What Really Led to the DH?

Shane Reynolds

As one who has grown to appreciate and prefer the DH addition to baseball, I only became fully aware of how that major change in the rules for all, but the NL, came to be until last night ~ and it wasn’t really served up on a spoon. It came seeping into my old noggin from the peripheral answers I was getting to another direct question I had asked of two very sharp former Astros pitchers who spoke at the February 18, 2019 meeting of our Larry Dierker Houston SABR Chapter.

 

 

 

Those two former Astros pitchers were Shane Reynolds and Chris Sampson.

After hearing both speak separately on how closely they worked with different catchers. I asked both of them through Shane Reynolds for their thoughts on why catchers, who learn so much about the strike zone from their constant work with it on defense, could not also use that experience to be better hitters themselves. Both sort of shook their heads and smiled.

Reynolds got us past the “good question” leaning-in phase of this inquiry by offering his belief that the physical wear-and-tear of a catcher’s work, with all its labor on every defensive pitch and the heavy sweat-laden equipment that just got heavier as the game moved on ~ these things ~ simply wore the guys down from the primary efforts they were expected put in on the defensive demands of their position.

As I now later recall, Sampson pretty much gave a non-verbal wave of support to Reynolds’ wear-and-tear opinions. ~ i.e., even if a guy has talent for becoming better as a hitter, he gives all his major energy to the side of his job that his club needs him to serve on defense. Few hitters have enough talent to overcome the defensive demands of catcher. Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, Roy Campanella, Carlton Fisk, and Johnny Bench jump to mind, but, as you know, those guys also are all members of the Hall of Fame.

Former Astros President and General Manager Tal Smith was in the SABR crowd. It was Tal Smith’s offering that MLB clubs historically were most often willing to give up a poor hitting catcher to the bottom of the lineup for the sake of his superior defensive skills. Chris Sampson followed Smith’s remarks with one of baseball’s oldest bromides of justification for the focus on defense: “Defensively, a club has to be strong up the middle.”

Even our 1950 Pecan Park Eagles remembered the “be strong up the middle” caveat, but our challenge was even more basic. It meant we had to have five guys show up early enough to pitch, catch, and play second, short, and center.

The Real Reason for the DH

Then it hit me. The answer to my unasked question at SABR Monday night has been dangling before my eyes all this time that the DH has been in place. I simply didn’t see it in its full glory. And I don’t think I’ve been alone in this missed deduction.

The DH didn’t take root in baseball simply because the pitcher alone could not hit. ~ It was generated by the notorious presence of usually three guys at the 7th, 8th, and 9th place bottom spots in the batting order who couldn’t hit a fly with a flit gun.

Chris Sampson

The DH was there to break up the three-man bottom of the batting order ~ the pitcher, the catcher, and one other player down the strong defensive middle who could usually sneak into another starter role as a defensive man ~ and this fellow was very often the “good field/no hit” shortstop. ~ The DH would take out the 9th batting pitcher and that improvement would promote the goal of building a batting order in which there also would be no 8th or 7th holes left to kill the offensive threat at the bottom of the lineup. Our 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros did a great job of doing exactly that ~ building a hitters’ lineup in which there was no place for opposing pitchers to relax.

The DH lives today as the key goal for every club’s primary bonus offensive aspiration ~ whenever possible ~ and that is to have a nine-man hitting lineup in which each player listed is capable of reaching base on an average to better-than-average percentage of the time.

We Also May Need to Re-Think the Way We Use Catchers

Maybe we need to re-think how we use catchers as another position in which their regular rotation, as it does with pitchers, helps their season performance level. After all, catchers are throwing the ball hard every game almost every pitch they return to the pitcher, plus a few others they throw on out plays ~ or other attempted steal plays. Why should we take a starting pitcher out after 100 pitches ~ and then leave catchers in the game for 200 pitches daily for as long as he says he can go in all the days that follow? It seems pretty clear that the ongoing exhaustion derived from the defensive chores of their job keep most catchers from developing as even average hitters.

If catcher hitting could improve with time off between starts, as we do with starting pitchers, how much time would he need ~ and how many catchers would be needed to create a situation in which a catcher went into most games with enough physical recovery time to maybe help them improve their hitting too. Again, the whole thing turns upon whether or not we believe that an ongoing state of exhaustion is the major culprit behind the priority the game places on catcher defense as the two major reasons why most catchers do not hit better than they do.

What do you think?

 

******************************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

Tags:

2 Responses to “What Really Led to the DH?”

  1. gregclucas Says:

    I understand your take on the physical toll from catching, but the mental aspect…ability to control the pitcher and game is most important. Not all catchers are interchangeable in this area either. Personal view: Have to go with your BEST all around catcher most of the time to get the most out of your pitchers. A day off or two each week is enough and at times less than that if one of your catcher’s is truly better that the others. Brad Ausmus was a great example. He once was a much better hitter (.260-.270 range) than he was in his final years. But his ability to handle pitchers and throw out runners never weakened and may have even been better. He HAD to be in there for the majority of the games. The current Astros could certainly use an “Ausmus-type” even the older Ausmus even now.

  2. Larry Dierker Says:

    Two things. Since most teams have good hitters in the 7 and 8 hole, there is no reason for the scourge of the strategy-killing DH. Analytics has taken most of the strategy away as it is.

    Two. It doesn’t take anything out of a catcher’s arm to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Sure, catchers get sore arm like all players. But it’s not because they throw the ball 200 times every day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: