The Inevitability of the Designated Hitter

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Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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  1. Avatar Patrick
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    says:

    The Designated Hitter is the worst rule in baseball.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Patrick
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      says:

      I know a guy who roundly condemns the infield fly rule. I’ll have to ask him what he thinks of the DH.Report

    • Avatar nevermoor in reply to Patrick
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      says:

      Yeah! Bring on the insta-outs! Everyone pays to see 11% of the ABs in a game taken by HS-level hitting talent!Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to nevermoor
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        says:

        I’m tried of seeing big men clank the ball from the line. It’s time for the designated free-throw shooter.Report

        • Avatar Steve in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          I’d put this a little differently than the comparison to FT shots in hack-a-Shaq/DeAndre routines in basketball. There we are talking about a problem caused by maybe 5-10 NBA players who are routinely bad at shooting free throws at low levels and an aggressive strategy pursued in the playoffs trying to maximize wins (that isn’t abundantly clear works that well, as it breaks up your own offensive rhythms as well). It’s an annoyance rather than a defect, and could be fixed pretty easily by just changing the intentional foul rules to be where they are in the last two minutes of quarters so teams don’t do it. There isn’t a need for a DH. DeAndre still would have to make some FTs, but mostly this would be when he has the ball and tries to dunk on people.

          Here we are talking about a problem caused by hundreds of ineffectual players (basically every pitcher in MLB). If half of your team’s roster could not shoot FTs at an acceptable rate in basketball, you would have a bad roster. If half of your teams roster can’t hit in baseball, but they’re all good pitchers, you’re probably fine.Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    What I dislike about the DH is that the DH doesn’t play any defense. There’s skill and instinct and training that goes in to fielding; it’s not just catching fly balls. And it means not just anyone with good upper body strength and decent eyesight should be let up to the plate to swing a bat.

    A DH never fields a ball.

    So what about George Will’s proposal: eight-man batting orders? The pitcher is usually worthless anyway, so the pitcher just won’t bat at all.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      George Will is wrong as well.

      You play defense, you play offense. Baseball is not football.

      You can have my pitchers out of the batting order when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Patrick
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        says:

        “You play defense, you play offense. Baseball is not football.”

        Football wasn’t football, in this sense, until the second half of the 20th century. There were some experiments with free substitution during WWII, but it wasn’t firmly established until 1950 in the NFL and 1964 in the NCAA. The effects on the game were vast and, so far as I can tell, largely unanticipated. And not, in my opinion, all for the better.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      Always look at the unintended consequences. Always. There is a truism that pitchers get into trouble the third time through the lineup. At that point every batter has had two chances to see what he has, and to adjust accordingly. I have not seen this claim rigorously analyzed, but my intuition is that it is plausible. With an eight man lineup this unhappy moment will occur sooner. Take the extreme case of a perfect game. Under the George Will proposal the ninth inning will see the top of the lineup. Not only will they see the pitcher a fourth time, they are in the top of the lineup for a reason. So an unintended consequence would be that perfect games (and to a lesser extent no-hitters) will be even harder to achieve. We might decide that this is not undesirable, or that it is more than offset by beneficial effects of the proposal, but it needs to be considered.

      In any case, in my experience the objection to the DH is not that a guy gets to hit without fielding. If anything, that is put forward as an advantage, giving guy with good arms but bad knees a way to extent their careers. The objection is to letting the pitcher off the hook and letting him lollygag in the dugout instead of going to the plate like a real ballplayer.Report

    • Avatar nevermoor in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      So you’re also against RP’s being taken out of the game without hitting, to late-game defensive substitutions, and to pinch runners?

      Or are you simply trying to find a justification for the fact that you’re used to NL rules?Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    On the feature picture for this post — is that a coach-recommended batting stance for a pitch anticipated to fly as far outside as illustrated?Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      For the pitcher? I don’t think there *is* a coach-recommended batting stance. That is pretty much the point of the essay.Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        says:

        There is one recommended stance… that the pitching arm not be the arm in the line of fire, so to speak.

