Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Future of the DH

Edgar Martinez's first year on the HOF ballot has reignited the Designated Hitter debate. For many baseball traditionalists, the DH is nothing more than a modern corruption of their childhood game. Other critics consider it a gimmick, artificially boosting American League offenses by ensuring a roster spot to an over-aged, immobile slugger. Proponents might tell you that American League teams (DH) score more runs than National League teams (NO DH), and more runs equals more excitement and more interest in the game. By the way, who really wants to watch a clunky pitcher heave a wooden mallet over his head in an attempt to make contact with his counterpart's flat curveball?

Whether you believe that the NL is a better, more interesting league with strategic double-switches or that the AL is a stronger league with more offense (or some hybrid of the two), it is hard to deny the influence that the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973 has had on the game. It has created a unique situation in which a professional sport has separate rules for its 2 leagues. It has also extended the careers of many of our favorite aging sluggers as well as creating a whole new position on the field: David Ortiz? Paul Molitor? Frank Thomas? Harold Baines? Edgar Martinez? The careers of all of these players were either extended or ensured by the existence of the DH.

Obviously, the DH debate is not an issue of empirical or anecdotal evidence. We shape our arguments to fit our preconceptions. As a 20 year old Yankee Fan, I was born long after the DH came about and spend a great deal more time watching DH baseball. If I were to construct an argument to support the DH, I might say that we never would have had the illustrious Jason Giambi or beloved Hideki Matsui (2009) without the DH. As a flimsy an argument as this may be, this is the type of analysis we must sift though when debating the past, present, and future of the designated hitter.

Since my past is limited to years after the DH was introduced (1989>1973) and my time traveling machine is still in the works, I'll stick to the present (this doesn't mean that the history of baseball is irrelevant, only that people with more experience are better suited to discuss it). The only professional leagues that I know of that still allow the pitcher to hit are the National League (and their minor league affiliates) and the Japanese Central League. Additionally, most amateur leagues (Little League, High School, and College) use the DH. The prevalence of the DH suggests that a majority of baseball fans implicitly support the DH. I have no statistical evidence to support that. Well, that was true until I did some research. A September 1997 national probability sample poll (sample size = 440) reveals that 49.3% of respondents support the DH while 31.1% of respondents disapproved of the DH.

If popular support means anything (which it may not), the DH is here to stay. But the issue isn't dead and won't be for some time.


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