Hitchcock, Suspense and the Designated Hitter

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” -Alfred Hitchcock- 1

I’m likely not the first person to suggest that a baseball game is like a nine-act play. Usually, it’s a bit of a melodrama. Hopefully, it’s never a comedic farce. Each inning is an act. The game flows from act to act and builds suspense through a series of finite events. The finite nature of the game’s elements separate it from other sports and makes its form of suspense so unique.

For example, the only finite element in football is that the game is over after 60 minutes of play, unless it goes into overtime. However, participants can stretch the time using timeouts. Similarly, one could argue, that the number of downs is finite, however, the downs repeat. There are only eleven players per side, but they are interchangeable, and players can reenter the game. Basketball and hockey are similar.

In contrast, baseball is vastly different. Consider these finite elements:

  • Players can’t reenter the game, once removed
  • Hitters only hit four or five times a game
  • The best hitter can’t hit in critical situations if its not his turn
  • Pitchers can only throw 100 pitches or so before he risks injury
  • The most valuable commodity is outs, each team gets only 27 – three per inning

It’s the way teams use these finite elements throughout the game that creates the building suspense. The suspense occurs when the participants are forced to face the consequences of the plays and decisions already made. These are the times when baseball is at its best – the times when spectators are compelled to sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the next pitch. We should avoid anything that takes away from the chances to make the game suspenseful.

Hitchcock’s Definition of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock was a wonderful storyteller the master of suspense. He always kept his viewers on the edges of their seats.

This is how Hitchcock defined suspense:

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” 2

The baseball game with the DH tells the story where the “bomb” just goes off. My theory about the DH may be counter-intuitive. However, it seems to me that the DH reduces the chances of suspense moments in the game. There are fewer consequences that are a result of the plays and decisions made in the game. There are many consequences when the most important defensive player but weakest offensive one has to hit. 

Suspense, anticipation, and fun ensue.

The suspense in the Non- DH Game

Consider these possible decision points in a game where there have been some missed opportunities. Assume it’s now the bottom of the fifth inning of a tied 1 -1 game. Both pitchers are doing fine, pitch counts are low, and each can go a few more innings.

In all these scenarios, it’s suspenseful because the decisions put the game at a crossroads between winning and losing. The fans don’t know what will happen next but realize that there are consequences to be faced.

  • Let’s say the pitcher is the leadoff hitter. Does the manager pinch hit with a good hitter who can get on base and start a rally? In so doing, he risks using the bullpen too soon and wasting a hitter that may be needed later.
  • Assume that there are two outs and the eighth batter gets on base. The opposing team has now “cleared the pitcher” and won’t have the advantage of starting the next inning facing the opponent’s weakest hitter. There is suspense in knowing that one team has given the other an opportunity to get ahead. Will they?
  • Let’s say the eighth man leads off the inning by reaching base, bringing the pitcher to the plate with a significant opportunity. Will he be allowed to hit away or, will he bunt to move the runner into scoring position? If he bunts, will the bunt be successful? If he swings away, will he get a hit, one out or hit into a double play to ruin the inning.

None of these scenarios are possible with the DH in play. The DH compromises the game’s aesthetic because it helps to avoid the chances for suspenseful predicaments.

The Designated Hitter

Everyone is saying it’s a fait accompli. Soon the “universal” DH will not just be relegated to the American League anymore. The National League will also allow teams to use strong hitters to replace weak-hitting pitchers in their lineups. Why? The issue – as most do – comes down to money. The players extend their careers, the owners protect their valuable assets, and greater offense leads to larger attendance — more money.

I understand the statistics – scoring increases with the DH. Additionally, the DH makes batting averages for the final third of the lineup (where pitchers hit) soar.

I also realize that the DH protects American League pitchers from getting injured playing offense. Pitchers are very valuable, and it makes sense to protect these assets. It’s better for fans to have the chance to see them pitch rather than sit on the Disabled List.

Finally, I understand that some young players (e.g., Vlad Guerro Jr. and Peter Alonso) are great hitters but marginal defensive players. 3 They are better suited to be Designated Hitters. However, I’d rather see teams have to deal with the consequences of sacrificing defense to realize players’ offensive prowess.

My point is that there are tradeoffs in using the Designated Hitter. With the DH, the game loses some of its appeal and its excitement. I’ll miss the non-DH version of the game when it is gone.

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