In Michael Chabon’s 2002 fantasy novel Summerland, young protagonists and baseball players Ethan and Jennifer travel to alternate worlds. There, they are charged with defeating mystical creatures in a set of baseball games to save worlds near and far.
At one point, they confront an imprisoned, fairy-like creature. One of the things that landed this character in prison was her attempt to improve baseball—to make it less "boring."
"Let’s take one example," the detainee states. "Is there anything duller in all the game of baseball than watching the pitcher hit? Pitcher goes up there, if she even gets the bat off her shoulder it’s to give it a few weak waves like she’s shooing a little moth away. And then, big surprise, three or four pitches later, she’s out." It was a familiar, and distasteful, concept to Jennifer: "The designated hitter rule . . . you deserve to be in here for that."
In my mind’s eye, I can see readers respond with a hoot and a holler: "Damn straight!"
In the context of Major League Baseball in 2016, however, the battle against the designated hitter is starting to look lost. It’s not leaving the American League, and it’s starting to look like it will arrive in the National League in short order.
The implementation of the designated hitter in the NL has "more momentum" than before, a recent report from St. Louis Cardinals’ beat writer Derek Goold suggests. Even Buster Olney, who indicates that he "hate[s] the thought of a National League with the designated hitter," admits that it’s "probably inevitable at this point."
There are multiple arguments for the integration of the DH in the NL. For one, offense has been down league-wide. The DH would help solve that problem by replacing pitchers—who are truly terrible and getting worse at the plate—with professional hitters. The DH would reduce pitcher injuries due to hitting 100 percent, even though pitchers actually don’t get injured that often while hitting.
Additionally, the extra spot in the lineup would also allow big bats to contribute with minimal risk. This is particularly relevant for aging hitters, and that is particularly relevant because it means elongated careers. These are the types of things the Players Association will be invested in when it comes time to renegotiate the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement, especially if it means additional spots on the active roster.
The most tangible argument against is that the DH would mean longer NL games. Since the Astros joined the AL in 2013, necessitating near daily interleague play, there have been 1,166 DH-games that clocked in at over three and a half hours. That’s 102 more than non-DH games. The culprit might be more pitching changes. The baseball-wide DH would seem to go against the effort to shorten games and keep the pace up. Though, again, it's not like the elimination of the DH is being floated as a way to quicken the pace of games.
The other arguments tend to be either based in nostalgia or whimsy. Prior to 1973, pitchers hitting was the institution; since 1973, two leagues with two rules has been the institution. A lot of people are invested in keeping it that way. There are also claims that something will be lost when baseball watchers can no longer see players like Bartolo Colón hit.
Given all that, let’s get hypothetical and look forward: How might the adoption of the DH rule change the way we see the Rockies?
First of all, the Rockies would not be overfull with outfielders at the moment if the NL had the DH. The designated hitter is tailor made for players like Corey Dickerson and Carlos González. Dickerson has defensive liabilities that, while not making his departure from left field inevitable, would make him a more valuable player—addition by subtraction. CarGo would benefit from days off from playing the field. In fact, the DH might have jumpstarted his resurgence if it were around in early 2015. In this setup, Dickerson and CarGo could share the DH position while Charlie Blackmon and Gerardo Parra provide dependable defense.
That is not to say that the DH would eliminate the need to trade one of these outfielders. The other parts of the team, which include a lackluster rotation, an inexperienced catcher, a black hole at first base, and question marks at shortstop, would still make trading at least one of their incumbent outfielders a good idea. But in an alternate world where the Rockies have those other areas of the game taken care of, the above arrangement would probably work out pretty well.
Another immediate benefit of having the DH would be getting Tom Murphy more plate appearances. He’s not the hitting catcher that Buster Posey or Jonathan Lucroy are, but he’s thus far demonstrated enough ability to make off-day reps worth it. The DH could make that happen.
There isn’t really such a thing as a DH prospect (Dan Vogelbach is the exception that proves the rule). Nevertheless, it is something that teams have to consider when envisioning a young player’s future, whether as a failsafe or one of a few options. Perusing the most recent PuRPs list, there appear to be a few candidates who would be able to assume DH responsibilities in some future season.
The first one that comes to mind is Ryan McMahon. A third baseman right now, McMahon has slugged his way through Low and High-A over the past two seasons. Currently, the story is that Nolan Arenado will block him at the major league level, and if it comes to it, he can make the move to first base. Being the team's designated batsman would also make sense.
Jordan Patterson would also be a DH candidate. In 2015, Patterson had a breakout year at the plate across two levels. While at High-A Modesto, he played 64 of his 77 games in the outfield, 12 at DH, and one at first base. He was promoted to Double-A New Britain in the middle of July. There, he played much more at first base, tending the bag 21 out of his 48 games. With Patterson, we see the realization of McMahon’s possible trajectory: A slow migration to first base. The natural final point is the DH, as long as his bat can keep up.
The caveat about the bat is most applicable to some of the other young players who profile as DH’s: Correlle Prime, Shane Hoelscher, and Dom Nunez. Prime, a first baseman, took some serious steps backwards at High-A Modesto in 2015, but he’s the type of bat first player that could fill the role if he is able to find his stroke again.
Hoelscher and Nunez also represent types. Hoelscher OPS’d about .950 in 2015 for the Asheville Tourists, but he did so as a 23-year-old, which is a year and a half older than the average competition. For a player like Hoelscher, the possibility to play DH might be the only path to getting into major league games, even if he has to wait until he’s about 26 to do so.
And then we have Nunez, who played second base, shortstop, and catcher during his first year as a pro for Grand Junction. In 2015, he mostly caught for Asheville. The question mark for low-level catchers is always whether or not they can stick. If not, then they begin a journey searching for a new home either on the diamond or, for AL teams, at the seat closest to the batting equipment—at least for good hitters, which Nunez sure appears to be.
These are the types of things that are very likely to play a larger role in the way we view the organization. It might be a slow integration, but the DH will make its way to the NL soon, the dismay of Buster and Jennifer notwithstanding. When it does, it will just be another in the long list of changes that baseball has undergone over the past 150 years. At the major league and organizational levels, the Rockies and the rest of the NL will have to adapt.