The DH: How consistent should baseball be?

Happy New Year! And apologies for the long delay. Unfortunately, my mind has been far from sports, ever since the day my last proper post here instantly aged very badly, like the Nazi in The Last Crusade. Basically, an incoming Trump presidency makes it hard for me to sustain an interest in sports questions, the kind of in-depth attention that is what I enjoy about sports, and what I need to write about them. But since sports matter, since writing keeps the mind sharp, and since one form of resistance is to refuse to be devastated, I’m going to resume posting here, or at Wrigleyville, as often as I can.

My good friend Joseph Kugelmass, whose blog The Kugelmass Episodes has been an influence on my own writing, has helpfully given me a topic. He read one of my recent Wrigleyville posts, about the differences between the pro- and anti-DH perspectives and the fun of both of them having their own league, and wrote a reply over at his blog, in which he argued that the National League should follow the American League. I believe this is the first time The Spiel has been flattered with a disagreeing response, so it behooves me to engage.

Joe makes a number of good points, but I’m not going to respond point-by-point to his post, because I don’t want the discussion to sprawl out of control. Instead, I’m interested in one particular argument he makes in favor of a universal DH: that it is important to standardize the rules:

I cannot support your position on the two leagues because I’m a Platonist. Imagine that the American League did not allow instant replays for disputed calls, and the National League did. Obviously, this would be unacceptable and short-lived. Well, that’s the situation with the designated hitter. The rules of the game are absolutes. There’s no chess game in the world where you can’t capture a pawn “en passant.”

This is an important point, because, whatever one thinks of Plato, it’s true that standard rules are what give a game or sport meaning. They provide a common language—to talk about soccer, we need to have the same idea of what a “goal” is—and help to ensure that every occurrence of the game is rewarding the same skills.

And yet standardization is an interesting criterion to use when working out the rules of baseball, because baseball, for idiosyncratic historical reasons, is not standardized in one important regard: the dimensions of the field, which are simply not defined in the rules. Baseball isn’t unique in this—cricket, as I understand it, is the same way, as is Australian rules football, which is often played on modified cricket grounds. But besides those, all of the other team sports I can think of—hockey, all other types of football, basketball, etc.—are played on fields, pitches, courts, or rinks that are standardized, or nearly so (I was surprised to learn that football variants like soccer and rugby have varying pitch sizes, even within a given league, but the variance is generally only a few yards, and the shapes are standardized). The different dimensions lead to dramatic differences between sports; in a pub in Dublin once, I watched Gaelic football and soccer on adjacent TV screens, and the vast dimensions of the Gaelic football pitch (about 150 x 90 yards, compared to 115 x 74 for soccer) made the soccer match look as speedy as ice hockey.

With baseball stadiums, though, nearly all bets are off. Obviously the distances between home and the outfield fences vary widely from park to park, but more than that, the shapes are very different; soccer fields may vary in size, but imagine a league in which some were rectangular and some trapezoidal. Teams sometimes even adjust their parks’ dimensions to begin the year, hoping to increase or decrease the amount of offense in their park. But other elements are inconsistent, too: the bullpens can be behind the fence, on the field in foul territory, or even in play. The amount of foul territory can vary tremendously, meaning that a foul ball that’s out of play in one park might be caught for an out in another. The fences can be different heights, and made of different materials. Even the elevation of the field isn’t standard—in 2000, the Astros decided to put a 90-foot wide, 30° hill in center field in their new ballpark, and there was nothing to stop them.

One might object that these variations aren’t changes in the rules, but functionally, they are: “home run” means something different in Oakland than in San Francisco. Just because the oddity of the Green Monster isn’t stated in the rulebook—”a ball that is 38 or more feet high when it passes 310 feet from home plate shall be scored a home run, but one less than 38 feet shall be in play”—doesn’t mean that it doesn’t adjudicate between different on-field outcomes, which is what a rule is.

So is baseball’s lack of absolutism in the rules in this regard a problem? I would say that the variation in stadiums makes baseball a worse game, but a better sport. It’s worse for fairness and record-keeping that different stadiums play very differently; it’s hard to internalize the difference between a run in a low-scoring park and in a high-scoring one, and that has costs when it comes to honors like MVP awards and Hall of Fame inductions. And variation certainly doesn’t make things any easier for outfielders, who have to learn a bunch of different outfield arrangements. But it’s better for baseball as spectator entertainment: who would prefer baseball without the Green Monster or the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field? Without idiosyncratic ballpark design, Babe Ruth wouldn’t have hit 60 home runs and “The Catch” by Willie Mays in 1954 would have been just another three-run homer. (Though I say good riddance to Tal’s Hill in Houston, which is being flattened for the new season: ballpark quirks should be organic, not added as focus-tested gimmicks.)

But this isn’t to say that any such variation would be an improvement on the game. Ballpark dimensions matter only on deep balls to the outfield or into foul territory; that has a significant effect on games but not a fundamental one. A situation in which one league had three outs per inning and the other had four, or in which one stadium was 90 feet between bases and another was 80—something fundamental, which affects nearly every aspect of the game—wouldn’t be enjoyable, because we would be constantly readjusting our assumptions about what’s happening on the field.

