As reliably as Columbus Day or Halloween, every October guarantees a bunch of sportswriters filing stories about the awful dilemma facing the manager of the American League’s World Series team: What do we do with our designated hitter in the road games, when the game is played by National League, DH-free rules? Do we sacrifice offense and put our DH on the bench? Or jeopardize our defense by letting him play in the field?
As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci points out, however, it’s hard to doubt that playing the World Series with alternating sets of rules is a serious disadvantage to the National League: “Colorado’s curious use of Ryan Spilborghs as DH in Boston (0-for-5) continued the trend in recent years of NL teams getting next to nothing out of the extra hitter. NL DHs since 1998 are hitting .149 (13-for-87) with one home run (Shawon Dunston of the 2002 Giants). Not entirely by coincidence, the NL is 4-20 in AL parks in these 10 years. What happened?”
Here’s a guess: When you play one sport under two different sets of rules, Darwinian natural selection comes to play a role in roster management. Before the American League began using the designated hitter, in 1973, there were a few good field-no hit players in the sport. In some cases their teams would put them at first base, and hope that the damage caused by their lack of mobility and general defensive skills would be tolerable and outweighed by their offensive production. Maybe they were better fielders than I remember, but I think of Frank Howard and Ted Kluszewski as this sort of player, kind of de facto designated hitters. Smokey Burgess was the alternative, a player who stayed in the league for several years solely as a pinch hitter, rarely playing in the field.
After 1973, those kinds of players became increasingly uncommon in the National League. The 14 AL teams have an obvious use for players like David Ortiz, Mike Piazza or Frank Thomas. NL teams don’t, and even if they did would be hard-pressed to keep them. The free-agency era started three years after the DH became a part of major league baseball, which means that players like Ortiz, Piazza and Thomas have no obvious use for the National League.
Thus, when a National League team plays a World Series game in an American League ballpark, it’s virtually certain that they won’t have a good hitter to add to their lineup as the DH. It’s very likely that the DH-for-a-day will be the ninth best hitter on the club. If he were a better hitter than that he would either be playing every day in the National League or, if his fielding is an intolerable liability despite his hitting, he would have moved his career to the American League and become a regular DH.
Although the DH came to the majors in 1973, it didn’t come to the World Series until 1976. That year the first National League DH was Dan Driessen for the Cincinnati Reds . . . but the 1976 Reds had one of the best lineups in baseball history: Pete Rose, Ken Griffey, Sr., Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, George Foster, Johnny Bench, Cesar Geronimo and Dave Concepcion. It’s no disgrace to be the ninth-best hitter on that team. Driessen was good enough to play 15 years in the majors, and retire with a career batting average of .267.
Lineups like the Big Red Machine’s are rare, however. Now that the two league’s teams have each adapted to their different environments, we can expect that future National League DH’s in the World Series are going to be a lot more like Ryan Spilborghs than Dan Driessen.
No one has had a fresh thing to say about the designated hitter for 20 years. At this point, I don’t care whether baseball keeps it or junks it. But a house divided against itself cannot stand. Baseball should be all one thing or all the other. They should flip a coin if they need to, but the entire sport needs to play by one rulebook.