PHOENIX — You may love it, you may hate it, but no doubt about it, it’s coming soon to a city near you once Major League Baseball is back.
Fans in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and all the other National League cities will have no choice but to adapt. They will have to adjust their scorecards. Re-think their baseball strategy. Learn to second-guess their managers differently. And, yes, even have an open mind.
The designated hitter rule is coming to the National League for the first time this year.
It will vanish again in 2021 in the NL, with the division and league schedules reverting back to their traditional ways, but beginning in 2022, under a new collective bargaining agreement, the universal DH will be here to stay.
The players, knowing it will prolong careers and inflate checking accounts, are advocating for it. Most general managers, fearful of their prized pitchers getting hurt at the plate or on the basepaths, are in favor. Many fans, wanting as much offense as possible, are craving it.
It’s the traditionalists who are balking at the idea.
Only this time, just like when we went from day games to night games, leagues were broken up into divisions, walk-up songs were introduced and Gatorade baths replaced hand-shaking celebrations, the DH is coming, and after the 2021 season, will be here to stay. Why fight it any longer?
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Besides, traditional National League strategy as we’ve long known it has disappeared. No one knows how to bunt. Hit-and-runs are executed as frequently as complete games. And pitchers treat plate appearances as fondly as prostate exams.
Pitchers went to the plate nearly 5,000 times last year and hit just .127. They had a .137 on-base percentage. Their OPS (on-base-plus-slugging-percentage) was .317. Oh, and you got to see them strike out 2,230 times.
The traditionalists will argue that the DH sullies baseball strategy, with managers trying to decide whether to keep their pitchers in a close game or summon a pinch-hitter for a key moment.
St. Louis Cardinals fans will forever remember Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers for David Freese’s heroics, but in that game, Rangers starter Colby Lewis twice came to the plate with a chance to break it open. He bunted into a double-play one at-bat with runners on first and second and struck out with the bases loaded in another.
If a DH had been used in those games in St. Louis, the Rangers would have been the World Series champions.
Sure, managing in the NL can be challenging, but the beauty of managing in the American League, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa said, is the uncertainty of when to take out your pitcher. In the NL, that decision can almost automatically be made for you, said La Russa, who won three pennants and two World Series championships in 16 years with the Cardinals.
La Russa, who also won two pennants and a World Series championship in 18 years in the AL with the Oakland A’s and Chicago White Sox, said the decision is never made for you there.
“The one part about managing in the AL that is more difficult than the NL is handling pitching during a game,’’ La Russa told USA TODAY Sports. “The decision every manager has to face in a tight situation is who’s the right pitcher to pitch to that next hitter. And a lot of times in the AL, that becomes a very hairy call. It’s a really tough decision.
“In the NL, often enough about the time you need to make that decision, your pitcher is coming to bat, anyways. So you make the move because you need to get a pinch-hitter in there to get the offense going. In the AL, you can wear out a starting pitcher, or even a reliever, because you don’t ever have to take him out. In the NL, the guy goes out right away if you use that spot to pinch-hit.’’
Still, La Russa — now special advisor for the Los Angeles Angels — won’t argue that managing in the NL can be more demanding with the pitcher hitting, knowing you need to rely much more heavily on manufacturing runs rather than sitting back and waiting for a three-run homer.
“Managing in the NL, you have more situations that you have to deal with the pitcher in the lineup, and that makes it more fun. Quite often late in games, you’ll have a situation where you really have to concentrate on making a run or stopping a run. So for people that love the game, the little ball can be entertaining.
“There’s a beauty to playing all parts of the game. But for people that just want the offense, who like seeing guys swing from their ass for those crooked numbers, they don’t appreciate it.’’
The looming question, of course, is whether fans in NL cities will hate the DH even more, perhaps grow to tolerate it or perhaps even like it?
“I think the game is more than just whether we have a DH or don’t have a DH,” La Russa said. “It’s how the game of baseball is being played. In St. Louis, they loved seeing those Whitey Herzog teams steal bases. So if a team with a DH is still stealing bases, I think they’ll like that.’’
The ultimate decision will come next year during the collective bargaining agreement negotiations for the 2022 season and beyond. There needs to be 75% approval of all owners to make the call, with half of the owners, of course, residing in the National League.
When the baseball season comes back — and yes, despite all of the posturing and rhetoric, it will be back — it will expose the appetite for a universal DH. Yet love it or hate it, adapt to it or rebel against it, the DH is coming.
Really, even those of us who love baseball’s wonderful traditions will be just fine.
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale.