There are some debates in baseball that just never go away. To be fair, baseball itself causes some of this by stirring the pot from time to time, and that's not a bad thing. Anything that generates discussion is good. It shows that people care. People who care watch games and buy tickets. Thus, here we are again, debating the relative merits of the designated hitter. Hey, don't blame me. The commissioner is the one who brought it up.
Recently, Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer wrote a piece called "Let's Stop Pretending That Pitchers Can Hit," and it's a great read. It brings the DH debate into the current time, with an emphasis on the continuing deterioration of aggregate hitting performances of pitchers. That cannot be denied. Pitchers, relative to position players, have never been good hitters, even the best-hitting hurlers, and the gap is widening. Lindbergh is but one of a legion of analytically informed writers who have condemned the medieval practice of allowing pitchers to hit over the years. This, I think, has become orthodoxy among those whose fandom is heavily informed by analytics. To them, the professional game is undermined by having non-professional hitters take a turn at the plate in the major leagues.
That is a rational opinion. If bad pitcher-hitting matters to you, then of course you want to add the DH to the National League. You probably also want to if you are angered when American League pitchers are injured while hitting in NL parks or running the bases. It's perfectly reasonable to feel that way. Yet, I would hate it -- HATE. IT. -- if the designated hitter spread to the National League. Yes, that's right, I am a status quo guy. Of course, that doesn't matter at all, which I'll get to in a bit.
First, a quick bit of biography: I grew up as a fan of the Kansas City Royals, who during my formative years had one helluva designated hitter named Hal McRae. Like scores of young fans in my region, I was a George Brett guy, but I loved McRae, too, and couldn't get enough stories about his ruthless ways on the basepaths. I remember arguing about whether McRae or Don Baylor was the best DH in the game. It seemed like a singular skill: to be able to hit at a high level while waiting around the dugout for two or three innings at a time.
Despite this, I have never really liked the DH, mostly because I grew up reading about baseball history even more often than I read about the game as it played out in my time. That made me into a kind of a neo-purist -- one who longed for an era of baseball that I never came close to actually experiencing. For most of my adult life, I was a kill-the-DH guy. Because of my almost-compulsive eye for symmetry, the idea of different rules for different leagues always struck me as absurd.
I've changed, though, for a few reasons.
First, as others have pointed out, the DH rule is the last great differentiator between the leagues, and I do think it's important that the American League and National League maintain distinctive identities, even if the actual list of differences between them has shortened over time. This better connects the game to its history, sure, but that might not matter to enough younger fans to be all that important. However, it does mark baseball as different from the other major sports, and it enhances the World Series, even in a time when interleague play has become routine. Even more so, the existence of the DH means that the two leagues have distinctive styles of play.
That diversity is compelling. Why does a baseball fan have to choose whether to have the DH when he or she can have it both ways? Fans can gravitate toward whatever style they prefer, or, even better, they can have a variety in styles. Then they can argue with those in the other camp, as we've been doing since the DH was born in 1973.
The difference in styles that I allude to has much more to do with player deployment than it does actual in-game strategies these days. It's certainly true that you don't have to be a brain surgeon to order a pitcher to bunt, or to double-switch him out of the lineup. But the fact that you have to account for that one lousy spot in your order adds valuable nuance to a game that increasingly sees little variance in styles from team to team. No, pitcher sacrifices aren't sexy selling points, but if they didn't exist, bunting would be all but extinct in Major League Baseball. It's not a part of baseball I'm ready to see completely die. I hate stupid bunts, but we don't see many of those anymore and the ones that remain are mostly valid -- because they are laid down by pitchers.
The biggest reason I prefer the National League game at this point is the way it forces rosters to be built with greater versatility in mind, and more of the NL-style roster comes into play on a daily basis. Sure, the double switch is a near-automatic decision, but the defensive quality of the players you're moving around is far from automatic. For super-versatile teams like the Cubs and Dodgers, it's an advantage to be able to move players around the field while maintaining integrity both at the plate and in the field. On a day-by-day basis, the full roster of NL teams is more important, and it's one of my favorite parts of following the game.
