The Designated Hitter: a venerable idea of the 19th century

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Whenever I fight with people over the designated hitter — a position which I don’t personally favor for subjective reasons but which I have come to accept as a useful and necessary innovation which should be universal — my opponents tend to focus on its “gimmicky” nature.

They talk about how it was invented in the early 1970s and was akin to other harebrained ideas of that somewhat unfortunate time in our nation’s creative consciousness. They allude to it in the same way people talk about frozen dinners, suspended ceilings, cheap polyester clothing and the Chevy Vega. Things which were temporarily useful but which, with hindsight, were properly seen as cheap and desperate strategies which ignored the lessons of history and which eschewed grand traditions.

A second line of defense is that while pitchers are demonstrably horrible hitters these days, such was not always the case. Rather, baseball has merely chosen not to emphasize pitchers hitting, in large part due to the advent of the designated hitter itself. If pitchers were required to hit, they contend, they would become better at it and no one would be advocating for the perpetuation, let alone the expansion, of the abominable designated hitter.

Neither of these contentions, however, is true. The DH is not some gimmick dreamed up by shortsighted members of the Me Generation and was not the cause of poor pitcher hitting. Rather, as Major League Baseball’s historian John Thorn writes today, the DH was conceived of and considered nearly 100 years before its adoption. For the very same reasons it was ultimately adopted in 1973 and still exists today: pitchers of the 19th century, just like pitchers today, couldn’t hit a lick.

Thorn dates the idea of a DH to 1891, when Pirates owner W.C. Temple and executive J. Walter Spalding discussed the matter, as memorialized in an article in Sporting Life. The two men differed on how, exactly, to get around pitchers hitting, but they certainly agreed on the need to do so:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

Spalding was in favor of simply skipping the pitcher. Temple was in favor of a substitute hitter we today call the DH. For various reasons it was not adopted then. But just because it took another 82 years to come online doesn’t mean it was a gimmick and doesn’t mean it was a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, it was one of the few examples of an innovation implemented in the 1970s that was long overdue and which has stood the test of time.

I do not suspect that this will make DH-haters change their views on the matter. But they most certainly will have to change the justification for their views. Because contrary to what they so often say, when it comes to the DH, tradition is not on their side.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.