So if I’m right, rule variations can be beneficial to baseball’s entertainment, provided they only affect the game on the margins and not at its core. If you agree with me, then the question of a universal DH isn’t answered by the fact of rules variation, but raises two further questions:

  1. Is the DH the kind of rule that matters on the margins, and so can be an enjoyable variation between leagues? Or is it something more fundamental, such that a lack of uniformity on this point harms the game?
  2. Assuming for a moment that the non-universal DH is an enjoyable, marginal variation, is it enough of a benefit to the sport to make up for its costs to the game? (And yes, I know that I’m using these words in an idiosyncratic way to make this distinction.)

The first question I find surprisingly difficult. On the one hand, there’s a good argument that the DH (or lack thereof) doesn’t fundamentally change the game. A pitcher’s spot only comes up every three innings, give or take. Pitchers are not generally going deep into games these days anyway, DH or no DH. Nor are there a lot of players in the Edgar Martinez mold, whom we wouldn’t be able to see were it not for the DH. If you look at it as just one lineup spot out of nine, it’s a pretty slight impact.

However, viewed another way, the DH is fundamental, because the effects of a single lineup spot ripple outward. With the pitcher batting ninth, it’s harder for the number eight hitter to have good at-bats: especially with two outs, the opposing pitcher can just walk him and go after the pitcher. With only three outs an inning, a roster spot that’s a nearly automatic out has a substantial impact on the way the game unfolds.

I don’t see any way to definitively settle this question; it seems subjective. For me, the DH is significant, but not so momentous that it needs to be standardized between the leagues. But I can see the other side: if you think the variation in the DH hurts the sport, then certainly you’ll want it to be the same in both leagues.

However, the second question—does the DH variation add enjoyment?—is easy, from where I’m sitting: absolutely it does. In his post, Joe draws an analogy to a situation in which one league uses instant replay review and the other doesn’t. The comparison isn’t apt, I think, because instant replay addresses how the rules are adjudicated, not how play proceeds on the field, and the variation in play has the power to add interest. This is what I was trying to demonstrate with my Wrigleyville post: the choice between an emphasis on strategy (no DH) and an emphasis on elite performance (DH) is itself an interesting one. I’m glad we get to see it both ways.

But my point here isn’t really about the DH, but about the standardization debate itself. It’s a mistake to think that because uniform rules would be good for the orderliness of the game, they would be good for the entertainment value of the sport as well. More broadly, it seems to me that a lot of sports commentators tend to focus more on what makes the game fair than on what makes it fun to watch; such commentators are likely to dismiss complaints that replay review is boring, for instance, because they’re only interested in the benefit of improving the enforcement of the rules. (To be sure, plenty of people embrace the DH because they think it makes the game more entertaining.) That’s not a surprising perspective from professional sports analysts, who after all are going to be watching the game whether or not it’s exciting, and whose analysis is made easier by an orderly, uniform set of rules. But we fans shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the entertainment value of a little mayhem.

New post at Wrigleyville: The DH debate in World Series Game 3

Just a quick link to my newest post at BP Wrigleyville. It concerns Terry Francona’s decision to pinch-hit for Andrew Miller in the seventh inning last night, a decision which in my mind encapsulates the whole debate over the DH in a nutshell: is it better for Francona to be forced into an interesting tactical decision, of for an elite pitcher like Miller to be able to stay on the mound?

My main wish from these DH posts (here’s my other one) is not so much to convince people to see the debate my way, as it is to convince people that the debate has two legitimate sides, rather than being a no-brainer as it’s often portrayed by people on both sides. I know that writing this piece softened my opposition to the DH, as I realized that one of my all-time favorite pitching performances—Madison Bumgarner’s extended relief appearance to finish Game 7 of the 2014 World Series—probably wouldn’t have happened had the game not been in a DH park. Would Bruce Bochy really have let his pitcher, even a decent-hitting pitcher like Bumgarner, come up to bat two or three times in a one-run game? Probably not, which would have made it just another bullpen game. So I hope that reading this piece will help people on both sides of the debate see the merits of the other side—just acknowledging that there are merits would be enough.

The Hidden Harm of the Designated Hitter

I swear I wasn’t going to talk about the DH yet. I was going to wait until I had a desperate need for pageviews and a total lack of ideas. But blog topics wait for no one, and the recent injuries—one probably season-ending—of two pitchers while batting in the National League has caused the topic to flare up again. At HardballTalk, Craig Calcaterra has maybe the best pro-DH post I’ve ever read: thorough, convincing, exploding one bad anti-DH argument after another. It has, I think, one big blind spot, and it’s in that blind spot that my opposition to a universal DH rule lies. I hope my response does justice to his post, and—not to be vain—points out a way of thinking about this issue that I’ve never seen anyone take up, yet is crucial for understanding why a reasonable person might oppose the DH. Continue reading