There are too many good baseball writers in the world to confidently and objectively declare one as “the best”, but my personal favorite is The Ringer‘s Ben Lindbergh. Ben (he has been part of my morning commute for about half a decade, so I feel that I’m on a first-name basis with him) is smart and analytical while being consistently engaging, though he is not necessarily a man known for hot takes. Tempting as it might be to parlay a national readership into a new career as baseball’s Skip Bayless (“Mike Trout lacks the killer instinct clutch gene!” he screams into the void as Trout wins his 34th MVP award), he has usually steered clear of controversial topics, or even of declaring an opinion on basic baseball arguments.
Last Thursday, however, Ben expressed an opinion on a baseball rule which is hardly an uncommon opinion. And boy, did he hear about it. The article “Let’s Stop Pretending That Pitchers Can Hit” is a 2,500+ word powerhouse detailing one inarguable point–that, as the title suggests, pitchers are dreafully poor hitters–while reaching one far more hotly debated conclusion–that the National League should adopt the Designated Hitter.
First of all, do I have to explain the designated hitter (DH) rule? This is, like, a fundamental enough part of baseball that everybody knows it, right? Okay, for anyone who doesn’t know what the DH is, here’s the Wikipedia page on it. Honestly, you only need to read the first two sentences.
The designated hitter rule adopted by the American League is sixteen years older than I am. It has been a fundamental part of baseball debates for as long as I have existed. If you are under the age of fifty, you do not know a world in which the designated hitter does not exist. And yet, for legions of (National League) baseball fans, it is treated as at best a curiosity, and at worst an affront to all that is good and pure about baseball.
I’ve watched DH arguments for decades. I’ve heard countless arguments for and against the designated hitter. And yet, unlike the normally moderate Ben Lindbergh, it is I that does not have a strong opinion on the matter.
There is one part of the designated hitter rule that has always bugged me–that it established pitchers as a unique class. Pitchers are a unique class in the sense that they are measurably worse at hitting than any other position: the wRC+ gap between pitchers and the next-least effective position at the plate, catchers, is 111 points (-24 for pitchers, 87 for hitters), while the gap between catchers and the best offensive position, first basemen, is just 21 points. Do we really need a rule that says a team can only use a designated hitter for the pitcher? Until Shohei Ohtani reached the Los Angeles Angels this season and, in between hitting triple digits as a starting pitcher, posted a 150 wRC+ while moonlighting as a DH, using the DH for a non-pitcher bordered on inconceivable, particularly in the modern era.
The best hitting pitchers of the 2010s, by a fairly wide margin, have been Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner. The former displayed, relative to other pitchers, a shocking ability to avoid strikeouts; the latter has a downright competent level of power (17 home runs in 560, basically a full season’s worth of, plate appearances). Greinke’s wRC+ this decade is 54; Bumgarner’s is 51. For perspective, this century, no qualified St. Louis Cardinals position player was this woeful at the plate. Only three position players with 300 or more plate appearances were worse: 2001 Mike Matheny had a wRC+ of 50, 2013 Pete Kozma had one of 49, and 2007 Adam Kennedy had one of 47. Even if a team with the option to use a DH for one of these players had Greinke or Bumgarner, they would likely decline even if they truly believed the numbers (all three of these position players had batting averages on balls in play below career norms)–the gap is too small to justify the dramatic drop in batting ability once relievers enter the game. But why not change the rule? Nothing will actually change in practice–I’ll just be less annoyed by the arbitrariness of it all.
There is a slippery slope argument to the designated hitter, one often dismissed as stirring the pot rather than an earnest stance, that asks that if teams are going to have one DH, why stop at one? While this might be a tongue-in-cheek suggestion meant to highlight the arbitrariness of the position (oh, to answer the question: the DH has been around for 46 years and multiple DHs has never actually been proposed–if this were going to happen, there would be some traction for it by this point), it does point out that those who support the DH in its current form draw the line for efficiency somewhere.
The argument in favor of the designated hitter is all about efficiency–that it only makes sense, if possible, to put the best players in the middle of the action. Sure, there are NBA and NHL players forced to be exposed as poor offensive or defensive players because they are good at the other part, but the action is fluid and stopping game action every time there is a turnover in possession would fundamentally change the sport. Football once had required two-way players, but at the pro and even college level, they are now an anomaly. The designated hitter has the same effect as not requiring quarterbacks to play defense, a thing most football fans agree is a good thing, as it preserves the most important player on the field (this is a slightly apples/oranges comparison as baseball is a mostly non-contact sport while football is a human demolition derby, but pitchers getting hurt on offensive duty happens–from Adam Wainwright in 2015 to Masahiro Tanaka last Friday).
