The National League Designated Hitter – Phillies Nation

The National League Designated Hitter

Interleague play has been around since 1997, and while there are very real problems related to scheduling inequities, it isn’t going anywhere. It’s only getting more firmly entrenched in the game, with year-round interleague action on tap for the upcoming season. In fact, the Reds will open the 2013 season against the Angels, marking the first-ever interleague opener.

The American League has dominated the National League during the regular season, especially over the last decade, in part because those teams are simply better-equipped for games featuring the designated hitter.

While AL teams have certainly fared well in NL parks, and the use of a designated hitter is far from the only reason they have dominated interleague play, NL squads are less prepared for games in AL stadiums.

An NL contender should consider Hafner.

It’s tough to allocate one of few precious bench spots to a non-fielder limited to pinch-hitting duty in all but nine road interleague games and the World Series. Bench spots are important in the NL in the case of injuries, if a poor fielder is replaced late in a game, or when a manager decides to make a double-switch.

Most teams can’t really “waste” a spot.

But what if an NL team was more prepared for these games and could allocate a bench spot like this? A healthy National League contender with a strong starting rotation, and less of a need for a 7-8 man bullpen, could conceivably sign Travis Hafner this offseason and put themselves on more of a level playing field for interleague action.

And in a World Series where the AL team gets to DH David Ortiz, Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Rodriguez or Paul Konerko, the NL team wouldn’t be stuck relying on John Mayberry, Matt Diaz or Ryan Theriot. There are certainly downsides to this type of strategy, but it’s an interesting, discussion-worthy thought experiment.

Though this strategy is uncommon, it isn’t unprecedented. After all, the Phillies signed Jim Thome to a one-year deal this offseason, for some form of this role.

While the idea that Thome could play some first base was floated, it was fairly evident from the get-go that he was going to pinch-hit, DH in interleague play, and potentially cause some damage if the Phillies made it back to the World Series. Best laid plans obviously didn’t come to fruition, but the Thome signing was strategically sound. It was a minimal commitment to a player nearing the end of his career, who could potentially benefit the team in a somewhat important role.

The Phillies went 3-6 in their nine road interleague games, but Thome hit .333/.415/.722, with two doubles and four homers in 41 plate appearances. He certainly did his part and it’s hard to imagine anyone else on the Phillies roster producing that well, in that role, throughout that span. Then, when it became clear that the Phillies weren’t a playoff team, they were able to deal Thome to an AL contender and bring back Gabriel Lino, a catching prospect getting rave reviews.

It’s easy to call the Thome signing disappointing, or suggest that it didn’t work out, but that line of thinking is skewed. Thome provided the Phillies with excellent production throughout those nine games, as well as a couple of nice pinch-hitting moments and brought back a very good prospect, all for just ~$600K. It’s not the typical way a signing “works out”, but it did.

The Phillies acquired Matt Stairs from the Blue Jays a few years earlier, and while he is more famous for his pinch-hitting proclivities in a Phillies uniform, his power made him a quality designated hitter in the same situations. Stairs only served as the DH in one World Series game with the Phillies — they mostly chose to replace leadfooted fielders Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez instead of getting another power bat in the lineup — but the point is that he was available for that role.

In some respects, the Phillies have pioneered this strategy in recent years, but they aren’t alone. The Rockies signed Jason Giambi two years ago to a Thome-esque deal, and he played very well for some crappy teams. Giambi hit .245/.362/.484 in 124 games and 265 PAs in 2011-12, adding a home run every 15.7 at-bats, better than his career 16.3 AB/HR rate.

However, there are common elements among these three players: age and lack of choice about their role. All three players were pushing 40 years old, if not already there, and were generally believed to be at the end of their careers.

Stairs likely garnered another couple of opportunities based on that tremendous playoff blast against the Dodgers, but he was a shell of even his Phillies self. Thome hit very well in Minnesota, but his achy back was a concern to many. While it seems strange to suggest that Thome couldn’t have gotten a better gig from an AL team, it’s possible that he would have been restricted to part-time DH duty. In that case, if his role was already going to be reduced, playing with the Phillies and under Charlie Manuel wouldn’t have sounded so bad. Giambi wasn’t given a chance by anyone other than the Rockies. It was an NL team or retirement.

In each of these cases, the players were essentially forced to accept their roles. Stairs was acquired via trade. Thome might not have gotten a full-time starting job from a contending team. Giambi didn’t get even a part-time offer from an AL team. It wasn’t as if these three players chose to limit their playing time to help an NL team in a somewhat quirky role.

