Rethinking the DH


Harrison’s note: I should have put this up earlier but please welcome our newest writer Alex Washoe.

It’s not widely known, but the Designated Hitter rule in the American League is optional.

Rule 6.10 allows a team to designate (hence the name) a player to bat in place of the pitcher each time he would otherwise come to bat. It’s not a requirement. In fact, there are a number of instances where teams have chosen not to field a designated hitter. On October 2, 1974 the Texas Rangers, playing in Minnesota, chose to let Fergusen Jenkins bat. He went 1-2 with a single. On September 27, 1975 the Oakland A’s played the California Angels and the A’s sent pitcher Ken Holtzman to the plate in lieu of a DH. Holtzman was 0-2 on the night. There are a few other precedents, here and there, if you look for them.

I bring this up not just because it’s interesting baseball trivia (which is usually enough of a reason for me) — and not because I recommend it as a serious strategy to consider — but because it really seems to me that the Mariners organization fundamentally does not get the concept of the Designated Hitter. Not at all. It’s ironic because the M’s were the home for many years of Edgar Martinez, who is arguably the greatest Designated Hitter ever to play the game. But if you look at their record with the position, both before and after Edgar, it’s not so great.

The latest player to hold the position — our current DH — is Wily Mo Pena and I think it’s fair to say there aren’t many players around less suited to the role. He’s a career 250 hitter (with an OBP just over 300, to be fair) who this season is hitting .211 — .231 over his last ten games. Just by way of contrast, Jason Vargas in his six seasons in the Majors also has a career .250 batting average and .276 OBP. As a rule of thumb, your DH should hit better than your pitchers, or why bother?

Okay, granted, I cherry picked the best example from the Mariner’s pitching rotation to make my argument. (Felix Hernandez, for instance, despite his famous grand slam, has a career average of .125.) And a pitcher’s batting average, especially in the American League, is computed on such a small sample size that they are basically useless. Still, I think my point is valid. Jack Cust, who was on the roster as Seattle’s official DH earlier in the season, is also a career .242 hitter, although his OBP is a whopping .813. The DH, more than any other position, however, deserves to be measured by hits — especially extra-base hits — and RBI’s. The Designated Hitter, if he’s not going to be just a place holder, has one job: offense. To spark the offense and to drive runs in. That’s what the DH should do, and it’s central to American League baseball.

And the Mariners really don’t seem to get it.

I wholeheartedly support the idea of rebuilding our team with fresh young prospects developed out of our own minor leagues. I think the shortsighted strategy of going out and spending a lot of money on a few big name players isn’t going to work for the Mariners. But the DH is different. The Designated Hitter position is not a role for a young player. It’s not a role to fill more or less randomly with position players as the need arises. It can’t just be an afterthought. It’s a position a team should go out and shop for. The stereotype is true — the DH should be a veteran player with plenty of plate experience.

Putting players like Pena in the DH spot — even as a late season replacement in a season that is pretty much done — is symptomatic of the M’s big weakness as a team. Offense. That’s it, plain and simple. The record books will show that in the first decade of the 21st century the Seattle Mariners — even as they watched Ichiro amass one of the greatest hitting records in baseball history — were unable, through many rosters and successive managers — to field a consistent, sustained offense. Why is that?

If you’re looking for answers, the DH is a good place to start.