The Bleacher Report editorial staff asked me my opinion on the designated hitter. Do guys like Vladimir Guerrero of the Texas Rangers and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox help the game, or is their specialization bad for baseball?
I consider myself a baseball purist (I dislike artificial turf, 12-man pitching staffs, innings limits, pitch counts, and the Wild Card) but I do like the DH.
Certain hitters in 2010, such as Ortiz and Guerrero, were thought to have been done as major league hitters. The Angels made the hasty decision to believe Hideki Matusi’s heroics in the 2009 World Series would translate over to 2010. The Halos signed him instead of re-signing Vlad.
However, Guerrero and Ortiz have had a resurgence in 2010 and are big reasons why their teams are in playoff contention.
If there were no DH, then these players would likely have not had the same type of seasons, if they were playing at all.
Since the April 6 game in 1973 when Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees was the first ever DH to have a plate appearance, this position has allowed many players to elongate their careers in the comfy confines of the “half player.”
Those early days included DH’s like Orlando Cepeda (who could have been the first DH), Frank Robinson of the California Angels, Tony Oliva of the Minnesota Twins, Billy Williams of the Oakland A’s, Harmon Killebrew of the Kansas City Royals, and Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee Brewers.
These players were all former 1960s hitting stars (most are Hall of Famers) who were near the end of their careers. Although slower in the field, they could still be productive with the bat.
For instance, Robinson hit 30 home runs in 1973 as DH, and Oliva, who was often injured and had terrible knees, extended his career by a few years.
The game at that time was not in a boom period. Pitching dominated. Runs were at a premium, and the AL owners (who voted eight to four in favor of the DH), wanted to boost run production and attendance. It was the second time within five years that baseball made rules changes for improved run production.
After the 1968 season, affectionately called the Year of the Pitcher, the height of the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.
And young fans (such as myself at the time) were able to see big time former stars (such as the all-time home run king Aaron), able to still play baseball. We wanted to see Aaron hit. Most of these DH’s still played the field a little bit, too, yet they probably would not have had a roster spot if the DH were not in effect.
In 1973, several young players also got the opportunity for more early career at bats. Oscar Gamble (23) of the Cleveland Indians likely had his career kick-started a little earlier with the help of the DH.
Even though Gamble already had major league time accumulated, the increased frequency of his plate appearances were the result of the DH. Others, like Carlos May and Hal McRae, played more often because of the DH position.
The DH has now evolved into not just a full-time position, but also a rotating spot in the lineup. For example, the New York Yankees regularly give one of their position players a “half day off” by letting them DH in a game to give them a break.
This is another example of what baseball has always loved: seeing the big stars play more often. Who wants to go to their first baseball game (a day game following a night contest) and not see Alex Rodriguez or Vlad Guerrero in the game? The DH spot allows for this star player to still play.
The great Joe DiMaggio retired early because he wasn’t at full-strength in 1951, his last season. DiMaggio primarily meant his play in the field. If the DH were present and in full swing in 1952, DiMaggio could have still had a few more productive seasons with the bat while a young Mickey Mantle assumed full-time duties in center field.
And maybe a few more young fans today would have been able to say they once saw Joe DiMaggio play for the Yankees.
This is similar to the All-Star Game played every year. It does not matter how good Alex Gonzalez played for Toronto in the first half when fans want to see Derek Jeter start at shortstop. If some National League first baseman were having a “career year” in the first half, sorry Charlie, but Phat Albert is playing at the first sack.
Since the game (and people’s jobs) are determined by wins and losses, if an aging DH is not producing, he likely will not keep his job. That is why managers with not a whole lot of tenure will only play guys who are productive, not being able to afford to sit on a certain player.
Guys like Harold Baines, Hal McRae, Edgar Martinez, and Paul Molitor all succeeded at the DH position because they were still productive. Frank Thomas was the same way, and when he stopped hitting, he was “retired.”
Of that group, only Molitor is currently in the Hall of Fame, although Thomas will probably get in quickly. Pushes for Baines and Martinez (although eligible only one season thus far), have fallen on voters’ deaf ears. While Martinez still may have that Bert Blyleven push if he continues to struggle, it shows that only the “best of the best” at any position will make the hallowed Hall.
It is not like a bunch of aging veterans are hanging on to accumulate Hall-ready numbers. Even if Ortiz produces a year or two more, he is not Hall-worthy, while Guerrero probably would be as he was a better all-around player for his entire career.
The game is about winning and only the good players will play.
Ask former Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu how quickly things can change when your team does not play well. Where Wakamatsu had not built up any “winning tenure,” a manager like Boston’s Terry Francona can weather the David Ortiz storm a little longer, hoping he breaks out of his early season malaise. But most managers need to win now.
And it was good for the game overall to see Big Papi become a threat once again, as it was for Vlad Guerrero. Two stars who the fans want to see, not because they are “padding their stats” but because they are productive players who are helping their teams win games now.
Don’t the Angels wish they had Vlad back this season?