I know that in the middle of the World Series no one cares about the argument over the DH…and yet, on another level, it’s during the World Series that that argument is most prominent, because the entire baseball world becomes centered around a faceoff between the two philosophies. That’s an opportunity we who are interested in this issue should take advantage of, I think, because it seems to me that the DH debate suffers from people talking past each other, using their own strongest arguments and not engaging with those of their opponents. Most fans, if they’re being honest, would agree that Kyle Schwarber not being able to start Game 3 because he’s not medically cleared to play the field is a pretty good argument for the DH (who, aside from Cleveland fans, doesn’t want to see one of the most exciting young hitters in the game play in the World Series?); most would agree that Jake Arrieta homering off Madison Bumgarner in the NLDS is a pretty good argument against it. These tracks run parallel; neither forces anyone to choose between competing tradeoffs, something that every policy debate should ultimately do.
But in Game 3 of the World Series, we got exactly the scenario to clarify our thinking on the DH, one way or another. Situation: it’s the top of the seventh, and there’s still no score. Back in the bottom of the fifth, Terry Francona, using the aggressive bullpen management style common in the post-Showalter era, brought in Andrew Miller to protect the tie; Miller’s thrown 1 1/3 innings but only 30 pitches, and should be good for another inning. But now Cleveland has first and third with one out and Miller’s spot due up, and Francona has a decision to make: does he let his closer go up and swing the bat (or not swing it as the case may be), in order to get another inning out of him? Or does he pinch hit for him and take his chances with Travis Shaw? He chooses the latter.
If you’re against the DH, this is a pretty frustrating development. Andrew Miller has a strong claim on being the most dominant pitcher in baseball right now, at least over the stretch of a few innings. But with a runner on third base late in a scoreless tie, he’s expected to come to the plate, even though his last plate appearance was in 2011? And if Terry Francona wants to avoid this absurd scenario, he can only do so by depriving us all of the chance to see one of the stars of the series? (I know that I’m writing this for an audience largely composed of Cubs fans, most of whom would probably rather see an oncoming big rig in their lane than Miller on the mound, but try to assume a neutral perspective for a moment.) Viewed this way, it certainly seems like the DH has deprived us of interesting entertainment.
On the other hand, if you like the DH, Francona’s quandary in the seventh is probably the reason why you like it, even more than Jake Arrieta’s lifetime .298 slugging percentage. Because think of all the wheels turning in Francona’s head: with a runner on third and less than two outs, what’s the likelihood of Crisp getting the run in versus the likelihood of Miller doing it? What about the likelihood of Shaw versus Miller giving up a run in the bottom of the inning? If Miller doesn’t get the run home, how likely is he to at least stay out of the double play and give Kipnis a shot with two outs? How much longer can Miller go, anyway? What if I need him tomorrow? Proponents of the DH ridicule opponents’ dogged insistence that the DH hurts baseball strategy, and it probably is an overused argument, but this was a perfect example in support of that argument: a genuine tactical dilemma, one where the right answer is probably unknowable.
Man this is a tough call. You want Miller to keep pitching but you also want someone pitching with a lead.
— Marc Goremandin (@Marc_Normandin) October 29, 2016
In the event, of course, it worked out for Francona…but only just, as Soler hit a two-out triple to right in the bottom of the inning, mounting a serious threat to Cleveland’s newfound lead. Had things gone differently, it could have been the kind of decision that enthusiasts argue about for years. If we could rerun the inning a thousand times each way, I suspect it would show that Francona made the right call, but it’s the unknowability that makes it fun.
So, these are the battle lines. What’s more important in baseball: the chance to see the ideal elite matchups—the best pitchers against the best hitters, with the best fielders waiting expectantly—or the ebb and flow of a game situation, the way in which developments cascade irreversibly forward, making tactical decisions crucial? Would you rather get to see Miller pitch as long as he’s effective, or get to think along with Francona about what’s the best of a range of imperfect options? In a post last year about the DH, I quoted Sid Meier, the creator of the Civilization computer games, as saying that “a game is a series of interesting choices.” It occurs to me now that the argument over the DH itself is an interesting choice, in the sense that the two positions represent mutually exclusive options, each with its advantages and tradeoffs. That’s why, wishy-washy as I am, I like the system we have now, with the DH used in one league and not in the other, and the World Series a chance to showcase the two philosophies. The seventh inning on Friday, at least, showed how rich that showcase can be.
Lead photo courtesy Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports.