Monday, April 16, 2012

Twenty, Twenty , Twenty-Four Hours To Go ... I Wanna Be Designated

It used to be merely a question of aesthetics, a fun barroom argument and one that could be had repeatedly without wearing the topic out. You pick your side, usually contingent upon which league your team is in, and you go after the opposition tooth and nail, convinced of your inherent correctness and their indisputable folly. That great, unresolved debate for the ages: Should baseball have a Designated Hitter?

Personally, I come down on the same side of the coin as Crash Davis on this one. (The relevant bit is at 0:39 if you're in a hurry, but really, who ever gets tired of listening to this whole monologue?) I believe that baseball players should be able to, well, play baseball. This most definitely includes standing in the batter's box and taking their cuts, outcome be damned. The American League, and the AL East in particular, fancy themselves superior to the NL, in no small part because their DH-fortified offenses tend to put up better overall numbers. Well and good, but to my way of thinking, the AL is a bunch of sissies whose pitchers wouldn't know which end of a Louisville Slugger to hold. The DH is the NFL Kicker of baseball. Sure, he's important and will probably win you some games, but it's awfully difficult to take him seriously.

The counter argument (and it's not without merit) goes: what fun is it to watch inferior talent at the plate? Wouldn't you rather have a born raker swinging the bat every game than the pitcher always up ninth and lucky to hit .230 for the year? I counter that the strategy of opposing pitching and defensive alignments based on where the pitcher-as-batter falls in a given inning adds nuance to the game. I further argue that when a pitcher does something big with the lumber, like Chris Carpenter's grand-slam-led 6-RBI game a few seasons ago, it's far more impressive and memorable than a dinger into the upper deck from a guy whose only job is to hit dingers into the upper deck. If you're going to call yourself a professional baseball player, then that should apply to all facets of the game. It's not like there's no precedent for hurlers who can perform at the plate (ahem, cough, Babe Ruth, cough-cough). Hell, my beloved Braves used to (very) occasionally have John Smoltz pinch-hit from time to time when he wasn't starting. (Smoltzy's 1999 numbers were perfectly acceptable for a 6th or 7th guy in a lineup. He hit .274 with a .725 OPS; not too shabby for the 29th-greatest pitcher of all time, according to Baseball Reference.)

Anyway, I say we abolish the DH and make everybody actually play baseball. Maybe you say we make the DH universal so we're spared the horror of, say, Josh Beckett trying to bat during interleague play. Here's the thing: this isn't a fun little argument or a question of preferences anymore.

When Chipper Jones announced that this would be his final season with the Braves, we were, of course, saddened in the way that fans always are when an icon decides to hang 'em up. The thought of #10 no longer occupying a spot on the roster of the only team he's ever had was almost beyond comprehension, the final nail in the coffin of the only enjoyable era Atlanta sports fans have ever known. And yet, amidst the heartache-ridden scramble to imbibe, viscerally and with great passion, every last towering homerun and barehanded field-ball-snap-gundown-the-runner of our third baseman's swansong, the pragmatic among us breathed just the tiniest sigh of relief. Because we'd payed him $28 million over the last two seasons and we're giving him $13 million more this year. Had Chipper played an additional season, we would have owed him $ 7 million in 2013 at minimum, and possibly more depending on how many games he manages to play this year. That's a hypothetical average of $12+ mil. per year for what amounts to roughly .270/.355/.810. While it's an accepted baseball caveat that nostalgia carries an outsized price tag for players who have meant as much as Chipper has to their longtime franchises, those numbers, even viewed through the rose-tinted lens of sentimentality, ain't worth twelve million dollars a year. To compound the problem, that "thanks for the memories" payout prohibits investment in better, more long-term assets. You pay a guy commensurate with his peak, and when that peak is gone, you have a distinct problem if the contract is still in effect.

None of this would be an issue if the National League had the DH.

If we could just gently transition Chipper out of everyday defensive duties and let him crush baseballs with minimal risk of injury, shelling out that kind of dough would be completely acceptable. Encouraged, even. But we can't. Because of the rules governing the National League, we cannot maximize the value of dollars on a long-term contract for an aging player.

And here's where the real crux of the matter comes into play: American League front offices know this about the NL. AL organizations are well aware that, because they can transition good hitters to an additional lineup slot at DH after their presence in the field becomes an injury risk/defensive liability, it's far less risky for them to offer excessive long-term contracts to players in free agency. This past offseason, the Angels lured Albert Pujols away from the Cardinals for precisely this reason. The Cards were understandably reluctant to shell out max money over a long time frame to their 32-year-old first baseman (though they probably should have), and Anaheim used that hesitation in conjunction with their ability to use The Machine at DH well past his days at first to offer him exorbitant amounts of cash. This was not the first occurrence of such strategy, but it was probably the most notable thusfar, and it damn sure won't be the last.

To get back to the Braves for a moment: what happens if they allow Brian McCann to become a free agent in 2013? He'll be 29 by then, and while he's proven more durable than most, catchers have a significantly shorter shelf life than other players. As much of an offensive force as he is, Atlanta's brass isn't going to feel grand about a contract that extends out to McCann's 34th or 35th birthday. Meanwhile some AL team will, I'm sure, be more than happy to offer McCann a more lucrative deal, knowing full well that when his knees go he can still step into the batter's box and wreak havoc on opposing pitching.

Lather, rinse, repeat. So long as only one league has the DH, NL talent is going to migrate as soon as the returns become sufficiently diminishing for NL franchises and their pocketbooks, because said talent can still get paid in the AL.

If Major League Baseball allows it to perpetuate and metastasize, the current situation will become untenable. In a nutshell: we've either got to scrap or universalize the DH posthaste. It's going to become a serious problem vis a vis competitive balance otherwise, the scales tilting precipitously in favor of the AL, or at least those AL teams with deep pockets. In my ideal world, the DH would cease to exist, but that strikes me as unlikely enough that even hoping is foolish. So we're left with only one realistic conclusion. Unsavory though it may be to myself and like-minded people, it's all we can do to fix the situation.

The NL needs to adopt the designated hitter. The sooner the better, too. Otherwise we're going to wake up in a few years and every power hitter over age 30 is going to be in the American League. And that's not a future I particularly care to experience. Because I like Brian McCann with a Braves "A" on his hat and tomahawk on his chest. Even if it's only in the batter's box, I hope we can make that a permanent arrangement.

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