I recently read in the “Fans Speak Out” section of a prominent baseball publication a fan attempting to assert that David Ortiz does not belong in the Hall of Fame because he played a position that is not a legitimate position: designated hitter. I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to the game. I too prefer that pitchers hit. I don’t like that the complete game is becoming rarer with each passing year. I also don’t like stopping the game to look at replay. I don’t think pitchers should be forced to throw the next pitch under the eye of a stopwatch or that batters are not allowed to step out of the box unless certain outcomes occur. With all that said, I love this game and I am all for anything that can make the game more appealing to a wider audience. We know the designated hitter produces more offense.
Our game, like the sports culture in general, is all about specialization. Right or wrong that’s where we are. Truth be told pitchers have never been very good hitters (I hope no one is naive enough to dispute this so I won’t address this). Save your Babe Ruth argument. He’s the single greatest exception to almost everything in baseball history. Purists love to say that the designated hitter isn’t a real position because they don’t contribute anything defensively. While that latter part is true the assertion that it’s not a real position is stubbornness refusing to acknowledge reality. I’m not even sure I know what you mean when you say it’s not a “real position”. Look at the official lineup and score card for all games played in American League stadiums and they all have the position of designated hitter on them. The game’s governing body recognizes it as a position.
I think we all would agree that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is one of the most knowledgeable institutions in the world when it comes to baseball. While searching their database of Hall of Famers by position they list designated hitter as a position. While no names are returned in this search there are two Hall of Famers who I feel could and should be listed as designated hitters. According to baseball-reference.com Paul Molitor played 1,173 career games as a designated hitter. While that doesn’t represent a majority it is 382 more games than he played at any other position. Frank Thomas, on the other hand, played, again according to baseball-reference.com, 1,310 as a designated hitter compared to 971 at first base.
Still not convinced it’s a real position? Ask the 2004, 2007 & 2013 Boston Red Sox whether they would have won those three titles without their designated hitter David Ortiz. Or ask the 2009 Yankees who’s Hideki Matsui was the World Series MVP and appeared as only a designated hitter or pinch hitter. The Blue Jays would speak of Paul Molitor, the 1993 World Series MVP, who was also the team’s designated hitter in games played in Toronto. Continue to refuse to acknowledge the reality of 20th & 21st-century baseball if you want but you will be eventually left behind.
Tony La Russa is said to have brought bullpen specialization to the forefront of Major League Baseball on the back of his successful Oakland Athletics teams on the late 1980s and early 1990s. Good, bad, or indifferent this application of specialization has spread to all aspects of the game. And hitting is no exception. Players like David Ortiz who played 84% (2,029 of 2,408) of regular season games as a DH is most likely to be followed when a player comes along who proves to be a liability in the field. While Edgar Martinez did play over a quarter (27%) of his career at third, he and David Ortiz seem to be the face of the designated hitter debate.
The strategy is an often cited reason for resistance. Sure, the double switch (be honest, do you really know how the lineup is adjusted upon a double switch) and factoring in the batting order for the next half-inning when considering whether to remove a pitcher for a reliever will be lost when the National League adopts the DH but we will get over that pretty quickly. Baseball traditionalists need to realize “because that’s how the game has always been” is not a valid reason to prevent a change.
The National League will eventually adopt the DH. You can kick and scream as loud as you want about the purity of the game, the strategy or any other aspect that you are holding too tightly to. The players union will eventually see it as a way to extend the careers of 15 very good offensive players and save pitchers from unnecessary injury. It may not be today and it may not be tomorrow but change is coming. If you’re a National League lifer who disdains the American League game on the premise of the DH I suggest you watch some AL games and learn to appreciate the beauty. Or you can continue to hold fast with your precious pitchers should bat ideals in one hand and your unwritten rules in the other. But realize, my friend, in order to embrace the game you have to let go of one of those two things less the game pass you by.
Imagine a world where Albert Pujols was re-signed by the St. Louis Cardinals because they felt he had several Hall of Fame worthy seasons left if they DHed him cementing him a greater Cardinal legend than he already is. Or Kyle Schwarber DHing for the Cubs. Or Buster Posey saving what’s left of his knees by filling the DH slot. Or Andrew McCutchen cementing his Pirates legacy by resigning and finishing a career in Pittsburgh. Or how about an aging Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman or Paul Goldschmidt getting a few more years of David Ortiz-like production at the back end of Hall of Fame careers. The game is better with its stars getting to play and remaining productive into the twilight of their careers. The DH is the single easiest way to make this happen. The National League will eventually adopt the designated hitter and the game will be better because of it.