With inter-league play now scheduled all year long, the difference between the American and National Leagues in regards to the designated hitter rule has become more pronounced. Some view the disparity as unique and charming feature which helps to separate baseball from other sports. Others see it as illogical and unfair for teams to play under different rules when visiting ballparks of teams in the opposite league. While there does not seem to be an immediate push to bring the two leagues together on this issue, I sense that unification is inevitable with the new schedule.
Proponents of the designated hitter like the increased offense that it brings to the game. They see little entertainment in watching hapless pitchers bat and would much rather see a skilled hitter at the plate. Pitchers play such an overwhelmingly important role defensively that it makes sense that they should not also be expected to provide offense. Not having pitchers bat also prevents them from getting injured at bat or on the bases.
Opponents of the designated hitter rule feel as if requiring pitchers to bat forces more strategic decisions for managers. Some will argue that most of the decisions regarding sacrifice bunting and pinch hitters and such are somewhat automatics, but there are still in-game choices to be made. If nothing else, there is fuel for debate among fans. The lack of designated hitter also means that managers need to make line-up decisions regarding offense versus defense. It can be argued that one needs to be a more complete player to play every day in the National League.
Although I am a fan of an American League team, I have always had great admiration for all around players and favor the National League rules. Unless a designated hitter is a special talent such as Edgard Martinez, then I'm not drawn to watching older players who can no longer run or field playing regularly. I am not extreme about this issue though and will not get upset if (when?) the National League adopts the designated hitter rule.
The current designated hitter rule is not the only way to unify the two leagues. I'm going to present two options which have been proposed by others in the past, although not discussed on a broad scale (at least not recently). Why not just remove the pitcher from the batting order and let the other eight players bat? The first time I heard this idea was back in the the 1970s from Leonard Koppett, a man before his time and one of the first analytical sportswriters in the mainstream. If offense is what fans want, this idea might provide even more of it than replacing the pitcher with a designated hitter. After all, the best hitters would be coming up more often. Think about Miguel Cabrera coming up the plate another 80 to 90 times per year.
One problem with this solution is that it would increase the number of poor-fielding hitting specialists playing in the field. Without the designated hitter or pinch hitter for the pitcher roles, there would be no choice but to play them in the field. The other objection some might have to this rule is that the additional plate appearances given to your eight hitters would put statistics out of whack when comparing to past seasons and careers. There are ways to adjust for this with advanced statistics, of course, but the traditional standards for counting statistics such as hits and home runs would surely be affected.
Another idea which came from Patriot of Walk Like a Sabermetrician would be to have a roving designated hitter. This means that a team would have a hitter who only bats but he does not always bat in the same spot in the line-up. You would require him to bat once and only once each time through the batting order, but it can be at any position the manager chooses. He could have him bat cleanup every time or he could bring him to the plate when he has the most opportunity to help the team. If nobody gets on base the first two innings, then he could be saved for the third inning. If the lead off man gets on base in the third, that might be the time to let your designated hitter bat.
This would be similar to how a team's best pinch hitters are leveraged except that this one could be used multiple times throughout the game. This idea would promote both extra offense and strategy, so it would be the best of both worlds. The main argument might be that it would mess up your score book which I seriously do not think is a trivial complaint in such a tradition-based game. Still, this is probably my favorite option if there needs to be a designated hitter.
The unification of the two leagues on pitchers batting may be inevitable, but the choices for solution need not be so limited.