But if a designated hitter is not used for a mediocre-hitting catcher (who is nevertheless considerably better at hitting than a pitcher), a line is being drawn as to what is palatable. Not allowing, say, the 2011 Cardinals to use one of their three above-average hitting bench players (Allen Craig, Nick Punto, Jon Jay through most of the season) to hit instead of below-average hitting shortstop Ryan Theriot is against the spirit of making the cumulative offense better. The difference in degree is enormous, but it concedes that there is some value in players playing both ways, a standard anti-DH argument. The sides simply divide on whether the value of two-way players exceeds the value of not having to watch pitchers hit. It’s a matter of personal taste.
The biggest false assumption in all of this, however, is that proponents of pitchers batting don’t realize that pitchers are terrible at batting. Some are delusional, citing any hit by a pitcher as proof that pitchers are turning a corner offensively (if y’all think the pitcher did a good job, you are going to have your mind blown by what an actual hitter does on a regular basis), but most appreciate pitcher hits because they are rare. Pitchers hitting is inefficient but that’s what makes it special on the rare case that it works out. For the second time in as many days, I will cite a Jon Bois video–this time the saga of Dae-Sung Koo, a New York Mets reliever who, in 2005, inexplicably managed a double in his second (and final) MLB plate appearance (off Randy Johnson!) and then scored from second on a sacrifice bunt (just watch the video). The entire appeal of a case such as Koo’s is the rarity of it–had Eric Valent or Marlon Anderson pinch-hit for Koo and duplicated his performance, nobody would have remembered the events a week later.
Are moments like Koo’s worth putting up with scores of unwatchably bad pitcher at-bats? Are they worth the offensive rallies stymied by what is a near-automatic out? I don’t have an answer to this. Even if I did, it would be my answer and not yours, and there is nothing objective here. Those who cite the data in these arguments are missing the point–enjoyment cannot be quantified. Teams which forfeit the DH are acting irrationally; leagues which forfeit the DH are acting in the name of (perceived) entertainment.
But what fascinates me most about the endless designated hitter argument is how passionate the arguments are. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an anti-DH argument that didn’t result in somebody declaring that if the NL adopted the DH, they would stop watching. And all of the data suggests that they’re probably lying.
In 1973, the American League adopted the designated hitter, and in eight of the twelve American League ballparks, attendance increased from the year before. I would dispute that this proves that the DH substantially helps attendance–attendance, after all, has followed a general upward trend throughout history–but it certainly didn’t destroy fan interest. In 1998, the Milwaukee Brewers went from the National League to the American League, and despite an entire generation of pro-DH indoctrination, Brewers attendance jumped 25% despite the team losing four more games than in 1997.
When the Houston Astros switched from the National League to American League in 2013, despite being at the nadir of their bottoming out (they finished with a 51-111 record), attendance jumped 2.7%. As part of my quest to research articles while not researching that extensively, I asked my friend Emily, a Texas native and Houston Astros fan, if the move to the DH affected her fandom, and she indicated that the pleasure she took in watching her team play did not change at all. She supported the move to the AL not because she liked the designated hitter but because it established a natural geographic rivalry with the Texas Rangers. When it came down to it, it wasn’t the presence or absence of somebody batting for the pitcher that truly mattered for Astros fans, but attendance data for when the Rangers came to town suggests that the existence of an intrastate rivalry at least made the sport more compelling than the existence of the DH hurt it. After this discussion, I am willing to switch my DH apathy to being pro-DH if it means the Kansas City Royals join the NL Central. And not just because the Royals are terrible.
Like I said, I think that claiming to lose interest in baseball because of the DH is a bluff, but I do think it speaks to a level of passion in preserving the status quo that I do not totally understand, but which I certainly respect. And I think it’s more than a bit cultural. I grew up in St. Louis and have spent all but a few days of my life in territory where the MLB team of choice played in the National League without the designated hitter. The “pitchers batting is tradition” argument is a pretty weak one in the macro sense–the AL adopted the designated hitter during the Nixon administration and almost all professional leagues around the world use the DH–but pitchers batting is tradition for us. It’s why, even though I’m apathetic to St. Louis-style pizza as compared to other styles of pizza, I will defend it against those who blaspheme it. It is by the same token that a majority of American League fans are believers in the DH (though by a less dramatic degree than NL fans oppose it)–for them, it’s tradition.
While some have called the DH in the National League inevitable, I tend to err on the side of the status quo of two leagues with differing sets of rules remaining intact for a while. Baseball has had the designated hitter for essentially two generations, and those whose teams adopted the rule have developed an obnoxious sense of superiority that they are forward-thinking innovators while those whose teams have eschewed the DH have developed an equally obnoxious sense of moral righteousness. The more I hear arguments about the DH, the more I dislike both camps, but as I said, I don’t think the argument is going anywhere.