With the move of the Houston Astros to the American League, and the unfortunate fact that both leagues will have an uneven number of teams, interleague play is destined to change this year. As cross-platform play goes from something that happens in the middle of June, once a year, like some sort of strange exhibition mini-season, to something that happens every week, the National League will have to re-evaluate their past strategies for American League parks.
The National League has a distinct disadvantage when it comes to fielding a DH. Mostly because they haven’t had to dedicate a slot on their 25-man roster to this sort of player, they’ve been ceding offense in American league parks. The National League’s designated hitters hit .234/.299/.389 last year, the American League’s official DHes hit .256/.328/.430.
The strategies of the past seem clear. Look at the list of National League DHes below this piece, and a few patterns emerge.
1) Roster an actual DH for half the season, then let him go or hide him somehow.
The Colorado Rockies rostered Jason Giambi all season last year, sort of. He appeared in the starting lineup eleven times before interleague play started in late June. Then he was the starting DH for every game the Rockies played in an American League park. Then he didn’t start another game for the Rockies. Then, three weeks after interleague play concluded, he went on the disabled list for the rest of the season with an unspecified illness. Want a more cut-and-dried version? The Phillies had Jim Thome for some reason. Well, they needed some help at first base with Ryan Howard out, but there were better options for the field, and Thome only started four games before interleague play. Then he DHed every game in an AL park for the Phillies. A little over a week later, he was a Baltimore Oriole and an official DH again.
2) Find a guy on the team to take a few swings and sit down.
Obviously, a little too much of this is going on if the National League can’t find a guy to slug .400 in their DH slot. This probably describes your Eric Hinske / Bobby Abreu type player — a backup corner outfielder who can still discern balls and strikes but can’t give you much value with the glove and is ill-suited for everyday play. Sometimes you’ll find a lefty-righty combo here, like Eric Hinske and Matt Diaz. Being a left-hander probably got Willie Harris a start at DH, but that last name should set off the alarm bells.
3) Move an aging (or bad glove) star to the position for a series.
National League teams will end up DHing a guy like Jordany Valdespin or Jerry Hairston, Jr. That’s probably a bad idea, especially given the fact that Hairston, specifically, can play passable D at multiple positions. There must be someone on the field who can hit better and field poorer than him. But from an offensive standpoint, moving a guy like Chipper Jones to DH is almost the same as just starting Matt Diaz. Either way, Matt Diaz gets plate appearances he wouldn’t in a fully National League season. Some teams have the depth to survive moving someone like Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday to the DH for a game. Some teams try to create that depth every year and still have Ivan De Jesus, Jr in the starting lineup at DH.
4) Call a guy up for the middle of June.
If you’ve moved your pinch hitter into the starting lineup, in effect, you’re missing a pinch hitter. Peruse the National League callups in early June, and you’ll see some names you don’t recognize. Rather than disturb the development of their top prospects in the middle of the season, teams will call up old first basemen to sit on the bench for two weeks and maybe get a start or two at DH. Like 29-year-old first baseman Mike Costanzo of the Reds, who got his first 21 plate appearances this season, mostly in May and June. Or 27 year-old first baseman Matt Hague of the Pirates, who did most of his debuting in June before being sent back down after interleague play ended. The Mets sort of did an amalgam: Vinny Rottino, a 30-year-old bat without a real position, was with the team until the end of June, when he was put on waivers. And Lucas Duda, a future DH with the glove, started losing regular playing time shortly after interleague play and was demoted in July.
So now that interleague play is more disperse, are any of these strategies less likely? Surely the first will disappear until the DH is installed in the senior circuit. If you have interleague games at different times all year, and yet you still only play six to nine of them in sum, you’re not going to devote an entire roster spot to an aging, no-glove, expensive pinch-hitter.
That pushes National League teams to the other three strategies. The common theme through those approaches is depth.
Roster depth allows you to move an iffy-gloved veteran to the DH for a couple of games a year without losing too much in the field. Theoretically, you put your Hairston in the field and your Andre Ethier at the plate, and you get value from one’s glove and one’s bat without devoting too many resources specifically to those few games in American League parks every year.
Organizational depth allows you to find a hitter in your minor leagues that can step in and pinch-hit from time to time when your best pinch-hitter is starting. A player like Darin Ruf might have his flaws, but on a good National League team, his skills — combined with remaining option years — mean that the Phillies, as a worst case scenario, can use him as their “26th man.” If that is the kind of role Zach Lutz ends up with on the Mets, he’ll log a ton of miles flying from Las Vegas to wherever the Mets are playing. But in general, the new interleague schedule could mean more movement between Triple-A and the bigs, as teams scramble to fill a position for the weekend.
Perhaps there are really are two choices now with the new schedule, and neither is especially new. You can choose to fill your bench with capable defenders that can offer value with the glove when they step onto the field behind the veteran sliding over to DH, or you can focus on having a more capable bat-swinging quad-A player that can step onto your bench when your best pinch-hitter gets to start for a series. The teams best prepared for those games might actually do both.