The last CBA negotiated between ownership and the MLBPA is set to expire on December 1, 2016. While that puts the negotiations 19 months away, there are three issues that already look to be the highlights of the negotiations:
1. The MLB debt structure leading teams to tie payroll directly to revenue in order to appease banks
2. Service clock considerations (especially in light of the Springer and Bryant promotions)
3. Expanding the DH into the NL
The first two points are entirely about the business side of baseball. So long as the games continue to get played, tickets remain reasonably priced, and the players are treated fairly, the business side of the CBA means very little to me. The equitable distribution of dollars and cents is what CBAs are supposed to be all about. The last point though, that is a discussion, the result of which, could fundamentally change the game of baseball, and not for the better.
The Designated Hitter was original adopted by the American League in 1973 on a three-year trial. Attendance and offensive increases tabled any vote to repeal the trial. Then, in 1999 the American League, along with its senior sibling, the National League, ceased to exist as a separate entity, both leagues falling under the combined umbrella of MLB and the Office of the Commissioner. This meant that abolishing the DH was no longer a league issue, but rather a baseball-wide one.
Now in its 42nd season of use, the DH has become an undeniable force in the game of baseball. Three generations of fans now have passionate stances on the DH. There are those that wholly support the DH, feeling that the point of watching baseball is to watch hitters hit and pitchers pitch, not to watch pitchers give away outs at the plate. Then there are those that are considered baseball "purists". The feel that anyone playing the sport at the very highest level should be made to play both ways. A hitter should have to be able to field a position, and pitchers should be forced to work on their small ball skills. If a pitcher can hit, that's simply an extra bonus and plays into the random variety that is a hallmark of the game. They also point to in-game strategy as a reason to steer clear of the DH; managers having to decide how to utilize their bench and their bullpen in such a way as to not run out of position players or pitchers. There are very few avid baseball fans that are on the fence about the subject.
For those that support the use of the DH, the most recent World Series is a perfect example of the beauty that the rule brings to the game. Game 7 of the World Series was decided in large part by the pitching heroics of Madison Bumgarner, who pitched five innings in relief only two nights after pitching a complete game shutout. It was a tremendous performance. It was made even more so by the fact that Bumgarner pitched with only the slimmest of leads to work with, having entered the game with a 3-2 lead. With the DH rule in place, Bochy was able to ride the arm of his talented lefty all the way to a third championship ring in five years, never once having to consider possibly lifting him for a pinch hitter to pad the lead. This is the sort of thing that proponents of the DH love to see. It really is not hard to see why.
Another game involving Madison Bumgarner, played in San Francisco on the evening of April 16th created the perfect storm of circumstances to demonstrate why not utilizing the DH makes the game far more complicated. The Arizona Diamondbacks' rookie starter, Archie Bradley cruised through the first 6.2 innings of play, allowing only two runs on four hits and two walks. However, with a runner on base, rookie manager Chip Hale saw that Bradley's pitch count had reached 100 pitches and decided to play things cautious and lifted his pitcher to get the platoon advantage, bringing in left Oliver Perez. Doing things the "traditional way", Hale also elected to perform a double switch, which involved lifting the team's defensive wizard of a short stop from the game and replacing him with the team's utility infielder. Perez promptly surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced. This led Hale to then replace Perez with another reliever in Brad Ziegler. This ended the inning. For the next inning, Hale employed another pitcher in Daniel Hudson to pitch the eight. Then, in the ninth things went awry. The double-switch came back to bit Hale, as Cliff Pennington proved unable to make what should have been a tough but routine play at short stop. An error by Aaron Hill didn't help things, and suddenly the Diamondbacks' closer, Addison Reed had a blown save. After 36 pitches, the closer was lifted for yet another reliever who closed out the inning. The decisions made earlier in the game continued to plague the team in extra innings. Clean defensive plays continued to be hard to come by on the middle infield and the shuffled lineup brought up another tough in-game decision for Hale. With the team trying to score runs with the bases loaded, Hale again tried to leverage a platoon advantage and inserted rookie slugger Yasmany Tomás into the lineup to pinch hit for the lefty batting David Peralta. It was the rookie's second major league at-bat and he did not come through. As the lineup turned over and the game progressed, the pitcher's new spot was on the horizon, and now Hale had only his reserve catcher left to hit. Meanwhile, two more pitchers were used to cover a three-inning span. One of those pitchers was Randall Delgado, the last arm in the bullpen, a bullpen arm that had already logged 2.1 innings over the previous two nights. This marked his third consecutive night of pitching, and he was stretched to two innings. This prompted Hale to then start warming up the next game's scheduled starter should the game require any more innings. Thankfully for the Diamondbacks, those two shutout innings by Delgado proved to be just enough, and the team went on to win 7-6 in 12 innings.