Plus, call me a masochist, but I like watching pitchers hit, and not only the better ones. The big league batting average for pitchers is .109 right now and sure, that sucks. But it also means that one out of 10 times, a pitcher is getting a hit. We don't know when it's going to happen, and when it does, it's fun. The crowd invariably reacts strongly, one way or the other, depending on which team's pitcher has gotten the hit. Fans also applaud successful sacrifices and boo the ones that are botched. It might not be why they're at the game, but it is something that can shake them out of a stupor.
So why, then, don't I simply argue for the AL to get rid of the DH?
One of the original arguments for the DH is that it creates an avenue for an aging or imperfect slugger to remain in the game even when he can't hold down a position. I can buy this to an extent. Most of the time, these aren't going to be star-level hitters, as teams often choose to use the DH slot as a vehicle to rest players. There are some DH stars, obviously, from McRae, Baylor and Paul Molitor to Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz. For me, that's why it works to have different policies by league: There are places for the star, mono-skilled slugger to play. But we don't need 30 such places.
At the bottom line, the difference in offense is marginal, especially in recent seasons. This year, AL teams have averaged 4.39 runs per game. NL teams are at 4.34, a difference of .05 runs per game. Here are the differences for the past 10 years, per Baseball-Reference.com:
Park factors likely play into this -- both Coors Field and Chase Field are in the National League -- but if we use the average from this list, we're talking about a run about every 4.6 games. I'd rather have the extra nuance that comes with the pitcher's spot in the batting order.
That preference is just that, a preference, the same as it is for those who think it's silly to watch pitchers strike out over 40 percent of the time. When it comes to preferences, any one person's is irrelevant. All that matters is what the consensus is. And the consensus is that there is no consensus.
After commissioner Rob Manfred's comment last week, mlbtraderumors.com ran a fan poll. I would have thought that site's readership would lean to the analytical side of things, but the results were a virtual dead heat. When I looked around for other polls, I found similar splits. In general, it seems as if there is a slight lean toward no DH, but fans of AL teams prefer to keep it, and NL fans very much don't want to adopt it.
I don't know how good any of those polls are. However, all that matters on this issue is for baseball to analyze an accurate survey of its fan base. If it does, I doubt a universal policy would make sense. Because this isn't a quality-of-the-game issue, it's an aesthetic one. My guess is that to give the most fans possible what they want, we should keep things as they are. But when it comes to the DH, all that really matters is what the fans want.
What the numbers say
The end of Esky magic
The Royals are headed for rock bottom this season, and that's fine. Under Dayton Moore, they built up their farm system, successfully developed some premium draft picks, put together one of the best-ever bullpens, and won two pennants and Kansas City's second World Series title in 2015. No matter what analytical types think about the way Moore, manager Ned Yost or anybody else in Kansas City goes about their business, there is a world-championship flag flying over Kauffman Stadium that trumps every quibble.
But as core players like Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain departed for free-agent riches, and a string of misses with first-round draft picks such as Bubba Starling, Kyle Zimmer and Aaron Crow piled up, the Royals' window closed. This year's Royals are what you have in the aftermath: a team on pace to lose over 100 games and still shedding veteran talent, with trades sending away Jon Jay and Kelvin Herrera in recent weeks. This team could conceivably lose 110 games. Again -- this is fine.
Remaining through it all is Alcides Escobar, who has started every game at shortstop for Kansas City since May 7, 2015. With the recent promotion of Adalberto Mondesi, it's a streak that's expected to end any day now.
Escobar homered against Oakland on June 7, which I mention only because it spurred me to look at his hitting numbers. They weren't good. And they've gotten worse: Despite playing every game since then, Escobar has managed just two singles and two walks since that time. His on-base percentage for the season has sunk all the way to .251, which would be his career worst. And that's saying something.
