To DH or Not to DH: MLB Should Look to Houston for Answers

You think Astros starter Gerrit Cole wants to go back the NL where he had to hit every five days?
You think Astros starter Gerrit Cole wants to go back the NL where he had to hit every five days? Photo by Jack Gorman
Baseball is a game that, perhaps more than any other, relies on tradition as a means of perpetuating itself. The fact that very few changes have been made in professional baseball over 100 years means there can be realistic comparisons between players from different eras with at least a modicum of legitimacy.

Last week, MLB released some possible rule changes when the collective bargaining agreement comes up for renewal in a couple years. Most, predictably, are designed to speed up the pace of play and increase run scoring. From lowering the pitcher's mound to a 20-second clock for pitchers, there is no question they are attempting to cater to an increasingly impatient, video-game-happy fan base.

Among the suggestions was the universal designated hitter. The disparity in rules between the American and National Leagues has been a bone of contention between baseball purists for decades. Those who hate the DH cite the late-inning strategy that having to consider the pitcher's spot in the lineup brings. Those who love it remind us that fans aren't forced to watch a guy who doesn't hit (and doesn't want to) hacking away before getting an out (pitchers hit under .120 in 2018) at least a couple times per game in the American League.

If baseball wants to figure out whether fans would revolt over a change in the NL to a DH-based system, they should ask the Astros. Perhaps no team in modern baseball history is better poised to answer the question because the are the only team that was forced from the NL to the AL, well, ever. (The Brewers went the opposite direction in 1998.)

There were absolutely some fans who absolutely hated the move. No doubt a few abandoned the Astros altogether. But, winning cures a lot of ailments and the very fact the Astros won their only World Series in the AL will go a long way to salve wounds.

Houston fans have more than embraced their baseball team. In Texas, football looms so large — from the pros down to the Friday night lights of high school — it is difficult for any other sport to emerge from that long shadow. But, the Astros have done that by winning, embracing their history (and the history of their city) and, well, winning some more.

And, let's face facts, a new generation of potential baseball fans aren't emerging from little league or some Field of Dreams dad-and-son-(or daughter)-at-the-ballpark nostalgia. It's happening via home runs and strikeouts and video games. Like it or not, finding ways to keep the attention of young fans is a critical component of keeping the league relevant, a league that has, in nearly all places, become the third most-watched option in pro sports (fourth if its a big college football town).

Of all the proposed rule changes, the universal DH is the most dramatic — we won't even discuss the forcing relievers to survive at least three outs before being replaced because it's, well, idiotic. Not only does it have the chance to make a massive impact on the game almost immediately, it has the ability to do so with relatively benign impacts on baseball's storied past.

It's not a new rule, after all. And it's a rule of equity that evens out the hitting disparity between leagues, nevermind the confusion it creates during interleague play and, God help us, the World Series. Is there a bigger disadvantage in the most important series of the season than forcing a pitcher who may have taken a couple dozen swings all year to stand at the plate, or make a manager sort out the double switch when it hasn't been a part of his playbook for the rest of the season?

Purists from the NL hate the idea. It's grotesque to many of them to the point that, while the acknowledge the likely inevitability of the new rule, they bargain to temper it: What about DH except in later innings when the strategy so beloved by old school fans could still be in play? The truth is most younger fans wouldn't even know the difference and AL enthusiasts would be thrilled that their pitchers will no longer be subjected to batting practice a handful of times a year.

The Astros were forced to make the switch from the National League to the American League. They were the only team to ever have to change their strategy and embrace the designated hitter. If we can do it, so can everyone else.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke