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Politics, religion and the designated hitter

It's one of those topics that's near-impossible to change anybody's mind on, but there are reasons beyond "tradition" to remain devoted to the National League game.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It's been wall-to-wall politics here in Iowa for the better part of the last year, and a reminder that even with millions of dollars in advertising, free concerts and celebrity endorsements, it's almost impossible to move the needle when the time comes to vote. At my own caucus, even among members of the same party, it got a little chippy.

The whole thing reminds me of the debate over the designated hitter, which sparked to life over the last couple weeks when John Mozeliak made an off-hand comment about it, to which Commish Rob Manfred ultimately responded as well.

In between, there was a lot of chatter about the DH here at VEB and elsewhere in the baseball blogosphere. I myself have a visceral reaction when someone takes a position for expanding the DH, can only respond with snark or by walking away, and lose all ability to engage in rational argument. It's not unlike the way I feel when a crazy uncle posts something political on Facebook.

As Craig Calcetera points out, folks on my side of the aisle are in the habit of calling the DH "an abomination," which does imply ours is a position more of religious fervor than rational thought. And frankly, some of the baseball minds I most respect are firmly #TeamDH. So I tried to genuinely re-examine the proposition of expanding the DH into the National League. I did not change my mind.

As Calcatera and others have noted, your preference between DH and no DH is largely one of aesthetics. If you grew up watching American League baseball, that's probably what the game "should" look like to you. Me - I've always almost exclusively watched National League baseball. Interleague play wasn't even introduced until I was almost 20.

Folks who favor the DH have one bit of data they love to present, in an effort to raise the argument above the merely "aesthetic." Pitchers are terrible hitters. It would be hard to argue that watching a pitcher bat is a beautiful moment in a baseball game, and nobody would argue that pitchers are - or ever have been - good hitters.

The counterargument is that making pitchers bat makes the game more lively and strategic. But the challenge for those of us who believe that to be true is to show any kind of evidence that it is.

It's a crude measure, but the easiest way to quantify the number of "moves" being made in a game is to look at the number of pinch hitters used. The difference between the leagues - while not unexpected - is striking.

National League teams called on a pinch hitter an average of 263 times last season, with a high of 312 and a low of 220. American League teams average just 110 pinch hitting moves. If you set aside the Rays - a real outlier among AL teams with 217 pinch hitters - the average was just 104.

The Royals called on a pinch hitter just 40 times last season.

Now, calling for a pinch hitter - especially for the pitcher - may not exactly be the height of Napoleonic battle tactics. But any change in the lineup injects just a little bit of intrigue into a ballgame, often in the middle innings where, in a lousy game, it can become a real slog to watch. The National League almost forces those moves to occur, and incurs a significant cost/benefit. The AL? Not so much.

Like many sports, baseball is a delicate balance between offense and defense. Sure, the pitcher is your worst offensive player. But he's also your most significant defensive player. So anytime a manager pinch hits for their pitcher it's like a soccer manager pulling a defender to put an extra striker on the field: It's a shot at boosting the offense that risks weakening the defense.

And sure, there are plenty of times when Mark Reynolds steps in for the pitcher, strikes out, Seth Maness comes out to pitch the 7th, and that's about all there is to it. The impact of luck is always going to outpace strategy.

Think of the NL game like a game of poker: Ultimately, the cards you're dealt are going to be the biggest factor in whether you win or lose. But if you're a skilled player, and you play whatever hands you're dealt well, you can improve your odds. AL baseball is more like a slot machine: Pull the handle. Next guy up? Pull the handle again. And on-and-on it goes.

The looming question of when to pull the pitcher creates some great moments: The roar from the crowd as the pitcher emerges from the dugout in the top of the 9th, bat-in-hand, letting you know he's staying in to finish the game, the anxiety as the manager tries to squeeze one more inning out of a fading pitcher who is due up the next inning, the looming threat of that slugger on the bench each time the 9th spot in the order comes around.

For me, these are great aesthetic moments that more than make up for watching a .150 hitter take an at-bat in maybe the third and fifth inning. But for you, maybe it's the other way around. It would be hard for me to change your mind.

But here is one possible solution: You watch the AL and I'll watch the NL.