Escobar's career on-base percentage is just .292, which got me to wondering: What is the record for career plate appearances for a player with a sub-.300 on-base percentage? If we keep it to active players only, Escobar has lapped the field:
If you expand it to all players, ever, Escobar has some work to do. He is No. 30 all time, well behind top-of-the-list Tommy Corcoran, who played far back into the mystical past. Corcoran had 9,400 career plate appearances with an OBP of .290, not that he or anyone else in baseball back then understood what OBP was. No. 2 on the list is a player who is both familiar to Royals fans and was a terrific player: Frank White, who took 8,468 trips to the dish with an OBP of .293.
We're picking on Escobar here, but players have been valued for different reasons all through history. Even now, teams differ on player value based on their internal philosophies. Don't worry, I'm not going to make a case that Escobar is or ever has been a good hitter. But he has been a good player at times during his career. He's won a Gold Glove. He's played in an All-Star Game. He's been worth as many as 3.7 WAR in a season and was the starting shortstop on those recent Royals pennant winners. He has no reason to hang his head in shame, no matter what his OBP column says. There are reasons he's a beloved player in the Kansas City organization.
That said ... it would be nice if the Royals eventually found a long-term shortstop who was actually a tough out at the plate, because that is not a trait they have ever valued at the position. Not ever, not with Moore, or John Schuerholz or Allard Baird or Cedric Tallis building the rosters. No team has been less concerned with finding on-base ability than the Royals have been when it comes to their shortstops.
If you are at all familiar with baseball history of the past 50 years, all I really have to do is list the names and the association with on-base blackholedom is automatic: Freddie Patek, U.L. Washington, Rey Sanchez, Neifi Perez, Angel Berroa, Yuniesky Betancourt. Anyone who has ever read a Bill James Baseball Abstract is curled into a fetal position by now, so I'll stop there.
The Royals' collective on-base percentage from the shortstop position through their 50-year history has been .296, easily the worst of any team, per fangraphs.com. The funny thing is, Escobar's chances to continue to climb that plate-appearances list aren't necessarily at an end -- Mondesi has a .498 OPS over his first 219 big league plate appearances. On a team that is positioning for next year's top draft pick, letting Escobar make outs seven out of 10 times only makes sense.
Since you asked
The Luhnow Way
The Astros' Jeff Luhnow is one of baseball's most fascinating executives. His early tenure in Houston, the period during which the Astros' championship squad was built, was not without its controversies. There was a perceived lowball offer on an extension for George Springer. There was the Brady Aiken mess, which cost Houston two high picks from the 2014 draft but also gave the club the slot used to nab Alex Bregman the following June.
Even last season, as Houston was gearing up for its first World Series title, Luhnow drew some ire for his reorganization of the Astros' scouting department, which once again spurred some to suggest he's too far on the analytics side of the scouting-statistics spectrum. One thing you can say about Luhnow: He has his own way of doing things, but who can deny the results?
The Astros have evolved into a model, 21st-century organization that works in lockstep all the way from owner Jim Crane, to Luhnow and his baseball operations department, to field manager/team spokesman/front-office liaison A.J. Hinch, arguably the prototype for a big league skipper in a 2018 context. The Houston clubhouse is a lively, well-integrated environment with few apparent cliques and lots of video hockey. (At least in spring training.) The players are embedded in the Houston community, which never was more apparent than during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Houston's payroll is nicely dovetailed with the on-field value provided by the roster, and the system is still bearing fruit, with top prospects like outfielder Kyle Tucker waiting on a big league opportunity.
Thus, it was no surprise this week when Crane promoted Luhnow to the title of president of baseball operations and general manager and extended his contract through the 2023 season. The Astros' window of contention is wide open, and even with crucial contract negotiations approaching in the years ahead -- Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers and Carlos Correa -- Houston seems poised to be an American League power for the foreseeable future. I had a good conversation with Luhnow about his player-development philosophies in his office at the Astros' spring-training facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, before the season, and news of his extension serves as a good opportunity to share some of that.
