Second City October: A Decision in the Seventh Inning

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.

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.

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1 comment on “Second City October: A Decision in the Seventh Inning”

Dear Tom,

Your post made me confront an issue I haven’t concerned myself with in a while. As a Braves fan, my position on the DH was simple: I thought it was “realer” baseball to do without one, since I was strictly a National League fan. (You know, the Golden Era of baseball, Babe Ruth was a pitcher, blah blah blah.) And, from this comfortable standpoint, I occasionally turned my attention to the American League with an uncomfortable feeling of jealousy.

I cannot support your position on the two leagues because I’m a Platonist. Imagine that the American League did not allow instant replays for disputed calls, and the National League did. Obviously, this would be unacceptable and short-lived. Well, that’s the situation with the designated hitter. The rules of the game are absolutes. There’s no chess game in the world where you can’t capture a pawn “en passant.”

This unresolved situation appears to produce “good arguments on both sides,” but that’s really a function of the randomness inherent to any game. Of course some non-DH games produce interesting dilemmas. By the same token, some poker players actually believe that having had pocket aces “cracked” means they should play pocket aces more cautiously. They are wrong.

The reason we need designated hitters is very simple: player management in general — and pitcher management, in specific — has become overly specialized. (It seems, as James Joyce once wrote, that Buck Showalter is to blame.) The obsessive use of the bullpen, combined with double switches, pinch runners, and so on, ruins the narratives unfolding within each game. Would “Casey At The Bat” be equally good if Casey was pinch-hitting in the ninth? Is a combined no-hitter as awe-inspiring as a solo no-no?

It might seem like making pitchers hit encourages them to be more “well-rounded,” but since they don’t ever swing the bat at the most epic moments in a game, that’s a non-starter. In the rare instances when a pitcher “stays in,” after an agonizing managerial decision, he is usually replaced with a different runner if he does reach base. The story of the game disintegrates into a collage of managerial decisions and moving parts — and the worst of it is, Buck Showalter was wrong.

I’ll say it again: he was wrong. If pitchers were really as specialized as their portfolios suggest, John Smoltz could never have become a closer. The main advantage of changing pitchers — that the batter hasn’t faced them yet — is also what makes those match-ups less interesting. Instead of a story about why a batter is 0 for 3, we hear commentary about how the batter did last May, facing this reliever in Cincinnati.

The fantasy players can keep their expensive trades for statistically overvalued closers. At baseball heart is its stories. To paraphrase Robert Evans, when there’s a DH, the kid stays in: the pitcher.

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