This Tuesday, June 18th, Max Scherzer suffered a broken nose… by fouling a pitch off of his face while practicing bunts before the day’s game. There is no official word yet on the severity of the injury or whether Scherzer will miss time, but this is one of the game’s best pitchers suffering an entirely unnecessary injury while practicing for a component of the game that isn’t at all his specialty, or his job. While baseball is celebrated in part for its quirks, which includes the entertainment value that comes around once in a while from the National League’s requirement that a pitcher must have a spot in the batting order, Scherzer’s injury is evidence that it’s time for the health of the game’s best competitors must be the league’s top priority. It’s time for the implementation of the universal designated hitter.
The designated hitter rule is a very unique rule in sports, creating a characteristic difference between baseball’s two leagues that does not exist in another major American sport. In the American League, each team has the ability to fill the pitcher’s spot in the lineup with a player who is there primarily as a hitter, increasing overall offense in the league and preventing the need for pitchers to worry about hitting. For every single one of the over 40 years since the American League’s adoption of the DH, the league has outperformed its pitcher-hitting counterpart across the board offensively. It creates a lineup challenge for teams when they play in the home ballparks of teams in the opposing league, and becomes a deciding factor in games when American League teams are forced to sit their DH or when National League teams field a DH and find themselves down a position player they would normally have on their bench. While the difference in designated hitter rules is perhaps a lovable quirk of baseball, more importantly it’s a factor which compromises the competitiveness of Major League Baseball as a whole.
Another factor of the discussion is the apparent rise of the two-way player in baseball. The arrival and subsequent success of Shohei Ohtani, the two-way Japanese phenom and 2018 AL Rookie of the Year, has forced teams to consider more fully the two way player as a possibility moving forward. Simply put, it’s much easier for teams to implement the two way player with a designated hitter than without. Ohtani’s schedule last season allowed him to hit five of the seven days of the week, as he pitched every Sunday and hit as the DH in all other games except the days immediately before and after each start. In the National League, though, a player would have to play in the field in order to be in the lineup, which introduces even greater injury risk and forces the movement of other players, such as first basemen, from their natural position in order to accommodate for the two way player. In this way, it is far more beneficial for an AL team to have a two-way player, and this is another inequality, though a far less consequential one, across the leagues.
The current DH rule causes injuries, creates a competitive inequality between the two leagues, and worsens baseball overall as a result.The argument for the universal DH is not going to change, and every pitcher who gets injured attempting to play offense only enhances the case to remove the necessity of pitcher hitting altogether. The only reason that the pitcher batting is a rule is tradition, and it’s a tradition that is harming baseball. Both of the top two finishers in last year’s NL Cy Young voting have been injured this year from playing or practicing offense; not a single American League pitcher has to worry about it at all unless he’s playing in a National League park or his name is Shohei Ohtani. The universal DH will be a large change in baseball, and it will be embraced with open arms by anyone who is concerned with the sport’s most important issues.