One thing that really jumps out to me about you guys is, here you have a team that won over 100 games, won the World Series, and it still feels like there is plenty of room for further growth. Assuming you agree with that, how much did that inform how you approached building the team for this season?
Jeff Luhnow: I think that from our offense, we looked at how young our position-player group is across the board. [Josh] Reddick has just turned , and he's our veteran. Springer is still young, [Jose] Altuve is young, Correa is young, Bregman is super young. We have a young group and they played well together last year. I do believe that there is more in there, even though you have an MVP and other guys who made the All-Star Game, just because they have more experience and more time in the game, and now they've won together as a group. Yuli [Gurriel] is just entering his second full season of major league baseball. On the catching side, we've got guys who are a little bit older, but that wisdom is what really helps us and helps our pitchers. On the position-player side, we really felt like that group had a chance to be better, even though they had a historic year offensively.
Pitching-wise, we have young pitchers but we've got the two horses atop the rotation, and we wanted to improve our pitching staff. Which is why we made the [Gerrit Cole] trade that was costly, and we brought in the relievers (Hector Rondon and Joe Smith). So we do think we have a chance to be better than the team that won it all last year. That being said, you can have the best team on paper on March 28, but these guys have to stay healthy and they have to perform. We know there are going to be some roadblocks along the way.
There is a lot of talk about superteams, and it's certainly the way I view things right now. That has to keep you sharp in the offseason, right?
JL: Oh, it does. Knowing that Cleveland and New York and Boston in the American League are likely to be really, really strong teams. Knowing that the Angels are going to be significantly improved, and Seattle still has really good players and they've made some changes that are going to improve their ballclub, even Oakland has really good, young players that I think are just starting to blossom. And Texas is always a handful for us.
We've got our hands full; there is no question. I think we have to stay sharp because you can't take anything for granted in this game, even if you're playing a last-place team.
When you were with the Cardinals, your title was director of scouting and development, which is a very common thing. But when you think about it, scouting and development are pretty different processes -- identifying talent and developing talent. It seems like a lot more attention is paid to the scouting part of it in terms of coverage. But it's one thing to find Correa and Springer and Bregman, but to hit on them, you've got to develop them, too, and for those guys, it happened so fast that here we are: You're the champs and young enough to improve from within. How tough was it to implement your development operations while at the same time building the scouting when you were growing the farm system?
JL: Development organizations don't get the credit that they deserve. There is no player that comes out of the draft that is ready for the big leagues. Even [Bryce] Harper had to spend time in the minor leagues; [Stephen] Strasburg had to spend time in the minor leagues. There is a lot of focus on the players when they are drafted or coming into the organization. Fans track them, but they don't understand what it takes to turn a high school player like Carlos Correa and get him ready to become the Rookie of the Year a few years later. Or Alex Bregman, taken out of college and two years later he's making his debut. It's a shorter period of time than ever before because there is so much demand to get these guys up there, and you know they are going to be valuable.
Organizations are doing a really good job today of developing the young talent into not players who still have a lot of development in the big leagues, but players who can really come in and hit the ground running. I think we've seen a wave of young players the last few years hitting the big leagues that are impact players right out of the gate. And that's different than it was 10, 15 years ago, where the rookies would come up and be on the bench part of the season, or platoon to let them get used to it. Then a year or two in, they would start to hit their stride. Today, you get a guy like Bregman come up and he's immediately impacting the team. A lot of that credit goes to out entire development system, which really doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
That's really the ideal for development, right, because you have guys hitting the big leagues and being finished where it's going to have the most impact.
JL: Yeah, and you look at players like Dallas Keuchel, who was not a top prospect at any point in his career, and yet a few years into his big league career and he's winning a Cy Young. You look at Altuve, who got a low bonus in Venezuela and became an MVP. Those stories, those are good scouting stories because scouts found them and got them before anybody else, but they weren't first-rounders, they weren't notable signees, and yet they developed into elite, premium talent. Obviously much of the credit goes to the individuals themselves, but a lot of it also goes to the coaches and people who helped them get there.