        I’m moving towards your conclusion as well… besides the fact that pitchers are hitting worse and worse, I’d add that I’ve seen a large decline in sacrifice bunts as teams abandon “small ball” in favor of out-prevention strategies made famous in Money Ball.

        I’m a Cubs fan, and watching Joe Maddon bat the pitcher 8th, It seems to me he is just trying to locate the out such that he doesn’t have to “waste” an out with advancing the runners. The Cubs are 26th out of 30 in sacrifices this year… and the philosophical change is very noticeable. If you don’t even want your pitcher to advance a runner and are just looking to optimize his out, well, we’re not too far from just getting rid of it once and for all.

        So yes, even the National League game I’m watching isn’t the NL game of my youth.

        Add in the CBA and their motivations, and I’d say we’re one maybe two CBA’s away from the DH.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Marchmaine
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          says:

          Interesting observations, @marchmaine

          Just to pass on a tidbit of the sort we wouldn’t be hearing without the NL difference, but possibly overlapping, I recently heard Ned Coletti (former Dodger GM, still associated with the team, which is thought to be going full-on “metrician” under his replacement) say that one reason among others that Kenley Jansen was converted to reliever was that he was so hopeless at the plate.

          But the observation – and the ongoing reduction in starter innings vs reliever innings – also raises the question about the evolution of pitcher roles. The other day, due to the appearance on the schedule of an make-up double header, the Dodgers started one of their relievers with the announced intention of pitching a “bullpen game.”

          It didn’t work out well on that day, but what, other than tradition, prevents more teams from pitching more “bullpen games”? Do we really know that pitching Kershaw for, typically, eight innings once every five days is better – for overall results, assuming he didn’t care – than pitching him however many innings, situationally, over the same five games, and then over the course of the season in such a role?Report

          • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to CK MacLeod
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            says:

            Interesting notion… I saw some interesting projections about using a 6-man rotation in a 5-man schedule which would go towards keeping your top 4 pitchers in the rotation every 5th day… but allowing two pitchers to alternate the 5th slot and thereby always have a pitcher ready for long-relief and to minimize the exposure of the 5th slot. In the end, even that just didn’t seem to provide enough benefit for the experiment.

            From what I’ve seen, we’re converging on the mathematical nexus of pitchers trying to use 3.5 or few pitchers per plate appearance and batters trying to extend that to 5+ pitches per plate appearance. The 3 times around theory is more balanced around pitches seen than batters faced. Good teams see a lot of pitches, which makes the 3rd meeting more difficult for the pitcher.

            That and the fact that the massive drop in talent from a 1-2-3 starter to anything else (other than the closer) is so large that taking one inning away from your best and giving it to anyone else is a net loss that grows with each inning not pitched by one of those 4 pitchers.

            This is the flip side of why I think the DH is inevitable… there’s just too much invested in the top 6 arms (out of 13) on any given team that pulling them out before their time is increasingly viewed as an inefficient use of funds.Report

  4. Avatar Michael Cain
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    Are there any other less-obscure statistical arguments to be made? Does the AL consistently score more than the NL? Do NL pitchers consistently have better ERAs? Do AL pitchers have longer careers? Do AL teams do worse than otherwise when they have to play without the DH? Do NL teams do better than otherwise when they get to use a DH? Unless there’s some fairly clear advantage one way or the other, I’ll continue to oppose the DH just because I think managers should have to consider all the extra wrinkles that come with pinch-hitting for the pitcher.Report

    • Avatar Steve in reply to Michael Cain
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      says:

      I can’t comment on all of these but a couple of them I’ve researched and have been researched by others.

      AL offense levels have been consistently and often significantly higher every year since the DH. With three exceptions: 1976, which was a down year offensively for both leagues and then the first two years it was introduced. That anomaly can be explained by the NL having had a higher offensive production in the 1960s and therefore a higher offensive talent pool coming in (the AL had been outscored in 7 of the 8 previous seasons, and the 1972 AL was one of the worst scoring seasons in baseball history).

      Ever since then, it’s been 2-10% more runs scored in the AL every year. ERAs are naturally lower in the NL as a result. That’s almost a given.

