Disclaimer: All thoughts and opinions are that solely of Dan Kotnik.
Whenever the baseball season starts, I like to count myself as one of the lucky fans in baseball. I am a fan of the Detroit Tigers, or more importantly, I am a fan of a team in the American League. Why does that make me one of the lucky ones? It means I only have to suffer through about 10 games a year that don’t have a designated hitter; where I get to see nine players take meaningful at-bats and not 8 plus an automatic out.
The designated hitter discussion has been brought back into the arena of public discourse most recently by Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer after he, along with Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, suffered injuries while participating in the archaic ritual of watching pitchers swing a bat like they have a “wet newspaper”, as described by Scherzer. Scherzer survived the lowest point of any pitcher’s career with only a sprained thumb, but Wainwright is gone for the season with an Achilles injury. And the ironic part is if he played for the team just about three hours West on I-70, this wouldn’t have happened.
I am fully in favor of the DH, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. As far as I’m concerned, if you have to be shown the value in replacing the worst batter on every team with a better one, then there’s no saving you. No, I want to look beyond the value of designated hitters. The larger issue that I think gets raised here is that for a sport that values statistics and the accuracy of statistics, baseball is egregiously vague when it comes to the parameters it sets up to measure statistics.
It’s no hot take that baseball fans/media are obsessed with statistics. Every action in baseball is recorded and therefore almost every action can be recorded as a statistic, which is used as ammunition everywhere from school playgrounds to Hall of Fame ballots. It’s what we base most of a player’s legacy on. Yet the structures by which we measure those statistics are extraordinarily inconsistent not just by decade or era, but by league and even by stadium!
We are watching the highest level of baseball in the world and the outcomes of games, and to a greater extent championships, are being decided with half the teams using a whole different set of rules. Teams play around 170 games under one set of rules, but then when it comes down to the World Series, one team has to play three or four games completely differently. Essentially, the All-Star Game doesn’t decide where the games will be played but how! There is no other level of professional sports, or even collegiate, that has as glaring differences between conferences or leagues as baseball does. Do you see the NFL forcing teams in the NFC to play their quarterback at middle linebacker, but not in the AFC? How about teams in the Western conference of the NBA playing with a 30 second shot clock and 24 seconds in the Eastern? No, you’d be laughed out of the stadium for even thinking that. Except in baseball. In baseball, you’re just “sticking with tradition” which makes it ok.
Now, designated hitters is a topic that always gets a lot of air time, but I think another inconsistency of baseball that hasn’t been as big a topic should be is the stadiums themselves. I get that this one is also deeply rooted into the “rich history” of Major League Baseball. Teams couldn’t fit their diamonds into the dimensions in the city so some were given leeway, so you have teams with different outfield depths and wall height. If you are reading this, please take a moment to sit down. Sitting down? Good, I don’t want anyone getting hurt when you read this shocking statement. ahem THIS IS 2015! WE ARE PREPARING TO BUILD COLONIES ON MARS! TACO BELL HAS BREAKFAST NOW! YOU CAN BUILD 30 BASEBALL STADIUMS THAT HAVE UNIFORM DIMENSIONS!
The architects that design MLB stadiums must have missed a few days of class because, as it is with almost every other major sports league, the other sports have figured it out and embraced the future. Every single one of the 32 NFL stadiums and 127 Division I college football stadiums have all found the magic formula to build a field roughly the same size of a baseball field with the exact same dimensions. That’s why the Vikings can play at the local college field and not have to worry about changing strategy, etc. You don’t see varying field goal distance or three-point lines depending on where you play. But in America’s Pastime, we still have “hitter’s parks” and “pitcher’s parks”, which can and most definitely do affect a player’s career and how we view them. Mind boggling.
The pièce de résistance with all of this, in my eye, is that a sport and fan base that seems to have no problem with its teams playing with different rules and in vastly different field dimensions will turn around and decry the use of performance enhancing drugs because the numbers are “tainted”. Apparently, taking drugs to make you hit farther is wrong, but having your outfield wall moved in by 25 or 30 feet is just good ol’ fashioned baseball. Apparently, A-Rod should have spent less time talking with Anthony Bosch and maybe more time reading up on his Frank Lloyd Wright.