And that’s part of the problem. The players who have undertaken this role have carried risks age-, health- and performance-related. The players best-suited for this role are younger and likely more interested in racking up PAs in the American League. That way, even if they are injury risks like Hafner, they can put themselves in a better position to establish good health again. It’s difficult for Hafner and other players relegated to DH-duty to establish health with sporadic play.

A National League team might have to pay a premium to entice a player like that to accept this lesser role. It borders on the absurd to pay Hafner, or his equivalent in another season, upwards of $5-$6 million for something like 130 PAs and the chance for another 8-12 PAs in the World Series. Some teams may consider it worth the risk. Most won’t. Regardless, that thought represents another form of out-of-the-box thinking in the realm of roster construction.

This isn’t the only way for an NL team to better prepare itself for interleague play. A team could also decide to go with a poor fielder who can hit at a certain position and carry an excellent fielder at the same position on the bench.

This way, the team doesn’t lose out on the bat throughout the season, and during interleague play and the World Series, it can DH the regular starter and play the top-notch fielder at the same position. The Phillies did this in the 2008-09 World Series, opting to DH Burrell and Ibanez to get a better outfielder in the lineup, instead of using Stairs at DH with one of them roaming leftfield. The Phillies would also probably do this with Ryan Howard, who should play the field as little as possible.

Either strategy could work, but the latter is more common because it’s more feasible for teams. The former strategy shouldn’t be ignored. While it seems bizarre for an NL team to pursue an AL designated hitter who might not be at the end of his career, who might cost $3-$6 million to really only make his impact felt in nine games, and potentially 2-4 more in the World Series, the results of those games could be the difference between a team winning a championship and falling just short.

This isn’t to say the Phillies should pursue Hafner, or any other similar player, especially since Darin Ruf has the potential to exceed that type of production, but rather that building a roster isn’t necessarily cut-and-dried. There are often alternative solutions to common problems. Though an NL contender signing a Hafner-type isn’t really a radical approach, it represents a risky proposition that could either pay off or blow up in a team’s face.

It would be interesting and fun to see it happen, though, as an NL team can lose solid playoff footing with poor interleague performance, and getting to use an actual DH in that environment could go a long way towards mitigating the dominance of the junior circuit.

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  1. George

    November 9, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    I’ve noticed lately a trend in the AL to use the DH differently than in the past. Most of them now seem to want players who can still play defense part of the time, and switch DHs around depending on leftie/rightie matchups, who needs rest, etc.

    While having a guy on an NL team who is mostly around to hit does, in some cases work, if AL teams are even getting away from it, it seems the traditional NL way of doing things is still probably the best.

    • Eric Seidman

      November 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm

      Yeah, it’s probably still safer to do it the way NL teams currently do it. However, if some team is willing to accept a bit more risk, it’s possible that this could prove very beneficial.

  2. hk

    November 9, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    A few points:

    1. Isn’t this basically what the Phils tried with Jim Thome this year?

    2. Each team will now play 20 inter-league games, so NL teams will need a DH 10 times. Obviously, it’s not a big difference in the context of the article, but if the player in question could play defense once a week, he could start 36 games and be available to PH in the other 126. It seems as though there’s a price at which it would be worthwhile to sign a Thome or Hafner for the bench.

    3. FWIW, with the Astros switching leagues, the gap between the NL and AL should close a bit.

    • Eric Seidman

      November 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      There’s like two paras in the article that discuss how the Phils did this with Thome and, even though he was acquired via trade, with Matt Stairs a few years earlier.

      • hk

        November 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm

        I just re-read the article and it seems as though I skipped about 1/3 of it the first time through. Now that I’ve read it all, I have a question about Darin Ruf. Let’s say he doesn’t make the roster out of Spring Training because he cannot handle LF and because Howard is healthy. In that case, can the Phils send him to AAA to start the season, promote him for each road series in an AL park and demote him after the series or would doing that 4 times in a season use up too many of his options?

      • Eric Seidman

        November 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm

        Options don’t work like that. Think of options like years. If he is in AAA, called up, and sent back down, 2913 is an option year that uses up one of his options. If they rinse and repeat, it’s not like they use up 4 options — once you use an option in a year you can send a guy down and up as often as you want.

      • hk

        November 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm

        Thanks for clarifying that. It would be interesting to see if they use Ruf in this way if he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training.

      • George

        November 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm

        hk brings up an interesting aproach to the interleague games, and since only one option would be used, it’s a workable one. A minor league player would certainly cost less than someone who is only on the ML roster to play a few games and pinch hit. One of the reasons Thome didn’t work out was his poor pinch-hitting skills; he needed more at bats to stay in practice. A minor leaguer wouldn’t have this problem. He’d presumably be in the lineup consistently. while at AAA. He wouldn’t be facing ML pitching, but at least it would be actual pitching and not a batting cage machine.