      Home runs and batting averages sometimes have leveled out for some years so it’s not as clear that pitchers affect these negatively (PHs are a factor too), though homers are usually higher in the AL. Strikeouts are usually the ones that differ most. Ks are though higher in the NL, sometimes a lot higher. And then the NL bunts a ton.

      Pitcher durability I don’t know if it has been studied carefully or not for the DH factor. There are more complete games in the AL, but not many that this should be considered likely.

      AL teams have also been winning most of the interleague series over the last decade or so. One reason given would be the general superiority of pitchers who have been trained to pitch against superior lineups (with a DH) when facing generally inferior competition or teams that do not have a specialized DH available due to roster specialization being different in the NL. That extra bat helps both ways.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain
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      says:

      As nevermoor points out, the AL outscores the NL pretty consistently. But that is besides the point. That was an argument for the DH in 1973, but it isn’t in 2015.

      As for other, less obscure, statistics, someone could probably come up with a similar chart showing pitchers’ BA over the decades. I suspect it would look a lot like the wRC+ chart. So feel free to imagine the vertical axis is BA.Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    The real reason it won’t go away is the union. The DH creates a number of high paying jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

    An NL team has 8 regular starters, a 5-man rotation, and probably one or two high paid relievers. The rest of the guys are backups making relatively low sums.
    An AL team has 9 regular starters, a 5-man rotation, and probably one or two high paid relievers. The rest of the guys are backups making relatively low sums.

    Notice the difference? The AL teams trade a bench player for a starter. The union will NEVER give that back.Report

    • Avatar Steve in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      ^This.

      The other factor that’s often left on the table is that 1972, the year prior to the change, was a strike year. They lost about 100 games at the beginning of the season and this was at a time when the MLBPA was pretty strong. The (AL) owners may have looked for a solution that would potentially put money in their pockets while giving something to the players to keep them happy.

      Their solution I’m not sure actually worked out to their benefit. Is it worth paying specialized DHs as much as paying a couple of relief pitchers in terms of producing wins and thereby increasing attendance and revenues? Probably not.

      Still. The rule change allowing a DH instead of pitcher batting is on its own perfectly fine simply because of the increased specialization of pitchers to pitch rather than hit.Report

  6. Avatar Jacob
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    says:

    I can refute your argument with two simple words:

    Bartolo Colon.Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe
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    says:

    I’m with you an all arguments, but I think the actually inevitably in our lifetime comes from the now ubiquity* of inter-league play and the desire to unify the rules to account for that (relatively) recent change – and The American League seems to have a decisive edge in those head to head contests.

    *until seeing the chart linked though, I didn’t realize they had backed off on interleague play somewhat, my perception has been a slow inexorable rise until it’s on MASN at least twice a month.Report

  8. Avatar CK MacLeod
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    says:

    Just out of curiosity, is a pitcher in the AL allowed to bat as DH? If so, has one ever done so?

    One next step in hyper-specialization could be all DHs and all defensive specialists. You could move in that direction by allowing multiple DHs, or as many DHs as desired, then free substitution on one or both sides. Would make for more baseball jobs, anyway.

    Or imagine baseball with complete free substitution. You could bat your best batter (for the particular pitcher) until he got on base, run for him, then bat him again. With absolute free substitution, you could run a pitcher in who was better on 3-2 counts than on 0-0 counts, then replace him again, then run him back out again…

    If “hyper-specialization” is the true underlying tendency, then why not? However, the blogger does make a good argument for what’s likelier to happen for baseball as it is evolving before our eyes.

    What I want to know is what will happen when it is technically feasible to define and operationalize a “true strike zone.” I presume that the engineering challenge could be overcome. Right now, we have the rather bizarre spectacle of runners being ruled safe or out based on micro-analysis of HD images, while the central repeated act of the game – ball or strike – still comes down to a “one man’s best guesstimate.”Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      With absolute free substitution, you could run a pitcher in who was better on 3-2 counts than on 0-0 counts, then replace him again, then run him back out again…

      I bet this would be a disaster for pitcher’s arms.

