute longer than NL games. In the 2004 season, they were exactly the same: 2 hours, 47 minutes.

THE ANTI-DH crowd likes to claim that there’s more strategy in the National League game, pointing out that Tony La Russa put down the National League when he managed the A’s but, now that he’s with the St. Louis Cardinals, praises the NL game.

La Russa is giving people what they want with this stuff. When he was managing the A’s, Tony practically wrote the book on strategy – but it was with his pitchers. He organized his staff the way all managers try to do today, with a closer for the last inning (the incomparable Dennis Eckersley), a setup man for the eighth, and left-handed specialist to get out that tough left-handed hitter. He sometimes went against the book, though, by using the left-handed Rick Honeycutt against a right-handed hitter with a runner on first, because Honeycutt could keep a runner close. La Russsa and pitching coach Dave Duncan were also successful in turning former starters Eckersley and Honeycutt into relievers, because they believed that when the two had been successful starters, they had become experienced in pitching in late-inning tight spots.

When he had the right players, La Russa utilized the running game, too. Rickey Henderson was traded back to the A’s in 1989 and stole 52 bases in 85 games, as the A’s totaled 157as a team. The next year, Rickey stole 65 and the A’s had 141 as a team.

The Cardinals last year stole 111 bases.

The National League as a whole does more running, but not as much as you’d think; the average NL team last year stole about 96 bases, the average AL team stole about 90.

It’s also true that American League clubs are generally more inclined to play the power game, but that pre-dates the DH by more than 50 years, since the Ruth-led Yankees invented the “big inning” theory, that a winning team often scores more runs in an inning than the loser does in a game.

In the ‘60s, Earl Weaver popularized the “three-run homer” philosophy. A’s general manager Billy Beane once played a tape for me of a show on which Weaver launched a profanity-laced diatribe when he was asked why he didn’t have his team steal more bases.

Weaver was right: Stealing bases is a much overrated component of winning baseball. The threat of stealing a base is often more important than the actual theft, because a pitcher can sometimes be distracted and lose his concentration on the batter.

Getting thrown out on a stolen base attempt can often blunt a rally. Even a successful steal can be counter-productive, if a big hitter is then walked because first base is open. Joe Morgan once told me that he had an understanding with Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, hitting behind him in the Cincinnati lineup, that he would not try to steal second in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings because he didn’t want to take the bat out of their hands.

THERE IS one change I’d like to see in the DH rule: Because the original intent of the rule was to take the pitcher out of the lineup, the DH should have to bat ninth. That would also encourage young players to work on their fielding so they can be position players, not just the DH.

But for those who dislike the DH, get over it. It’s here to stay.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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