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January 3, 2013

BP Unfiltered

A New Solution to the DH Debate

by Russell A. Carleton

It's January. The holidays are over. The Winter Meetings are over. Hall of Fame voting is over. They even solved that fiscal thing. The MVPs and Cy Youngs and Rookies of the Year have been given out. Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton have signed. And frankly, I can only read so many "Where will Michael Bourn sign?" pieces. Baseball is officially stuck in a rut. Well, when you need to start a conversation going on baseball, there's always the old reliable flint in the matchbox: the designated hitter.

On Twitter yesterday, fellow BPer Hudson Bellinsky asked what one rule change people would like to see in baseball and predictably got a lot of answers involving everyone's two favorite letters. I threw out an idea that I've had kicking around for a little bit. Like a lot of ideas, it will never actually happen, but it made for an interesting thought experiment.

Here's the idea. Some time prior to the free agent period starting (so before the World Series ends), teams are required to make a decision. For the next season, they can decide whether their home park will be a DH park or a pitcher-batting park. The decision holds all year, but teams can switch back and forth from season to season as they desire. Everyone submits their choices in a sealed envelope and they all get revealed live. How fun would the day after that be?

It's important to do the reveal before free agency, because teams will have to plan their off-season strategy accordingly. Why sign that big lumbering guy over there who can't really field if he'll be limited to pinch-hitting duties in 70 games out of the year? In fact, why bother having a DH during your 81 home games?

It would be fascinating to see how teams make the DH decision. Would the idea of being a "traditional" National League team lead some to go DH-less for the sake of the brand? Would NL teams adopt it for the same reason that the AL did in 1973—more offense means more attendance? Would teams already tied to contracts with all-hit, no-field types (see Ortiz, David), feel compelled to opt for the DH? Would it create an interesting trade market for an NL team that suddenly needed a DH (kinda like the Astros this offseason)? Would it make a difference as to what the other teams in the division or league would be likely to do?

I gave some thought to how this might actually play out. In theory, there is a correct response. If a team's projected DH for next year will be better than the majority of projected DHs who would come calling (weighted for the unbalanced schedule), then the answer should be yes. (There's an assumption that teams are equal in the quality of their pitcher's hitting prowess.) Of course, the problem is that a team might not have that guy on their roster yet. Or he might be filing for free agency shortly after the envelope goes in.

But wait, there's another set of calculations to do. Suppose for a moment that a team commits to the DH and at that, a guy who can't really play in the field. What is the extra cost of carrying that guy on the roster when he won't be able to play some of the time? In the AL now, that's not a concern because he can play all the time. What happens if you go with the DH and everyone else goes with the pitcher-batting option? Suddenly, that affects the kind of value that a team can extract from that player. It would make longer-term, big-dollar contracts for DH’s a little more risky. The ideal player for this new, optional DH role is one who can play in the field a little bit, maybe in left field or at first base, and then can DH the rest of the time. There will probably be a few teams who strategically go for the pitcher-batting option, and so the pure DH is a luxury that most teams wouldn't be able to afford. Traditionalists who like two-way players would rejoice.

The team that would seem to benefit most from this arrangement would be a team like the Yankees who used the DH spot to rotate "off days" for their key position players. In that case, they could "rest" players at home in the DH spot while simply letting them play their natural positions on the road when the DH wasn't allowed. 

Maybe there's something to be said for not having a DH. The team that commits to pitchers batting doesn't need to go out and sign a proper DH and the inflated salary that comes with it. It should have a handy ninth (10th?) man who can be used in DH parks, but it would free up money to upgrade the team in other areas. If you're going to have a mediocre DH anyway, and he can play in the field a bit, why bother with the DH rule? But the more teams that adopt the DH, the more this weakness can be exposed on the road.

This quickly becomes a cat-and-mouse game, but equilibrium would probably be reached eventually. Teams might flip flop from year to year depending on their personnel, possibly only to see an injury lay their plans low.

It makes for a fun thought experiment. And it's January. There's not a lot else to talk about.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Designated Hitter,  Dh

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Prospects Will Break Y... (01/02)
<< Previous Column
BP Unfiltered: The Yea... (01/02)
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BP Unfiltered: Solutio... (01/03)
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