Though we can never know what would have happened had Nick Ahmed remained in the game, or if Tomas had been inserted in a different spot in the lineup, what we do know is this. The lack of a DH directly influenced in-game management across not one, but two games. After the extra-inning affair, the Diamondbacks had at least two bullpen arms unavailable for the next game. A short outing by Josh Collmenter, who had been warming up the previous evening, almost certainly would have resulted in a roster move to fight bullpen fatigue, meaning the lack of a DH also came to bear on the construction of the 25-man roster. This is exactly the sort of "What might happen next?" excitement and managerial second-guessing that fans of the no-DH system live for.
For the first 24 years, the different rules for each league really didn't matter. After all, the only time the difference impacted a game was the All-star Game (a truly meaningless exhibition game) and the World Series. As such, there was little incentive to force either league to change its stance. Things have changed now though. Now, interleague baseball is played all season long. It will account for 20 games out of each team's schedule every season now, perhaps more in the future if some people get their way. This has put the National League at a decided disadvantage when it comes to roster construction.
When AL teams play by NL rules, it simply means giving an aging veteran an extra day of rest, or perhaps spelling a guy that has been slumping somewhat. The result being, the team has an extra impact bat riding on the bench for late-game pinch hitting situations. When a NL team is forced to play by AL rules, the transition is not always as easy. Few NL teams have impact bats riding the pine on a daily basis. In order to get the most out of roster construction, the NL bench players are often selected for attributes beyond just their bat, such as their glove, speed, or positional flexibility. Fielding a DH often means the best bench bat is utilized from the outset of the game, either in the field allowing a slugger to take a day off from fielding, or as the team's DH. This means the team is then left with its second-best bench bat as the best late-inning pinch hitter option.
The Bard's Take:
This disparity is clearly unfair to the NL. It is right that baseball acknowledges this and, if it intends to continue making interleague play a significant feature of the regular season, force both leagues to play by the same rules, thus levelling the playing field. This brings us back to the debate. There are only two was to level the playing field. Either the NL adopts the DH, or the AL abandons it. There are more than a few very high profile players in the history of the game that owe many of their achievements and their career longevity to the existence of the DH. This is precisely the sort of thing that will make eliminating the DH a problematic sell for owners. The MLBPA has absolutely no incentive to permit the elimination of the DH, and it would take their blessing for it to happen.
There is a solution though that would allow the MLBPA to expand its player base, and increase the average player salary, all while still forfeiting the DH. Expand the MLB roster to 26 players. In this day and age of the specialized player, it makes even more sense to allow one extra player on each team. Teams could then continue to keep a non-fielding bat on the bench if they chose to. They could carry an extra pitcher (some teams are already going to 13 pitchers anyway despite the 25-man limit). Or, they could carry a third catcher, making it possible to keep the backstops fresher for complete seasons and allow them to be used as bats off the bench without nearly as much concern. For the MLBPA, this is 30 more players reaching the big leagues. That's 30 more exciting prospects or savvy veterans playing the game each season. It would be even harder for teams to justify service clock promotions as well, since the roster would have room to support sliding the best prospects in a bit sooner in order to fill out the team.
The expansion of rosters to 26 players would indeed impact the owners b making them pay for an extra roster space. However, without the DH, how many of those roster spots would be filled with players making several million dollars without being able to field a position at least close to league average? The Juan Riveras, Mark Reynolds, and Travis Hafners of the game would likely find their time in the league considerably shortened. Meanwhile, the incentive to bring up the Bryants, Springers, and Buxtons of the game would be increased, as these types of players would provide teams with impact bats capable of fielding a position to place on the roster. What might be best of all about the move, is that it does not fundamentally alter the way the game is played. It is a small adjustment to adapt to the new era of specialized players and interleague play, that still respects the roots from which this game has been grown.