Universal Designated Hitting or Bust

Among baseball fans there are certain topics so contentious that they can tear families apart, destroy relationships, and launch a thousand Twitter wars. One of those is the position of the designated hitter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with baseball (would recommend), the MLB is divided into two leagues: American League and National League. The biggest difference, and in some ways the only difference between the two, is the designated hitter, commonly shortened to the DH. It is a position that was adopted by the AL in 1973, and has remained a source of controversy ever since. The DH rule stipulates that the pitcher does not have to bat. A designated hitter bats for the pitcher and does not field during the game. Many NL fans find this preposterous, but the DH is actually a versatile position that should be adapted across both leagues.

First of all, it’s detrimental to the game to allow pitchers to bat. This is for several reasons, the first being that pitchers are notoriously bad batters. The batting average for pitchers in the NL in 2018 was .116 or around 11.6%. This is usually because pitchers spend their time focusing on practicing and developing their pitching skills, not batting. Batting and pitching both require an incredible amount of skill and practice, and it’s rare to find someone who is proficient in both positions. I can think of very few non-pitchers in MLB who could professionally pitch one inning, let alone a whole game. Finally, because many minor leagues, colleges, and high school teams have adopted DH positions, many pitchers don’t have much  experience hitting when they transition to playing in the NL. 

All of this is to say that pitchers tend to be very bad hitters, which makes for a boring round at bat. NL fans would argue that that’s part of the fun of the game, but I disagree. For the most part, watching pitchers bat means watching them awkwardly strike out because they have no idea how to hit the ball. There are some amazing hitters in the MLB that I’d rather watch at bat any day. The DH position allows audiences to do that.

Another reason that pitchers should not bat is the higher risk for injury. Baseball is a fairly low-contact sport, but what little contact does happen usually occurs when base running. Not to mention, players often have to slide to successfully make it to the next base and can occasionally get struck by a wild pitch. Which would be catastrophic because the last thing any team wants is for their star pitcher to get injured. Of the ten highest-paid players in MLB in 2021, seven are pitchers. Some teams will pay 30 million dollars per year to their number one pitcher, and the last thing anyone wants is for that player to get hurt sliding into second and remain out for the rest of the season. Pitchers’ arms are also much more fragile and sensitive than players in other positions because they have to control the ball in a very precise manner for seven innings every five days. They also often have less practice at base running and could be more likely to get injured. Not only does the DH position make the game better, but also it protects teams’ investments.The DH also allows older players to extend their careers. Players who can no longer field but are still powerful hitters often DH for a few years. As a long-time Detroit Tigers fan, I remember how the Tigers benefited from being able to put Victor Martinez and Gary Sheffield in the rotation even after they could not reliably field due to injury. 

Lastly, the case for a universal DH is one for a standard set of rules across professional baseball leagues. It’s insane that across MLB there is no standardized set of positions. When teams from both leagues play each other, they switch off rules based on whose home stadium they are playing in. Many NL fans complain that the DH creates an unfair advantage for the AL. I say the best way to end that argument is to just have both teams have a DH. 

The craziest part of this argument is that the NL actually adapted the DH position for the 2020 season. No one died, baseball wasn’t ruined, and in fact, many players liked it. The reason the NL jettisoned the universal DH in the 2021 season was because the players and coaches association couldn’t reach an agreement on it, reflecting the deep divide on opinions on this topic. But the fact of the matter is that NL teams are perfectly capable of excelling and playing interesting and rigorous baseball while having a DH.

Baseball traditionalists will angrily disagree with my arguments, but the fact of the matter is that a universal DH makes sense for the MLB going forward. “Because this is how it’s always been done” is not a good argument for why something should stay the same. I love baseball and I love its traditions, but the fact is the game needs to be able to innovate and change. The universal DH is coming, and I, for one, will be glad when it does.

6 thoughts on “Universal Designated Hitting or Bust

  • April 17, 2021 at 1:31 pm
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    …I have read your entries on DH. It always surprises me when a notable baseball reporter steers away from pitchers hitting. The elimination of DH in the NL is welcomed for me this season, and apparently Greinke, Bumgarner, and Wainwright agree. They actually like to hit, as recent articles explained. I remember when this was considered just “earning a living in baseball”. It meant to own a baseball glove, bat, and play defense, field, throw, hit, and run. Anyone that shied away from any of those aspects seemed awkward to some facet of the game. I understand your comment about pitchers getting hurt but I can recall a day prior to the 21st century when we did not have pitchers considered such fragile athletes, with the thought of competing and carrying a baseball bat in hand and running down to first base. Somehow, back then, they were not expected to have fragile bodies that could break so easily. Pitchers are athletes and still do play defense and have to cover the bag on some groundballs, where collisions are a very real possibility. With all the recent concern for their safety, I am wondering if designated fielders for the pitchers will come into play. From the last few years, the thought of pitchers carrying another skill besides throwing a baseball (such as hitting a baseball) suddenly seems unthinkable. And pitchers have reduced time on the field compared with hard playing third basemen etc. Rotations see pitchers throw every 5th or 6th day now and only on average 5 or 6 innings lately. It occurred to me that even back in the 70’s, most pitchers would have likely voted not to take their turn at the plate, (just like today), with exceptions such as Rick Rhoden, who could rake! It was well received by me that some of those guys stepped up and came through in the batters box.