  3. Ken Bland

    November 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    If anyone thinks I’m engaging either my precious, or un precious time in deciding within my own mind how to strategize how an NL team should roster because of 20 some interleague games, they’re wrong.

    As if I don’t hate that rule enough, after 1 year of the roster relativity, maybe I’ll formulate an opinion on it. But in the meantime, without giving the issue much thought, I’d say planning your roster around 20 games seems nuts. We’ll see if an alternate view seems wise. To those feeling it’s worth a discussion, that’s fine, and even if they’re on the smarter side, having not gone through it yet, I just can’t see how 20 plus games is worth altering the roster..

    I’ll say this about the added comedy of the new situation. I don’t know if teams did this in the past, but with congested interleague play, you could bring someone up, or sign them for a dozen game stretch, and have use for them. There’s little doubt that kept Jin Thome around a few weeks longer, and the way he played, it worked out. Now, spread out over the year, it’s harder to utilize a guy short term for DH purposes.

    A great example of why I abhor that rule. Post season. In some situation, something like Cards and Giants Game 7, Cards had 2 on, second inning, scoreless game, and it was legit to think about the advantage of a pinch hitter. I just don’t remember the exact circumstances, semi-sure on the info submitted, but as unusual as a PH would have been, you had to think about it.

    The reasons to be pro or con DH are well documented. You either believe 1 way or another. It’s just not for me as one who appreciates the finer points of the game, like if a pitcher can produce a p[roductive at bat. Good luck to those who take an opposing view. If you ever get charged with a crime I’ll vouch that you’re mentally incompetent to stand trial. Gawd, I HATE that rule!.

    • George

      November 10, 2012 at 9:38 am

      I absolutely hate the DH, too, and I’m sure you could find thousands , maybe even millions, of others who do.

      Unfortunately, it’s now part of the game, so the optimum way of handling those ten games should probably be considered.

      Altering the roster for the entire season would be totally ridiculous, but if it can be changed for just those few interleague games, then changed back, it might be worth thinking about.

      I doubt if it’s really very important, though. Many times in short series it’s the unexpected guy, someone like a Scutaro or Cody Ross that makes all the difference; some of those big hitters do absolutely nothing. Sometimes it’s the big defensive play that wins the game, and a DH certainly won’t be the one making that play.

      • Ken Bland

        November 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

        Unfortunately, it’s now part of the game, so the optimum way of handling those ten games should probably be considered.>>

        See, that’s the thing. As stated, it PROBABLY should be considered. And after a year of seeing it, maybe I’ll feel it DOES warrant some thought. But in the interim, not to sound lazy or close minded, I just don’t think it merits any attention. I’m a subscriber to the KISS theory (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I like psujoe’s simplicity. Just figure on using Utley or Howard, and adjust if needed in real time. Ain’t a way in the world I’d complicate things with Lefty’s 26th man plan. But after a year of this version of garbage, maybe I’ll think differently. And MLB goes on even if I don’t. And if those thinking it should get attention now prove right, ore power to ’em. But I bleeping hate the bleeping DH. I’d sooner like 4 point field goals.

  4. Psujoe

    November 9, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Thise 10 games are a great time to DH Howard or Utley.

  5. Lefty

    November 10, 2012 at 7:44 am

    My opinion is- that to take away any advantage the AL has in these situations, MLB should allow a 26th man on the NL roster during these 10 games only. (Interleague at AL parks) Bring up your best hitter in the system to either to be the DH or play a position in the field to rest a regular (Howard,Utley) so they can be the DH.

    Why should the NL have to shorten it’s BP or bench in these games? It’s inequitable.

    If the AL teams complain, just abolish the whole damn DH thing!
    Hmm,- don’t hold your breath waiting for that.

    • hk

      November 10, 2012 at 10:14 am


      From where would the NL team get this 26th man? Would it be the minors, like I suggested with Ruf above? If so, the NL team wouldn’t need a 26th man, it could just promote the hitter for the games in AL parks and demote someone else (probably the 12th pitcher) who has options remaining.

      • Lefty

        November 10, 2012 at 10:25 am

        Yes that’s exactly what I meant. When I read your comment above I thought you meant bring someone like Ruf up, but also send someone down. If what you meant was the NL should be allowed to carry a 26 man roster instead of 25 for just those ten games with a minor league player, then we are on the same page.

        The problem is – how to get this idea considered by the people who actually can influence the change, and how many years (or decades) it would take to get it done.

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