How difficult is to develop a player according to organizational philosophies while also allowing enough leeway for the player to become the best version of uniquely who he is? Because that's something that seems to have happened with your young stars. They work as a team, but they are uniquely good in their own way.
JL: There's a couple of things there. First, the scouting and the development functions have to work collaboratively. If your organization is good at developing athletes into baseball players, then your development team is good at turning athletes into baseball players. If it's the opposite, you might find guys with a knack to hit, but you have to develop defensive skills. So the two have to work together in order to maximize the impact of the players in the big leagues. I also think you have to leave room for the player.
You don't know, when you draft a player or sign a player, especially when they're 16 or 19 or 21, what they are going to become. You might think he's going to be a high-average, low-power guy and then all of sudden he starts to develop some power, or bodies change. You don't know how physically they are going to develop or mentally how they are going to develop. You have to allow them to develop their own way.
Now, you hope that it develops in a way that's good for run production and run prevention. They have to have some skill set that's going to help you score runs or get guys out in the big leagues. One thing we've all learned in this industry is that each player is different. Each player is unique, so you have to customize your player-development system to get each of them where they need to go.
Coming right up
Win No. 200 is just around the corner
Justin Verlander has won nine games this season and maintained a sub-2.00 ERA into the middle of June. He's reached 197 victories for his career. Verlander hit the 2,500-strikeout mark earlier this season, so when he hits 200 wins, he will join some rarefied air. Only Mike Mussina, Bob Feller and Walter Johnson have recorded at least 200 wins and 2,500 strikeouts while spending their entire career in the American League.
More than that, though, when it comes to Verlander's 2018 season, I keep coming back to three things. First, he's never been better. Maybe as good, but not better. Second, the ace told MLB.com earlier this season that, if things continue to go well, he could see playing another 10 years.
Finally, that third thought: For the past 20 years, we've been reading about the demise of the 300-game winner. I've usually shrugged that off, knowing that it'll be tougher to get there but not really to declare extinction. That is until the past couple of years when, given current trends with starting-pitcher use, even I began to wonder if we might have really seen the last 300-game winner.
But have we? Verlander needs another 103 wins. He's on pace for 19 this season, so let's be optimistic and put him at 207 by the end of the campaign. That leaves him 93 short. Clearly, if Verlander were to really go another 10 years, it seems likely he'd get there. But if another decade is overly optimistic, what would a run look like for him?
Well, if Verlander gets to 19 wins this year (an aggressive assumption), he will have averaged 17 wins over the past three seasons. As mentioned, he's on top of his game and playing for the best team in the big leagues, one poised to remain in the elite tier for the time being.
Let's say Verlander extends this 17-win average for three more seasons. He's then at 261 wins. If he gets that close, is there any doubt he'd go for it, especially considering his adulation of historical greats like Nolan Ryan?
I know. I'm not supposed to care. I don't judge pitchers by wins in the short term (though career wins I haven't given up on). I even proposed changing the way we award wins, using something like game scores to award decisions. But I can't help it, I love the idea of the 300-game winner and hate the thought of never having another one.
In the 2018 Bill James Handbook, there is a longtime favorite James tool known as the Favorite Toy. It calculates the probabilities of various career milestones, and said Verlander had a 15 percent shot at 300 wins coming into the season. However, the Favorite Toy didn't know that Verlander wants to play another 10 years, nor did it know the full extent to which he's re-established career momentum in what for most pitchers would be the decline phase of their careers.
Also, there is this: Verlander only ranked second in the 300-win probability sweepstakes. Washington's Max Scherzer was at 33 percent, and he's already racked up 10 wins so far this season. So maybe, just maybe, we haven't seen the last of the 300-game winners.