Designated Runners: Why They Make Sense

Washington's only baseball card, and the only one with PR as a position

Washington’s only baseball card, and the only one with Pinch Run as a position

Billy Hamilton had his first official at-bats on Tuesday night in the Chicago Cubs’ victory over the Cincinnati Reds. He went 0-for-2, lining out and grounding out to short in his two plate appearances. So ends the saga of the relationship between the Reds’ speedy, future centerfielder and former Oakland Athletics pinch-runner Herb Washington.

Designated Runner

Herb Washington played for Oakland in 1974 and 1975. He appeared in 105 games over his two seasons with Oakland and never, I repeat NEVER received an at-bat OR played the field in a Major League game. Washington was nothing more than a pinch-runner. He stole 31 bases, he was caught stealing 17 times, and he scored 33 runs. In five postseason games, Washington was caught stealing twice and didn’t steal a single base or score a run. So much for running being the only part of his game. Washington was done with baseball at the age of 23, playing his last game on May 4, 1975.

Washington didn’t have any baseball experience before winning a World Series as a member of the 1974 A’s club. He was a world class sprinter, having won seven Big Ten track titles and breaking the 50 and 60-yard dash records several times, according to the ever useful Wikipedia. His last major highlight was really a low point, getting picked off in Game Two of the 1974 World Series by Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers:

While Washington’s career didn’t really go far, what would happen if teams decided to use a roster spot on a speedy reserve for a playoff push, the month of September, or an entire season?

The 25-man Roster

Hamilton4From Opening Day through August 31, Major League Baseball clubs can only have 25 men on their roster, unless they’re playing a double-header when the club is allowed to have a 26th man. With a five-man starting rotation and eight position players, clubs tend to fill the remaining roster spots with a second catcher, versatile position players who can handle multiple infield and/or outfield positions, as well as six to eight pitchers in the bullpen. During these seven long months, it would seem nearly impossible for a team in 2013 to carry a player that would be a designated runner. Given the state of the modern-day bullpen, the need for left-handed specialists (LOOGY), long relievers, setup men, and a closer make roster management a very challenging science.

However, once the postseason rolls around and teams are desperate for runs, it seems more likely that a runner could be kept on a playoff roster. A lot of that has to do with the fact that three or four-man rotations are used without the short series that are played, allowing the teams to have a little more roster flexibility.

Billy Hamilton will be a lock on the playoff roster for the Cincinnati Reds (if they make the playoffs, which appears likely). His speed is absolutely game-changing.

The 40-man Roster

From September 1 through the end of the season, clubs are able to carry up to 40 players on their active roster. The players who are called up must be on the club’s 40-man roster, which occasionally requires tinkering to accommodate. During this time, teams are able to rest veterans and get extended looks at young players, while managers have extremely deep bullpens and benches. The ability to pinch-hit, pinch-run, or have a left-handed pitcher come in to face a single left-handed batter, are all increased during these times. Reds manager Dusty Baker has twice benefited from pinch-running with Hamilton, as the Reds were able to win two games just last week when Hamilton stole second base immediately after entering the game and scoring on a single by third baseman Todd Frazier in both cases.

What If…

Usain Bolt was signed by a Major League club…today.

The team wouldn’t be able to use him on the playoff roster since he was added to the roster after September 1, but how much could he help a team? He would need to be successful at a greater rate than Herb Washington was, but the Reds have won two games in September because of Billy Hamilton’s speed, but when every game counts, especially with five teams within three games of the second Wild Card in the American League, why not take a risk?

I have made the argument before about the need for relievers to be capable of pitching additional innings, like Mike Marshall did during his career, and with wins being important all season long, would it be worth a team carrying a speedy-only talent over an entire 162-game schedule? If the win is worth something in September, isn’t that same win worth equal amounts in April, May, or June?

Considering how dominant pitching has become, a designated runner seems like a useful, late-inning tool for managers. When extremely young starting pitchers like Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez dominate the opposition in the manner that they did in 2013, it seems logical to counter that dominance with speed. By utilizing players like Billy Hamilton, Jonathan Villar, or minor-leaguer Micah Johnson (who stole 84 bases over three levels this season) to steal bases and victories throughout the season, it could allow for fewer desperate situations in September as teams fight for single spots in the playoffs.

BoltWhy not Usain Bolt? He may be all that is needed for one win, and that one win could be all that is needed to play for a World Series title.


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