The DH rule: Use it for both leagues or, preferably, neither
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media May 12, 2012 6:24PM
Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton, a proud, all-around ballplayer, blasts a three-run homer in the 1978 playoffs. | AP
Updated: June 14, 2012 8:26AM
Shortly after the San Francisco Giants acquired pitcher Atlee Hammaker from the Kansas City Royals during spring training in 1982, the young left-hander was spotted flailing away in the batting cage. He looked hopeless.
Baseball was 10 years into the designated-hitter ‘‘experiment,’’ and Hammaker, it turned out, hadn’t swung a bat competitively in about 10 years.
‘‘We used the DH in high school and Legion ball and college,’’ he told me. ‘‘I probably haven’t batted in a game since Pony League.’’
It showed. Hammaker was a truly decent guy and a good enough athlete to have played college basketball. He eventually got to a point where he was no longer a threat to himself in the batter’s box, never mind to others.
But help himself at the plate? Not likely, although his casual theft of an unattended third base in the Astrodome one night had his Giants teammates giggling in disbelief. They weren’t sure he knew his way around the bases.
Several weeks into the season, the Giants were facing the Phillies and Steve Carlton on a typically brisk evening at Candlestick Park. Carlton claimed serious ownage of the Giants — 29-19 lifetime — but he seemed to sense he didn’t have his A-1 stuff this night. In his first at-bat, he hoisted a three-run homer into the right-field bleachers, as if to give himself a little cushion on the way to a 9-4 victory.
Carlton won 329 games and four Cy Young Awards during his Hall of Fame career, partly because he could and did help himself at the plate. He’d rather talk recipes with the reporters he despised than give way to a pinch hitter in the late innings of a game he had a chance to win because Steve Carlton was a ballplayer.
So was Gary Peters, a tough-minded White Sox lefty from the 1960s who often doubled as the team’s best hitter, at least on the nights he pitched.
I bring this up because I am vigorously anti-DH — the belief that pitchers should be ballplayers has informed my distaste for the rule from the day it was implemented. I have always preferred the National League brand of baseball, wherein even the Atlee Hammakers of the world are required to help themselves.
Now I’m not so sure. The presence of an extra hitter — ideally a good one — has made American League lineups so much stronger that there’s a serious imbalance in the game, which could get worse with big boppers Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder abandoning the NL. It might be time to standardize the DH rule — both leagues use it — or eliminate it — neither does — preferably by next season, when the Astros’ move to the AL creates two 15-team leagues and an expanded schedule of interleague play.
The numbers don’t really speak to that urgency. National League teams batted .253 last season, scoring 4.13 runs and hitting 143 homers on average. American League teams batted .258, scored 4.46 runs and hit 162 homers, an advantage attributable to one extra hitter.
But after the National League enjoyed an edge in four of the first seven years of interleague play, the American League has prevailed in each of the last eight seasons, compiling a .549 winning percentage. The AL also holds a 21-17 edge in World Series wins over the DH’s 38-year history.
Not everyone is convinced there’s a need to standardize the rule. Cubs manager Dale Sveum has divided his 20 big-league seasons between the two leagues and favors the status quo.
‘‘I like having it both ways,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘When I was coming up, you had guys like Paul Molitor, Edgar Martinez and Dave Winfield sticking around to hit for several years after they could no longer play in the field. It was good for the fans to be able to see them. It was good for baseball.’’
Tim Hudson played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching at Auburn University, but pitching got him to the big leagues as the Athletics’ sixth-round draft choice in 1997. He’s back swinging the bat for the Braves after six seasons in the land of the DH and wouldn’t have it any other way.
‘‘If they standardize the rule, they should do away with the DH and let pitchers hit,’’ Hudson said. ‘‘In the American League, we can’t hit, bunt, run the bases . . . at times, you’re just sitting there and you feel like the game is out of your hands.
‘‘People might not realize it, but pitchers are ballplayers, and they should be treated that way.’’