      But I can imagine a world, well after my lifetime (I hope), in which baseball teams consist of offensive and defensive players, with little or no overlap.Report

    • Avatar Steve in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      The computer analysis of balls and strikes is being used as a factor in evaluating umpires and there’s a general “call more strikes” mentality supposedly being handed down in theory to shorten games. I’d say that this perhaps isn’t as robotic and accurate as some might like (I enjoy a little bit of uncertainty, but some consistency would help). But it’s still having a significant impact on how games are called.

      There are rules about how the DH can be used in the AL where a pitcher can be required to bat.

      The difference between the average hitter’s fielding abilities as a negative and the average pitcher’s hitting “abilities” as a negative in terms of producing wins and losses on the field is likely to be less significant that the league would ever move toward hyper substitutions with multiple “DH”s or an offense/defense team in the way the NFL is set up. If such a move happens, it wouldn’t be for decades most likely and would require more standard roster slots than the league currently allows. That kind of change would be extremely radical and baseball isn’t very radical historically.

      What does happen is more teams use defensive substitutions strategically in late game settings. KC did this a lot with their outfielders last year for example.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Steve
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        says:

        Steve: The computer analysis of balls and strikes is being used as a factor in evaluating umpires and there’s a general “call more strikes” mentality supposedly being handed down in theory to shorten games. I’d say that this perhaps isn’t as robotic and accurate as some might like

        Was talking about this the other night while watching a game: You refer to “computer analysis” – so I assume you’re talking about some kind of statistical breakdown or set of breakdowns. What I was imagining is some system of multiple moving intersecting lasers or WHATEVER exactly describing the true strike zone as described in the rules, and to some extreme degree of accuracy mechanically and instantaneously identifying balls vs. strikes.

        Why, I wonder, hasn’t this been done? Or has it been accomplished somewhere, but never widely applied for some reason?

        These days telecasts frequently feature some form of graphic or overlay appearing to represent the strike zone and the ball’s path through it. A little bit of questioning has led me suspect that many fans suppose that these must be objective, true-to-life “scientific” representations. I’ve never heard anyone explaining the actual basis of the given graphic – based on whose and what type of observations? I’ve also never seen clearly and comprehensively depicted or explained what we are all pretending an umpire is capable of determining objectively from his spot behind the catcher, regarding the path of a thrown ball through an imaginary variable three-dimensional space.

        It seems to me, but maybe one of the much more knowledgeable observers here has a different explanation, that we’re all willingly engaging in a collective fantasy that breaks down regularly – when someone commits the unpardonable sin of “arguing balls and strikes,” and that is hinted at when one catcher’s “pitch-framing” abilities are compared to another’s, or when it turns out that one umpire just so happens to have called significantly more no-hitters than any other…

        I’m not trying to suggest that baseball is somehow inferior to other sports or even that it and other sports are deeply flawed. I do find it interesting, though, how we are proceeding to judging some parts of the various games by the micrometer and microsecond, while leaving other central aspects of them necessarily to subjective judgment. We add tedious and flow-destroying minute after minute to typical games, in the search of pseudo-objective decisions, while vast portions of them remain subjective.

        I’m not saying there’s much choice: Being a referee in big-money sports would be dangerous when a TV image could show thousands or millions of losing gamblers that they’d been robbed by bad calls. Either that, or the frequency of game-deciding clearly bad calls would begin to destroy the credibility of the game. Still, there’s something marvelously childish and perverse about it, similar to the way that we treat so many other “public” questions: as though focusing on the objectively measurable part of a question must necessarily get us to a better or more satisfying entire answer on the question than focusing on or even admitting to the unmentionable and sometimes virtually undiscussble inherently subjective part. That also goes to the constant misuse in sports and politics of statistics that cannot say what people seem to want them to say, or that always say much less than they appear to say.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to CK MacLeod
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          says:

