September 23 - On DH's, MVPs, HOFs...
Ever since the designated hitter was instituted in the American League
1973, at least five decades after it was first proposed, baseball writers,
historians, fans, management and even players have debated about just
how regular DH's should be considered in terms of awards. Are they
'half a player' who doesn't merit consideration for such honors because
they don't play defense? Or is 'DH' just as much a position as, say, first
base or left field, places where A.L. teams used to (and N.L. teams still)
hide good-hit (or at least power-hit), no-field sluggers like Jimmie Foxx,
Ted Williams and Dave Kingman.
Although a committed baseball purist, I actually prefer the scenario
baseball employs today, i.e. the DH in the American League and the pitchers hitting in the National. I
like the differences in strategy that the varying rules necessitates. And I don't believe that the DH
takes all the strategy out of the game; utilization of relief pitchers is often easier in N.L. games
because the switches are almost automatically determined by pinch-hitting needs, particularly when
a team is behind late in the game.
But the real subject I'd like to consider here is whether a full-time DH merits consideration for the
highest awards, such as League Most Valuable Player and Hall of Fame entry. The debate is
particularly at the forefront this year, as the American League MVP race has boiled down to two
superstar sluggers, David Ortiz of Boston and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Yankee fan, but a decidedly unbiased one when it comes to
awards. Frankly, I haven't been particularly interested in whether any Yankees win major awards,
probably because they have had so much team success in the past decade that it hasn't been
important to me. A Yankee hasn't won an MVP award in 20 years, and it hardly matters. I will admit
that I was mildly upset when the same voting body determined that Ichiro Suzuki could win the Rookie
of the Year Award with superior stats though he had played a decade in Japan, whereas Hideki
Matsui could not do the same. But I got over it as I believe Mr. Matsui has.
As for the DH debate, I think anyone who doesn't believe defense should be considered in the MVP
award doesn't really know baseball. Otherwise, the award should just be called the “Most Valuable
Hitter.” MLB does have the Hank Aaron Award for best hitter (ironic because although the Hammer is
of course known most as a hitter, he was a splendid fielder - check out the movie Hank Aaron:
Chasing the Dream for confirmation of that), and recognizes the best hitter at each position through
the Silver Slugger. But the selection of the MVP, by definition, must take in all aspects of the game.
This is not to say that DH's should be automatically excluded from the process. To me, Ortiz has had
a magical season, and his dramatic game-tying and game-winning home runs are a nightly
SportsCenter occurrence. Understood. And his offensive numbers (.300, 46, 140, 1.012 OPS) are
undeniably outstanding. Rodriguez has put up slightly less imposing offensive statistics (.316, 45,
121, 1.019), but they are in the same range as Ortiz's. What is harder to quantify -- although some
SABRmetricians have developed statistical-based systems to do so -- is Rodriguez's value at the
important defensive position of third base. How many runs has he saved with his glove, over what an
average fielder would have saved? That number should be tacked on to his runs scored or RBI count
in comparison with Ortiz, who is such a bad defender that noted plumber Kevin Millar gets the nod at
first when John Olerud is out of the lineup. Egads! How many runs would we have to subtract for
Ortiz' lack of range and general poor fielding ability?
To me, Ortiz' offensive numbers would have to be so clearly superior to those of Rodriguez to put him
over the top. Rodriguez isn't just a decent third baseman, he's certainly among the top three in the
game. Ortiz, conversely, is likely among the bottom three defenders at first.
Give Ortiz his due, he may be the best clutch hitter in the game today. But MVP? This time, give the
nod to A-Rod.