A Simple Examination of the DH Debate

Neither a double play or home run - Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

A simplified look at the DH rule without rhetoric or fuss

The Designated Hitter (hereby referred to as DH) debate is one of those arguments.  Yeah, those. You know, the ones where everyone has a curiously strong opinion despite wildly varying interest, or lack thereof, in the subject matter.  Outside of sports, these are serious arguments such as abortion, prayer in the classroom/public places, the legality of gay marriage, and other topics that are generally a bad idea to kick off discussion on a blind date (or to talk about in the comments for that matter, hint hint).  Inside the world of sports, other than oddly heated debates such as LeBron vs. Jordan or Manning vs. Brady, there aren't any comps.  Except for the DH rule.  Oh, the DH rule.

The interesting thing is that the DH rule is one of the simplest in baseball, yet it causes such a stir.  You can read many articles on why or why not the DH should exist and in what form, but that's not the point of this article.

What I'd like you to do is take off your theoretical AL or NL hats, put on the thinking caps, step back, and take a look at it in a simplified fashion.  I will quickly take a look at the history of the DH and then examine the two biggest issues facing the DH rule right now.  Afterwards, try not to kill each other in the comments, yeah?

DH History

The DH rule was first implemented by the American League in 1973.  In the years leading up to the rule, life in the MLB was life in a pitcher-dominated world.  In 1968, NL Cy Young winner Bob Gibson sported ERA of 1.12 and an FIP of 1.77 while the average MLB hitter hit .237/.299/.340.  Major League Baseball decided to lower the mound the next year, giving pitchers less leverage and evening the fight.

The AL, in an attempt to further cultivate offense, voted to adopt the modern-day DH rule for the 1973 season for a trial period of three years, which was subsequently made permanent in that time frame.  The rule did its job, as the average hitter went from a .664 OPS in 1972 to a .704 OPS in '73.  The NL did not follow suit but, in 1980, did hold a vote to adopt the DH.  Four teams voted yes (the Braves, Cardinals, Mets, and Padres), but five teams voted no and another three abstained.  Simple majority won and the NL stayed away from the new rule.

It is very interesting to look back and see that this almost wasn't an argument, but unfortunately/fortunately for us, we get to discuss it now.

Problem #1: Interleague Play

The biggest fallout of the DH rule is that these leagues have split onto differing paths and have continued to do so for 40 years.  Essentially, the AL and NL don't even play the same version of baseball.  For such a simple rule, the DH has caused havoc.

We see this in interleague play every year.  Today, the Royals finish their set with the Cardinals in St. Louis.  Tomorrow, they will play in Kansas City.  Four games, two sets of rules.  In one city, the Royals must not use Billy Butler or put him in the field despite defensive deficiencies, and a few hours' drive on I-70 away they can use Butler as his normal position.  Any AL team with a full-time DH must make this decision, and these can be high stakes games.  World Series, Boston vs. St. Louis:  use Ortiz at first despite his, um, glove?  Or don't?  On the flip side, NL teams aren't usually built to have a decent DH as they are forced to use utility players who can play multiple positions.  It's far from ideal for either league.

Furthermore, now that there are 15 teams in each league, interleague play happens every day.  This limits roster construction, again for both leagues, because they often are unwilling to make what might be a major roster move for a single series due to minor league callup rules.

In addition, the DH has divided the playing field.  The American League is better than the National League by pretty much any statistical margin.  Between 1997 when interleague play was introduced in the regular season and 2012 (the last year of 'standard' interleague play in June), the AL had a better record than the NL 13  out of 16 times.  Though they split the World Series 8-8 over that time, the All-Star game was won by the AL 12 times.  Differences between leagues are probably good, but actively supporting a system that encourages a discernible disparity between the two is questionable.

Problem #2: Pitchers' 'hitting'

This is obviously the reason why the DH was concocted in the first place: pitchers are not very good hitters.  This was true then, and it is true now.  Pitching is a specialized position, and pitchers spend more time on pitching compared to hitters spending time on either hitting or fielding.

Inevitably, someone will say that, 'there are good-hitting pitchers,' which tends to deflate the argument then and there because no one ever looks at the offensive stats for pitchers.  But here's the thing.  Remember this, because this is the core part of why this is an issue:

There are no good-hitting pitchers.  There are bad hitters, worse hitters, and unspeakably awful hitters.

The reason nobody looks at the offensive numbers for pitchers because they are so terrifying that somebody could film a horror movie about this and nobody would bat an eye. To begin, here are the full list of pitchers in 2013 who were above average by wRC+.  I set the minimum PA at 30, which is roughly half a season for starters, and allows for some injured pitchers while rooting out those AL pitchers who don't see the plate except for twice a year.  Out of 71 pitchers we get:

-Zack Greinke, 132

-Henderson Alvarez, 111

Underwhelming, to be sure.  Lowering the bar further seems reasonable.  Lowering it all the way to a wRC+ of 50 or greater, the list expands to:

-Travis Wood, 71

-Tyler Chatwood, 70

-Andrew Cashner, 62

-John Niese, 55

If you're following along at home, kids, 65 out of 71 pitchers with at least 30 PA in 2013 hit worse than 50% below league average.  Disturbing.  But, of course, we all know that anything can happen in a span of as little as 30 PA--after all, Barry Bonds hit .370/.582/.799 in under 30 PA once* so larger sample sizes are in order.

*minor error, this was his entire 2002 season

Expanding it out to pitchers who accumulated at least 90 or more PA between 2011-2013, this is the list who hit for league average or better:

-

Um, ok.  I guess none.  How about pitchers who were 50% below league average or better?

-Daniel Hudson, 71

-Zack Greinke, 69

Out of 69 pitchers who qualify under my criteria,  67 of them are worse than 50% below league average .  In fact, 37 out of those 69 have a negative wRC+, which is sort of astounding.   If you need more evidence, consider that pitchers as a whole hit .132/.164/.169/.333 in 2013 and are hitting even worse this year to the tune of .126/.152/.156/.309.

This should be an issue for anyone, both AL and NL.  Frankly, I don't understand why there isn't enough outrage at just how bad pitchers are at hitting.  This should be a unified outrage.

Solutions

There are only two solutions for these issues

  • Put effort into making pitchers respectable hitters
  • Adopt the DH for both leagues

Having both leagues use the DH would be the simplest by far.  It solves both issues I outlined above.

However, the other solution is viable, but it would entail much more work.  Currently, minor league teams use varying rules, but the DH is usually in play for both NL and AL affiliates.  The DH is used in NCAA baseball, as well.  Essentially, pitchers don't hit often enough from the very moment they go to college or go pro.  If all levels of baseball committed to teaching pitchers to hit, then perhaps this wouldn't be as much of an issue.  Wouldn't it be nice to see pitchers not strike out in 36% of their plate appearances?

At the moment, however, baseball as a whole does not care to teach pitchers how to hit.  This, more than anything, probably signals the eventual death of the hitting pitcher.

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