With yesterday’s announcement that the Astros would move to the American League in 2013 and that with that move would come constant interleague play, it’s clear that Major League Baseball will look very different in 2013 and beyond than it has since interleague play was introduced in 1997.
The new arrangement leaves lots of questions: with the new playoff arrangment emphasizing winning divisions, will the league find a better way to balance the schedules? Just how many interleague games will the teams play every year? Thirty makes the most sense, but Jayson Stark says that MLB is looking to keep the teams at around the 18 interleague games per year that they’re at now, simply spread throughout the year instead of concentrated into a few weeks during the middle of the summer. The balanced schedule is a topic for another day and another rant, (Teaser! The schedule’s not going to be balanced because Selig refuses to give up his precious Yankees/Mets series and that’s going to create some huge unfairness in the division races, which are of utmost importance because wild card teams now have to win a one-game playoff to make the big boy playoffs.) but the topic of constant interleague play leaves another elephant in the room that needs addressed: the designated hitter and its absence in the National League.
Because interleague play will have to be a constant, that means that the season will have to end with at least one interleague series. Which means that it’s entirely possible that one team will be forced to try and win a division late in the year by playing with a set of rules other than the one that their team is optimized for. In his column Stark wonders what would happen if the Red Sox 2011 collapse ended in Cincinnati with David Ortiz on the shelf for all three games. What happens when a National League team misses the playoffs by a game, with some overmatched 23-year old kid playing DH simply because they don’t have the luxury of using a roster spot on a player that can’t field striking out to end the season with the tying run on third base?
I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. The DH is going to come to the National League. It brings me no pleasure to type these words out: I grew up as a Pirate fan, and I’ve always been on the side of pitchers hitting. I DH’d in high school and I hated it. I can’t understand why it’s so hard to have nine guys in the field and the same nine guys in the lineup. I don’t care about home runs and 13-12 final scores, I care about the strategy that comes in knowing when to swap out a starting pitcher for a pinch-hitter and the necessary double-switches that can make matching relievers with hitters so hard late in games. I love the look on a starting pitcher’s face when he leaves a careless fastball up in the zone and his mound opponent pounds it for a two-run double. I love seeing relief pitchers at the plate with comically oversized helmets, choked way up on a bat and glaring into the dugout at their manager for letting such an absurd scene happen. Pitchers are baseball players and baseball players have to hit and if they can’t do it, that’s their problem and their team’s problem. No one DHes a blog post for me when I’m not ready or when I don’t want to write it. Why should pitchers be different?
We’re in the minority, though, NL fans. AL fans gave up the ghost long ago, saying that letting pitchers hit just gives managers more chances to muck with games and puts pinch hitters up in crucial situations when you’d normally want a regular at the plate. They say that maybe the strategy suffers, but the result is always more compelling baseball with better players involved. The MLBPA knows that the DH lets guys play longer, when they’re no longer useful in the field. The owners know that a 9-8 game is more interesting to the casual fan than a 1-0 game.
It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but at some point in the near future the DH disparity between the National League and American League is going to become an issue, whether it’s because AL teams spend 10% of their season without their designated hitters (as would happen with 30 interleague games on the schedule) or because it creates the idea that it has cost a team a playoff spot. When that happens, fans will be outraged and commentators and bloggers will be outraged and everyone will wonder just why baseball has a dumb rule split between two leagues that are no longer autonomous leagues in any way anymore except for the designated hitter. And Bud Selig, or whoever succeeds him, will sit down with his advisors and they’ll talk about the problem, and they’ll consult with the owners and they’ll consult with the MLBPA, and in the end they’ll realize that they all agree that the only people that don’t want designated hitters in the National League are the fans of National League teams. And then they’ll bring the designated hitter to the National League.
And then we’ll moan about it, fellow National League fans. We’ll know that a little bit of baseball’s purity has died forever. We’ll change the settings on our video games and simulators and never fully acquiesce to the change. But we adapted to a third division and a wild card and interleague play and the stupid “This Time It Counts” All-Star Games. We’ll adapt to this, too, even though we don’t want to. I’m warning you now to make it easier when it happens: the days of hitting pitchers are numbered in the National League, and there’s nothing we can do about it anymore.