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Billy Becomes a Pinch Hitter

Ahh, the return of interleague play is back today. We get a taste of it in May when Major League Baseball forces a “rivals” weekend down our throats, but now it’s back for the next 15 games. For the Royals, nine of those games will be played in National League parks which means that a decision has to be made about what to do with Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. Of course, if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that Ned Yost has decided Billy Butler would be relegated to pinch hitting duties in nine of the next 15 games. My guess is that Hosmer gets one day off in this stretch for Billy to play first, but Yost seems to really dislike Butler’s defense around the bag, so it may not happen.

I was prepared to write a post today about what the Royals could do to get everybody in the lineup on any given day during interleague play. Of course, Yost proclaiming that Butler will come off the bench sort of put the halt on those plans, but I would like to talk a little bit about Yost telling the media before he told Butler. I don’t think it’s really that big of a deal in itself, but Yost’s handling of Butler is, at the very least, curious. It started back earlier in the season when Yost made his now famous comment about how Billy Butler wanting to play first base regularly was akin to Yost wanting to be an astronaut. Contrary to what some might think, I don’t believe Yost has any sort of problem with Butler, but I do think that he might need to choose his words a little more wisely in the future. The thing about Butler is that it’s been established that he’s somewhat of the clubhouse punching bag in a fun-loving way. I don’t think it used to be a fun-loving way, but it is now, and I don’t think Butler minds (of course I don’t know the man, so I’m just making off the wall assumptions). I wonder if Yost sees it and is just being “one of the guys” when he pokes fun at Butler. It may not be a big deal, but it may be a situation where the manager needs to separate himself a little better.

I’m also not a huge fan of Yost telling the media before he told Butler. Of course, that might also not be entirely true. Yost could have had an ongoing dialogue with Butler about what he was thinking about doing and then when he was asked for the 23rd time by the media, he just gave the answer. Ultimately, the decision is Yost’s and Yost’s alone, but it would have been nice for him to tell Butler his final decision first. The fact that I’ve devoted this much space to it is probably going to ultimately be a waste of my time, but I thought it was at least worth mentioning.

The real issue I have with this weekend and the six subsequent games being played in National League parks is that the Royals have to make this decision. Teams have to build for the majority of their schedule. That’s why the Red Sox like to have power lefty arms in order to neutralize the right field short porch in Yankee Stadium. It’s why the Rays have to load up on pitching to neutralize the high scoring offenses in the American League East. And it’s also why American League teams spend money on a player who may not be capable of playing the field with any sort of grace. The Royals have become a team that has to suffer for playing National League rules over the next couple of weeks. The example that people have mentioned more often is with the Red Sox who have a fantastic defensive first baseman who can also really, really hit and a DH who isn’t really suited to play anywhere but first base (and even that in a pinch) but can also really, really hit. They certainly can’t sit their MVP candidate first baseman, so David Ortiz will be a highly paid pinch hitter in National League parks.

The Royals situation is like a poor man’s version of the Red Sox situation. For one, Eric Hosmer is not yet Adrian Gonzalez. For another, Billy Butler is not David Ortiz, at least not this season. And for a third point, Eric Hosmer is probably capable of playing a corner outfield position for a few games in order to keep both bats in the lineup. Still, the Royals are reluctant to give Gordon or Francoeur too many days off, so Hosmer is strictly a first baseman, which doesn’t bother me all that much. Personally, I’d make it a point to give Hosmer two days off in the nine National League park games and give Francoeur and Gordon one each with Hosmer shifting to the outfield. That way, Butler is relegated to pinch hitting duties for just five out of nine games instead of all nine. Alas, that won’t happen, so we’ll have to hope that Yost uses a pinch hitter more often in the NL parks than he typically does. I think he probably will with a potent bat like Butler’s on the bench.

This may surprise you, but I don’t really have a strong opinion about the designated hitter rule. I do like the rule, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a huge fan of seeing some guy who has no intention of hitting stand at the plate and flail aimlessly at three pitches and then sit back down. I think my dislike for the pitcher hitting isn’t in the rules themselves as much as the players who are in the games. Watching a guy like Carlos Zambrano hit is fun. Watching Mike Hampton hit in his prime was an awful lot of fun. Watching Luke Hochevar strike out without lifting the bat off his shoulder is not. I understand why teams don’t want to put their high priced arms in harm’s way by swinging the bat. Their value is in their arms while a guy like, say, Albert Pujols has value in his bat. Still, the devolution of the pitchers’ ability to hit is most certainly not made up for in the extra strategy involved in a National League game.

Interleague play, in my mind, has run its course. That’s why I’m such a big opponent of the realignment proposal that came out regarding evening out the leagues and playing an interleague series every day. The novelty has completely worn off, and it has become just another way that the schedule can favor one team over another. As a Royals fan, it hasn’t ultimately mattered too much, but one day it could, and if the Royals miss the playoffs by a game because they played the Cardinals six times while the Tigers played the Pirates six times (though the Pirates are over .500 right now and are actually heading in the right direction), then I’m going to scream bloody murder about the schedule. With two sets of rules, the National League benefits in both parks. In their own park, they hit with pitchers who take batting practice year round, and while they might not be superstars with the bat, they know what they’re doing. American League pitchers started taking batting practice about three weeks prior to their first National League game. When National League teams come to American League parks, they get the opportunity to give a half-day off at times and get a bat into the lineup they otherwise wouldn’t have had. That’s why I think that if interleague play must continue in its current format, then a designated hitter is necessary in all games.

To wrap up a rambling post, the Royals are headed to St. Louis and, for the first time in awhile, I just don’t really care that they’re playing the Cardinals. I cared when they were here, and I think I will for as long as they play each other, but I just don’t see a rivalry there. The Cardinals are good, the Royals are not. It’s just the way things are. This weekend is just another game. I’ll admit, though, that I wouldn’t be too upset if the Royals swept the Cardinals, but it’s more to rub it in the faces of their smug fans.

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