The Unlimited DH: A Perhaps Absurd Answer to Baseball’s Existential Question

I don’t like watching pitchers bat. Most of them barely try—those that do frequently fail miserably. The experience of watching pitchers bat is like listening to Beatles songs that Ringo sang—every once in a while, things work out, but even when they do, I know deep down that things would have worked out at least as well had one of their actual singers done the job. In light of Adam Wainwright’s season-ending Achilles injury on Saturday, the new focus on pitching bating is on player health, though to be completely honest, my reasons for disliking pitcher plate appearances have been uniformly selfish to this point.

I don’t like the designated hitter rule implemented in the American League. It’s similar to my distaste for moves to outlaw the shift in baseball—I prefer baseball positions to be abstract principles rather than rigid constructs. I enjoy the idea of a team placing nine players on the field and having them do whatever is optimal—perhaps teams gravitate towards the basic "four infielders and three outfielders" defensive alignment but not because they have to do so, but because they organically decided it was a good idea. Why should pitchers be their own class? I know that in almost all cases, pitchers are worse hitters than even the worst non-pitchers, but I’ve watched Micah Owings bat and I’ve watched Brendan Ryan bat and I can’t help but consider this at least somewhat arbitrary. I find myself asking what I consider to be an existential question not just for baseball but for any fun activity: If a part of the activity isn't fun and it can be avoided, why don't we seek solutions to avoid it?

Which brings me to my proposal which I refer to as The Unlimited DH.

This is arguably not the best description of it. Perhaps a better description would be two-platoon baseball. The current system of baseball in the National League (and for the most part in the American League) is similar to what was used in American football prior to 1941. Before 1941, football had limited substitutions and thus players overwhelmingly played on offense and defense. And then the rules changed and the NCAA allowed unlimited substitutions. Not long after, the NFL followed.

Today, it’s a great anomaly for a player in the NFL or even major college football to play both offense and defense. But the end result is that players have specialized and the overall quality of any given play is better. Can you imagine if Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, or even a more athletic quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck, were forced to line up at linebacker? Because, rest assured, they would. The value of these players on offense is so immense that teams would, if given no other options, diminish their defense.

This happens in baseball all the time. When not able to act as designated hitter, David Ortiz will play at first base and, well, I’m sure he tries really hard at it. It happens in the National League even more frequently. Take a look at Matt Holliday. Now, I think sometimes some of us get hyperbolic about how bad Matt Holliday’s defense is, but his most ardent supporters would concede that the St. Louis Cardinals are merely tolerating Matt Holliday’s defense. He’s not there because he’s Alex Gordon in left field. He’s there because he’s a really, really good hitter. On the other end of the spectrum, though equally relevant, there’s Peter Bourjos, who is an all-world defensive center fielder, but in his 502 plate appearances since 2013, he has a .662 OPS with a 24.7% strikeout rate. One could easily make a case that Peter Bourjos should start in center field, but it’s not because of his offense. His offense, perhaps not abysmal though definitely below average, is simply a bonus to his incredible glove.

I like watching Matt Holliday bat. I like watching Peter Bourjos field. I merely tolerate watching them do other things. So why should we as baseball fans deal with watching players do things they aren’t good at doing when there’s not really a logical reason they should be doing them? It’s one thing in hockey or in basketball, where there are abrupt changes in which team is on offense and which team is on defense. NBA fans have no choice but to tolerate whatever level of defense James Harden is offering on a given night because it’s not like the Houston Rockets can easily substitute him out on defense without sacrificing his terrific offense. But in the case of MLB, teams switch sides. There are several minutes in between. Every single player goes from the dugout to the field or vice versa. So, if given this amount of time, why do we choose to draw the line of acceptability for a hitter’s ability at somewhere above a pitcher and beneath a poor hitting catcher or shortstop? Maybe we’re okay with Andrelton Simmons hitting; maybe Andrelton Simmons hitting is not unwatchable; is Andrelton Simmons hitting ideal?

This is why Major League Baseball would be of higher overall quality if each team started with a roster of nine batters and nine fielders and each platoon took their respective fields. A player may play two ways but he is not required to do so.

Certainly, roster construction would change because of this, but for a simple example, consider what the St. Louis Cardinals could do. On defense, Yadier Molina would certainly be the regular catcher still. Pete Kozma is too good of a fielder to sit; the infield would likely be some arrangement of Pete Kozma, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Carpenter, and Kolten Wong. Although Matt Adams is a tolerable defensive first baseman, he would almost certainly be worse defensively than if you gave the position full-time to one of the other four infield options, each of whom was an everyday middle infielder (a far more premium defensive position) in 2013 or 2014. And in the outfield, the team wouldn’t have to mess with Matt Holliday. Center field would be Peter Bourjos, right field would be Jason Heyward, and left field would be either Jon Jay or Randal Grichuk, an impressive feat considering that both Jay and Grichuk appear to be good enough to at least be decent defensively in center field, much less left.

As for the offense, there is no need to consider position at all. Merely pick the nine best hitters. You don’t need a best offensive catcher or a best offensive shortstop if you do not want one. So here’s a list of the nine best players on the Cardinals by projected wOBA: Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, Jon Jay, Mark Reynolds, Randal Grichuk. Perhaps you shuffle in Kolten Wong, who isn’t too far off, but the main point remains the same: Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Peter Bourjos get to focus on the entire reason we care about their existence as baseball players in the first place. Players like Jason Heyward remain no-brainers as two-way players and maintain additional value to Major League Baseball teams. Everybody wins.

I have tried to beg MLB to try this for the All-Star Game. Imagine the National League utilizing an outfield with Juan Lagares, Billy Hamilton, and Peter Bourjos without having to worry about their offensive production. Imagine the American League being able to give at-bats to David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera without having to deal with either of them in the field. It would be a tremendous showcase for exciting, talented players often (and often fairly) dismissed as one-dimensional.

It will never happen. I realize this. But I will dare to dream. And rather than embrace the tradition of no designated hitter or embrace the newer tradition of one designated hitter (it’s hard to dismiss the DH as some kind of new-wave fad when there is precisely one Major League Baseball player today who was alive before the implementation of the designated hitter in the American League), I will hope for a world in which the best possible baseball players play as much in their fields of expertise as possible.