As a Boston Red Sox fan, I’ll openly admit my team has benefitted from the designated hitter rule.
David Ortiz is a near-lock for the Hall of Fame, and he had eight times as many plate appearances as a DH as he did as a first baseman. J.D. Martinez’s name is being thrown around for AL MVP despite playing just ten games in the field thus far.
The Red Sox, as with most AL teams, have historically benefitted from having a designated hitter.
But that does not mean it isn’t a stupid rule that dumbs down the sport and directly counteracts the direction MLB wants to go in.
A Brief History of the DH
The idea of a designated hitter goes back to 1906 and was first proposed by Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack, according to Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf. Wulf wrote that Mack was tired of seeing his future Hall of Famers pitchers Eddie Plank and Charles Bender waste their at-bats.
Plank batted as low as .105 during his time in Philly and Bender had four seasons throughout his career in which he struck out more than he got a hit.
The DH didn’t gain traction until the ‘60s and was given a handful of spring training and minor league trials between 1969 and 1971.
In 1973 the AL fully adopted the designated hitter and has not waivered. The NL has thrown around the idea of adopting the rule since 1980 but it has not gained traction until recently. MLB used a universal DH for the first time during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season and a return to uniformity is expected in the coming years.
A Strategic Step Backwards
Comparing DH baseball to non-DH baseball is not like comparing checkers to chess; it is comparing Chutes and Ladders to Risk.
Take this hypothetical postulated by The Comeback’s Harrison Hamm:
Think of an early-game scenario where the home team has taken a four-run lead. Say that in the third-inning [sic], the away team loads the bases, a crucial chance to get back in the game, only to have the pitcher’s spot up. Should they pull the starter (who has already been shaky) and try to get a pinch-hitter to drive in some runs? Or should they let the starter bat and save the bullpen from seven innings of work?
Such an exercise and its relatives are relatively commonplace in the NL, while AL managers have just 90 innings per year to get such an opportunity.
Baseball is a sport already relatively devoid of on-the-fly strategic decisions. Yes, fielders can and will shift according to a batter’s tendencies (until MLB kills the defensive shift) and managers must optimize their lineup to create the best run-scoring offense they can. But with the slow pace of play and lack of opportunity, the game is much more akin to a roll of dice than a tactical mind game such as American football. The inclusion of the DH further simplifies the game, turning the dice roll into a flip of a coin.
An Anti-baseball Idea; and MLB Knows It
Baseball is a unique sport. It has distinct phases of play but players must participate in both. Basketball, for example, is far more fluid but players still must be adept on both ends of the court. Football, on the other hand, has well-defined stages of the game but players need only be capable of one to succeed. Baseball is the middle ground and should take such a role proudly.
To promote this, MLB has discouraged the use of specialists. Left-handed one-out guys (affectionately called LOOGYs) have been all but eliminated from the game following 2020’s three batter minimum for pitchers. The pinch-running guru was in vogue in the ‘70s and ‘80s but hasn’t seen use since the early ‘00s. MLB has actively worked to ensure players are as multi-faceted as possible.
And yet, MLB tells AL pitchers (about 25% of all major leaguers): “Hey, y’all can ignore an entire half of the game.”
It doesn’t add up. How can a sport that wants to be simultaneously rigid and versatility-centric promote a player that has just one skill?
The argument goes that while exceptions exist, Tom Brady isn’t asked to play linebacker. But as aforementioned, that’s the allure of baseball. That’s the charm; and MLB’s insistence on eliminating specialists from the sport acknowledges this. To include and promote players forgetting how to play half of the sport directly contradicts this, however, and makes no sense.
It Doesn’t Even Work
The most fan-friendly argument in favor of a designated hitter claims that removing the pitcher from the batters box increases hits, runs, and excitement in the game. And at first glance, that’s what it does.
Prior to the DH’s introduction in 1973, the NL regularly had a higher league-wide batting average. However starting in that ’73 season, the AL has been the better batting league according to batting average. Not once has the league-wide AL average dropped below or even with that of the NL.
But when actually trying to comprehend and understand the numbers fueling the pro-DH agenda, the argument falls apart.
In 2019, the most recent completed 162-game season, AL teams batted .253 while NL teams batted just .251. The difference, while there, is minute; .002, or 0.2%.
After crunching the numbers, we learned that AL teams got an extra hit roughly every 500 at-bats. Divide that by the MLB-wide 34.2 at-bats per game average, and teams are getting an extra hit every 14 games. Over the course of a full season, AL teams got an average of 11 more hits than their NL counterparts.
Batting average is not a truly accurate reflection of a batter’s prowess, so perhaps it is unfair to base an argument off it.
On-base percentage is far more comprehensive with regards to hitting ability. Based on that statistic, AL teams actually got on-base less often than NL teams; .322 and .323 OBPs respectively.
But at the end of the day, baseball’s offense is about scoring runs. The average 2019 NL team scored 774 runs while the average AL team scored 790. That’s a difference of 16 runs, .099 runs per game, or an extra run every 10 games.
To put that into perspective, 356 non-DH games in 2019 were decided by exactly one run. Knowing that a DH scores an extra run every 10 games, it is reasonable to estimate that 36 of those games could have had different outcomes had there been a designated hitter. That is 36 games out of 2,430: a mere 1.4% of games.
I’ve come to terms with the DH not going anywhere. As already mentioned, my favorite team has benefitted more than anyone. While my preference is no DH at all, it is here to stay and will be introduced to the NL in the coming years.
I don’t expect every pitcher to hit like Shohei Ohtani; he is a once-in-a-century player. But pitchers need to suck it up and hit the batting cages. Until then, baseball with one significantly poorer batter creates a fascinating game that remains true to its roots.