Universal DH: How MLB can preserve National League baseball with special 'National League Weekend'
As negotiations between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league's owners continue to drag on — while both parties attempt to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, delaying the start of spring training — at least some progress towards a deal has been made, even if it comes at a cost.
Last week commissioner Rob Manfred indirectly announced the death of National League baseball.
"We've agreed to a universal designated hitter and the elimination of draft choice compensation," Manfred said last week. "These changes will improve the free agent market by creating additional jobs that are often filled by veteran players, and eliminating the drag from compensation."
Adding the designated hitter to the National League will create 15 more starting jobs for Major League players and likely extend the careers of aging sluggers. It was nonnegotiable from the players' end. This agreement had to be met if we're to get any baseball in 2022.
Even as a baseball purist that grew up obsessing over the complexities of National League baseball and the intricate decisions that the pitcher's spot presented managers every two or three innings, I knew this was coming, and am actually okay with it.
The American League has been playing with a designated hitter since 1973. The designated hitter spot has since poisoned high school, college and minor league baseball. American baseball has become extremely specialized.
Shohei Ohtani won the 2021 AL MVP as a dual-threat anomaly, slugging 46 homers and posting a 3.18 ERA in 23 starts on the rubber. Ohtani is a product of Japanese baseball, not American baseball. Had Ohtani grown up in the United States, a Major League executive likely would have made him a position player or a pitcher, exclusively; no dual-threat. Every year, dozens of players who are the best pitcher and the best hitter on their high school team hear their names called on draft day, and are promptly instructed to stop hitting or stop pitching once they get to rookie ball.
The sport's most important developmental levels took the bat out of pitchers' hands in hopes of giving more position players at bats, allowing for more hitters to develop and showcase their hit tool. As a result, the vast majority of Major League pitchers didn't swing a bat at the college or minor league level. In theory, a pitcher could start his career in the American League, join a National League team in his early 30s, and have gone 15 years of his life without taking any cuts in the batter's box. Pitchers are skipping the most important developmental levels and being asked to hit Major League pitching, often in clutch situations. Pitchers haven't been developing their hit tool, and it has shown at the Major League level.
I wish we had never added the DH spot to high school, college or minor league baseball. The sport's pitchers would be much more polished and comfortable at the dish. Conversely, every year talented hitters get shoehorned into the role of designated hitter at the collegiate level and don't get drafted, because the idea of drafting a designated hitter isn't very appealing to scouts.
But what is done can't be undone. The best decision Major League Baseball can make is to adapt to modern times, and make the best of it. There's a way that they can do so, and still appease old school baseball purists.
The National League is baseball in its purest form. Founded in 1876 (25 years before the birth of the American League), the National League is the original baseball league: 9 vs. 9, everybody hits, everybody fields. There's an added layer of strategy that the pitcher's spot brings. Should X manager pinch-hit his ace with runners on second and third and two outs, to capitalize on a scoring opportunity, or leave his stud pitcher in to face the opposing team's top of the lineup? The simplicity of 9 vs. 9 adds a complexity that the American League doesn't have, and it appeals to a sizable portion of fans. Why should that rich tradition be entirely wiped out from the game after nearly 150 years?
Major League Baseball loves introducing new showcase games, series' and weekends. In recent years, MLB has created Players Weekend, the London Series and the Field of Dreams game. Now, it should adopt National League Weekend.
For one weekend in the middle of the summer, 14 of the National League's 15 teams should play each other — with old school National League baseball rules and uniforms. National League Weekend could be a special showcase that erases the designated hitter spot for three days in the middle of the summer. Match 14 National League teams with a longtime rival (i.e.: Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants, Mets-Braves), put them in retro uniforms (Phillies' powder blues, anyone?) and let the pitchers swing some lumber. You can't tell me that players putting cheesy nicknames on the back of their jerseys is a bigger draw to fans. It isn't.
Even in recent years, pitchers hitting has made for some of baseball's best moments. Perhaps the most memorable moment of Phillies' reliever Archie Bradley's career came when he lined a clutch, two-run triple in the 2017 NL wild card game to give the Diamondbacks a 8-5 lead over the Rockies in the bottom of the 7th inning. May 7 will forever be known as "Bartolo Colon Day" to Mets' fans, and each year on May 7, the 2016 clip of Big Sexy going deep circulates on social media. One swing of the bat inadvertently became a statewide holiday.
Back in 2016, pitchers Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner and Adam Wainwright all expressed interest in participating in the league's Home Run Derby at Petco Park. Don't tell me that there aren't pitchers who want to take some hacks.
Adding an annual National League Weekend to the MLB calendar would not only preserve the National League and its history, and make the addition of the universal DH a little more palatable to baseball purists, but it would also bring eyeballs to a sport with a 162-game season, that could use some more showcases. Last year's Field of Dreams game was the most-watched regular season baseball game since 2005. There's a market for outside-the-box ideas that MLB should capitalize on. In this case, a simple return to the sport's roots — even if just for a few days — would get the job done.
(Photo via Dennis Poyer/Getty Images)