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


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.

Buster Posey has opted out of the season

Buster Posey has opted out
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Buster Posey has opted out of the 2020 MLB season. The San Francisco Giants have issued a statement saying that they “fully support Buster’s decision. Buster is an integral part of our team and will be sorely missed, but we look forward to having him back in 2021.”

Posey and his wife are adopting identical twin girls who were born prematurely and who are currently in the NICU and will be for some time. They are stable, but obviously theirs is not a situation that would be amenable to the demands of a baseball season as it’s currently structured.

Poset had missed all of the Giants’ workouts so far, Recently he said, “I think there’s still some reservation on my end as well. I think I want to see kind of how things progress here over the next couple of weeks. I think it would be a little bit maybe naive or silly not to gauge what’s going on around you, not only around you here but paying attention to what’s happening in the country and different parts of the country.” He said that he talked about playing with his wife quite a great deal but, really, this seems like a no-brainer decision on his part.

In opting out Posey is foregoing the 60-game proration of his $21.4 million salary. He is under contract for one more year at $21.4 million as well. The Giants can pick up his 2022 club option for $22 million or buy him out for $3 million.

A veteran of 11 seasons, Posey has earned about $124 million to date. Which seems to be the common denominator with players who have opted out thus far. With the exception of Joe Ross and Héctor Noesí, the players to have opted out thus far have earned well above $10 million during their careers. Players that aren’t considered “high risk” and elect not to play do not get paid and do not receive service time.