How to Fix Baseball
I spent last weekend in Kansas City for the ninth annual Fitness Summit, which is both my favorite fitness event of the year and a great opportunity to visit my family. My mother and two brothers live there, along with two sisters-in-law and six nieces and nephews.
One of the those nephews is a 15-year-old who, I believe, is now the tallest member of my immediate family. He’s 6-foot-2, and according to his dad, already throws a fastball in the mid-80s for his high school’s junior varsity team.
But, because his hitting is less advanced than his pitching, he never gets a turn at bat. Yes, even as a 15-year-old, he’s a specialist. A designated hitter takes his place in the batting order.
You probably think I’m going to rail on how the DH has desecrated baseball at all levels. A few years ago, I might have. But my point here is different, and it’s the first of my 2 1/2 modest proposals to give major-league baseball more integrity and make it a better game for fans to watch
Fix #1: Use the DH in both leagues
Designated hitters are the reality of today’s game at the developmental level, and for the life of me, I don’t understand why the National League refuses to accept it. NL pitchers still take their turn at bat, even though some of them may not have swung a bat since high school. They get minimal plate appearances in the minors because when affiliates of NL teams play against AL affiliates, they always use the DH.
Then they get to the majors and they’re expected to hit. Even worse, during interleague play, AL pitchers have to bat for themselves in NL parks, even though some of those guys have never had a single professional plate appearance.
So why are paying fans of NL teams subjected to pitchers coming up three times a game to take their hacks?
As of today — Sunday, May 22 — the average National League pitcher has a .135 batting average, a .166 on-base percentage, and a .170 slugging percentage. The shorthand for that hitting performance is .135/.166/.170. (If you see a baseball writer refer to “slash lines,” this is what he’s talking about.)
Over in the American League, the average designated hitter is hitting .262/.340/.405. The average hitter across baseball is at .250/.319/.387.
Not only does the NL give 1 out of every 9 at-bats in the opening innings of a game to a guy who can’t hit, it leaves guys who can hit at the end of the bench, if they make it to the majors at all.
On every minor-league team of every NL organization, there’s at least one guy who’s considered a good hitter but a shaky fielder. Those guys are labeled “first base/DH types,” meaning that if they make it to the majors at all on an NL team, their options are limited. They can play first base — the position thought to require the least fielding skill — with situational pinch-hitting appearances, and an occasional adventure in right or left field, with everyone hoping the ball doesn’t get hit there.
Meanwhile, in the AL, there’s a career track for guys like that. They might platoon at first base or left field, but their main job is DH. They’re in the majors because they can hit.
If pitchers take up 12 out of 25 spots on an average major-league roster, why can’t one of the remaining spots go to a pure hitter?
Fix #2: Have 15 teams in each league
The NL currently has 16 teams. The AL has 14. That may have made sense before baseball had interleague play. If you have an odd number of teams, that means one team always has a day off, even on weekends, when attendance is highest. Thus, if there are 30 major-league teams, you had to divide them unevenly to ensure every team has an opponent every day of the week.
But now that we have interleague play, why do leagues have uneven numbers? Why not 15 teams per league, with each league having 3 divisions of 5 teams? Sure, you’d always have at least one interleague series going on, but who would care? The NBA, NFL, and NHL don’t put up these artificial barriers between leagues.
Teams would still play most of their games within their own league. But you’d have balance in other ways. Which leads me to the next point.
Fix #2.5: The team with the best regular-season record gets home-field advantage in the World Series
The direct consequence of unbalanced leagues is that the league with fewer teams has a distinct advantage in the annual all-star game. When the AL had more teams, the NL usually won the all-star game. Now that the NL has more teams, the AL wins almost every year.
Why does it matter, if it’s just an exhibition game? Because baseball does something really, really stupid: It awards home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the all-star game. It also has a rule that says at least one player from each team has to appear in that all-star game. So the league with more teams has to include more players who are just token representatives of really bad teams that otherwise wouldn’t have anyone on the team. The league with fewer teams has more spots for legitimate stars. That league almost always wins the game.
The only fair way to choose home field for a championship game or series is to award it to the team with the best regular-season record. That’s how they do it in the NBA and NHL. (Pro and college football pick neutral sites for their championship games, which is fine for them but irrelevant to the other pro sports.)
In baseball, there’s no reason why everyone needs to know in advance which league’s champion will host the World Series. Nobody knows which two teams will play until the league championship series are contested. So it’s not like the media and celebrities and league officials can make travel plans until then. And we’re still talking about a series in which at least two games will be played in each league champion’s home park.
Of course, I have personal reasons to resent a predetermined assignment of home-field advantage — the chance to start and finish the series at home, and to host 4 out of 7 games, if the series goes that far. I think the Cardinals were victimized in 1985 and 1987, back when home-field advantage was rotated every year. The Cards had the back luck to win the NL pennant in years the AL got to host the series.
It might not have mattered in ’85, when the series turned on an umpire’s blown call at first base. But it certainly did in ’87, when the Twins, who won just 85 regular-season games, got to host the series in a domed stadium that played to their strengths. The Twins won all 4 home games that October, while the Cards won all 3 in St. Louis, after winning 95 regular-season games, which was the best in the NL that year.
So those are my proposals to improve the integrity and entertainment value of major-league baseball. What are yours?