          I only have time for a brief reply. The short answer is that we are in a transitional stage. Electronically called balls and strikes is every bit as inevitable as the NL adopting the DH. Back in the day, blown calls were an unavoidable fact of life. The umpire generally had the best view, so going with his judgment was inherently plausible. When slow motion replay came in, it turned out that the umpire usually got it right, and often we couldn’t quite tell. But with the introduction of super-slo-mo replays from innumerable camera angles, the viewer at home can see in glorious high definition when the umpire blows a call. The credibility of the game demanded instant replay in officiating. The first step was on boundary plays, i.e. stuff like did the ball hit above or below a line on the outfield fence. That was around for a couple of years. Then just a couple of years ago they added replay for safe/out calls. The baseball community is still digesting this, but it is here to stay. At some point in the not-too-distant future they will have some sort of ball-and-strikes electronic calls. It will be interesting to see the secondary changes this brings to the game.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod in reply to Richard Hershberger
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            says:

            Agree it sounds inevitable. I’ve started doing a bit of research, but so far have found only superficial discussion of the systems already in use – like this one:

            http://m.mlb.com/news/article/12406800/

            Also managed to ruin my friend’s day (not too badly) telling him your argument that the DH in the NL is inevitable. It’ll probably turn me off to baseball for a while when it happens – unless my favorite team happens to be great that year.Report

          • Avatar Steve in reply to Richard Hershberger
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            says:

            Agreed.

            What we’re seeing is a series of tentative adjustments. Baseball is slow sometimes to adjust its rules and its “traditions”. The tradition was to let umpires do things. They blew a few key calls on fair-foul balls and now we have the ability to review close or bad calls. We may eventually reach a point where we no longer tolerate subjectivity in balls and strikes either. We either aren’t there yet for the technology available being adequate or haven’t agreed on how to use available technology to decide balls and strikes automatically (what exactly is the strike zone as a defined variable with precision over where the ball travels, how much of the ball needs to travel thus, would there be ways to game the computer’s perspectives as a hitter or catcher, etc). We probably could be however without much difficulty if this was something being demanded by fans or players or the leagues themselves.

            From watching basketball games and subjective decisions about calling fouls or not, I think the more plausible explanation is we (fans, players, etc) still like having something to complain about as fans or players besides the actual play of our favorite teams too much to demand perfect robotic performance over the officials calling the rules that is impartial and rigidly adheres to certain codes. Where we are now is we seem to be using some amount of analysis to try to “improve” or enhance umpire abilities because that’s what baseball seems to think it wants. Eventually we may want something else. But we’re not there yet.

            I suspect some element of flex in the rules is intended too as another factor. Bending something that isn’t that obviously egregious to allow it. A strike called just off the plate, say, doesn’t “feel” as consequential while looking closely at whether the ball was fair/foul or over the fence or not does. The transitional stage is partly about deciding which rules “really matter” that we need a good and rigid enforcement and which we say we don’t care as much.Report

    • Avatar nevermoor in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      Sure. Other rule changes could come in later that would be crazy.

      The fact is, though, that becoming a great pitcher requires a LOT more specialized effort than becoming great at any other defensive position. And having a great pitcher on the mound matters a LOT more than other defensive positions. So the degree of selection towards defensive talent is going to be unlike anything at any other position until you expand rosters to 40+ and allow free substitutions (which the owners would never ever go for).Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to nevermoor
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        says:

        …until you expand rosters to 40+ and allow free substitutions (which the owners would never ever go for).

        Nor the fans, if we’re talking truly free substitution.

        Here’s the windup, and the pitch, and… ball two, just a bit outside. Now here’s a 15-second commercial, a quick replay of the pitch, some mindless statistic, another shot of that busty chick sitting in section 31, while the situational second baseman and right fielder are changed.

        Attending an NFL game at the stadium is educational. You come away with a much greater respect for just how hard the broadcast teams are working to fill the time between plays.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      “Is a pitcher in the AL allowed to bat as DH?”

      I truly don’t know, but I strongly doubt anyone would ever want to. Pitchers anymore just plain can’t hit and aren’t interested in trying.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to CK MacLeod
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      says:

      …is a pitcher in the AL allowed to bat as DH?

      An AL team may choose to play a game from the beginning with the DH position empty (ie, pitchers bat for themselves). There are situational substitutions that may lead to the DH position going empty and the pitchers batting for the remainder of the game. Baseball-Reference.com says that there are a few AL games every year where the situational changes result in the pitcher batting. They cite at least one example of a game where a pitcher was used as the DH on a day he wasn’t pitching.Report

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