The two pillars of the great DH debate

With Adam Wainwright apparently lost for the season to an Achilles tendon injury, suffered while running the bases Saturday night, we’re left with one small question and one large one …

The small question: What does this mean for the Cardinals’ chances for yet another postseason run?

Answer: It hurts. It really hurts. We often overestimate the impact of a single player, but a) Wainwright’s one of the best single players, and b) he’s now lost for 90 percent of the whole season. Roughly speaking, the loss of Wainwright figures to cost the Cardinals three or four wins this season, considering only the personnel they’ve currently got in the organization. Obviously, the math changes significantly if they trade for Cole Hamels. Or some other top-notch starting pitcher. But as things stand today, the Cardinals essentially have gone from favorites in the NL Central to co-favorites, with the Cubs. And that’s only because St. Louis is off to a tremendous 12-5 start.

Now, the BIG QUESTION: Should Adam Wainwright have been running the bases at all?

In the wake of his injury, there have already been calls for the DH in the National League. So far, I’d say Craig Calcaterra is leading the charge. In the wake of Wainwright’s injury – and another, far less damaging injury to Max Scherzer – Craig wrote this:

Everyone knows that Wainwright and Scherzer aren’t in there for their hitting skills. They’re on the hill every fifth day, when healthy anyway, because they are two of the best pitchers in all of baseball and they play for National League teams. Hell, the two of them could have been a career 0-for-622 and they’d still be on the mound and taking their hacks at the plate precisely because of that. The rules say that in the NL the pitchers bat, so that’s what they have to do.

But it sure is a dumb rule. A positively stupid and senseless rule. A rule that, if we were starting anew today, we’d never adopt. But here we are, and there sit Wainwright and Scherzer, lost to their teams, one for a year and one for a little bit, because of the farce that is the National League rule.

But Craig didn’t leave it there. He goes on for some hundreds of words, and addresses almost every halfway-reasonable argument for letting/making pitchers hit. As Craig points out, for some fans this is essentially a religious matter, the feelings so deeply held that there simply isn’t any argument, however logical, that might convince them otherwise.

Craig’s hardly alone here. Sunday, Scherzer said he enjoys hitting … but also supported adding the DH to his league. “Who’d people rather see hit,” he asked. “Big Papi, or me? Those kids, they want to see V-Mart hit. Those kids don’t want to see me hit. No one wants to see a pitcher hit. No one pays money for that.”

Well, probably not no one. But since the early ‘70s, National League owners have shown very little interest in adopting the American League’s creation. I suspect the same is true of National League fans, too. The religious ones, anyway. Plus, it’s a little misleading to talk about Big Papi and Victor Martinez, because there aren’t nearly enough Papis and V-Marts to go around. Last season, those were the only two full-time DHs in the American League with OPS’s above 800.

Ever since 1973, people have routinely overestimated the number of really good hitters who shouldn’t be playing in the field. You’d think there would be a bunch of them. But for whatever reasons, there are not. There are some good hitters, sure. But Max Scherzer’s kids won’t pay money to see good hitters.

So this really can’t be about seeing more great hitters. Because they’re not really out there. It can be about adding a bit of scoring to the games in the National League parks. If that’s something we’re worried about.

But I’m not sure we are. Everyone seems to be worried about pace of play, and some of us are worried about the #StrikeoutScourge. But do we really worry so much about a crisply played 4-2 contest?

Now, Ken Rosenthal’s worried about competitive balance, arguing that the American League gains a significant advantage with the DH. As Ken writes, “Many American League teams employ a rotating DH, enabling them to rest their everyday players. AL teams also hold a distinct advantage in acquiring position players – those teams can grab sluggers such as Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and even Robinson Cano, knowing that such hitters eventually can serve as DHs.”

Well, yes … but ultimately National League teams don’t really compete with American League teams until the World Series … and any advantage conferred by the DH would have only the tiniest impact over the course of a best-of-seven series. As for grabbing veteran sluggers like Fielder and Pujols, I can’t help thinking that National League teams are better off without those bloated contracts.

So it seems to me that your argument for the DH and against pitchers hitting must ultimately rest on two pillars.

The first is simple taste. You know, some people actually do enjoy watching pitchers hit. Yes, mostly because (as Craig says) that’s just how it’s always been done. Religiosity. But also because strange things occasionally happen. Madison Bumgarner hitting more grand slams than Derek Jeter. Bartolo Colon. If you must argue against pitchers hitting, you should at least acknowledge that something will be lost, something that’s at least occasionally interesting and (dare I say it?) fun.

And the second, of course, is keeping pitchers just a little healthier. And we can’t have an informed discussion about that until we know how many pitchers actually get hurt while batting or running the bases.

I’m guessing it’s not many. And I’m guessing the National League’s owners won’t change their minds until a lot more of their star pitchers get hurt.

In other words, I’m not holding my breath. I think Len Kasper’s right; it’s just a matter of time. But I won’t be at all surprised if pitchers are still hitting in 2025.