    For me, I guess it also comes down to the part about “hiding” good hitters who are are bad fielders (DH slot). Rosters have forever had one dimensional types. To think that baseball should hide the awkwardness of one dimensional play is to consider hiding the weak fielding Babe Herman when flyballs were conking off his head. I just think his exposure was part of that player as a whole—great hitter, terrible fielder. That became baseball legend, and gave old time seam-heads something to talk about. The conversation about inept, as well as brilliant play, is really cultural, with water cooler grumblings from generation to generation. Baseball hitting is failure 7 out of 10 times, when playing it at nearly the best level. To me, baseball is supposed to have imperfection. Flashes of occasional greatness make phenomenal occasions that much more epic. That gives it character. I guess I like the struggle of the weak hitting pitcher or the weak fielder trying to hold his own–all 9 position players fending for themselves at bat and in the field, with each a rugged individualist contributing differently, but still having similar responsibilities. For instance, catchers may have some of the most physically demanding responsibilities, but it is great to see Molina take his strong hacks at the plate and no one suggests that catchers should be exempt from hitting due to heavy defensive workload. At least, I hope not. For me, if the NL adopts the DH, baseball will lose that traditional (and yes…old fashioned) thread to the past, and pitchers will seem more distant and remote as members of the team.

    I would rather not see DH style of baseball in the NL become all about homerun contests, and turning it into a beer softball league. How the idea that adding a DH makes the game more exciting is lost on me. I am excited in low scoring pitchers duels with great defense, as well as slugfests. But for offense oriented fans, the added DH does not even statistically show much difference in offensive output (about one extra run every 2 games) and it takes away the idea that pitching, fielding, strategic plays such as sacrifices, squeeze plays, hit and run, stolen bases, good bullpen work, and managerial manipulations are entertaining. With all those fans from LA in the 1960’s flocking to see the low scoring Dodgers, what did those fans see then that some fans of today do not see as entertainment?

    I also think that pitchers hitting shows a level of drama to see if these non dedicated hitters can somehow break free for hits, which to me, seem more exciting when they happen for a pitcher because they are an unexpected breakthrough. When a pitcher bunts, I also like to see the attempt of runners trying to beat throws down to 2nd base on attempted sacrifices. Then, the idea that pitchers should come to the plate as penance for hitting opposing batsmen is also lost with DH. I am less concerned with adding 1 or 2 extra hits per game from the added DH hitting spot, than seeing the justice (and actually the drama) of pitchers facing off at the plate following their own HBP, like Gibson and Drysdale did. And sometimes Gibson and Drysdale went deep, always a fun thing to see from a pitcher. With the idea that all 9 players on the field have responsibilities of offense and defense, some are great fielders and lousy hitters, and vice versa, like Babe Herman. Pitchers were part of that equation for me in the NL, since I started watching baseball in 1973.

    There are not as many of us left who still appreciate seeing Ken Holtzman hit a double in Oakland Coliseum or Luis Tiant hitting a double at Fenway, during the WS. The big push has been to gain more fans for MLB, but I think people with short attention spans have trouble embracing baseball, and baseball tries unnecessarily hard to court them. Regardless of new bell and whistle rules, baseball is pastoral. I think MLB is pursuing the “woman that will never go out with you” syndrome, when MLB has many others who will “go out ” with them. There are still many baseball fans willing to attend games from multiple generations, because regional representation makes it popular as a tribal ritual from city to city. I think that MLB revenue is doing well, except the pandemic was a damaging hit. I can’t convince DH backers that the DH does not make the game more exciting. They need that added projection of hitting (real and imagined). Those DH types and traditionalists like me seem to be the only ones carefully paying attention to the DH issue.

    At least we can all agree that it is great to see live baseball this season.

    Thanks for taking the time to read through my considerations.
    Ken Finnigan

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    • April 17, 2021 at 5:06 pm
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      Bartolo Colon hitting his first career home run at 42 is all I need to convince me that pitchers should hit. Watching people who are bad at their job be trying their hardest at it anyways is a part of baseball. It makes the game, if not more “action packed,” more interesting. Baseball is a decidedly more relaxed sport than football or basketball, and by increasing the role of specialists in the game it moves away from that niche.

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    • April 17, 2021 at 5:52 pm
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      This is a very interesting comment because although I dislike and might even despise the thought of entertaining designated hitters in the NL, I could never so eloquently put into words why that would be. That’s not to say that I agree with the entirety but it was nice to read something that had been given so much thought and communicated so effectively.

      I agree wholeheartedly that the recent focus on the fragility of pitchers feels weird to me within baseball. I clearly have no match on your historical knowledge of the game or its players but even in recent years it seems very obvious that pitchers can and will hit, including those that you mentioned as well as Shohei Ohtani. Obviously he has had varying success riddled with a number of injuries but even his most recent scare was due to fielding, not hitting or running. I understand that the game elevates in its level of play the more years humans observe, learn, and play it. In theory, pitchers might exert more to deliver the same effectiveness on the mound as Ruth might have over 200 pitches in the early 20th century. However, I find it difficult to believe that the DH solves that issue to a significant degree and it seems that’s true. I wasn’t able to find your source but adding half a run a game doesn’t seem worth it.

      I think the other point that hits the nail on the head is that pitchers should have more responsibility than just pitching. Firstly, they do, they have to field and it clearly affects games. The Dodgers-Padres game had a recently converted second baseman come into pitch in the 12th after exhausting their bench who forgot to go cover first base. I think batting is similar, it’s another contribution to the game and one that pitchers tend to be very good at until college or even the minors when they exclusively focus on pitching. I think it’s very exciting to see a hitter who isn’t doing too well hit and that is many pitchers. Along with that, squeeze plays and well placed bunts to advance runners feel integral to the game for me. I like the quirkiness of baseball and I feel like in many sports you have to go all out. A running back should get the most yards possible and in games like soccer and ice hockey, there are many fans who enjoy teams that can pass well, which I would liken to sac flys and bunts.

      Many people argue that the DH position allows older players to extend their careers but I don’t know that this is a good thing. There is no particular reason for a player to have their career extended if they cannot still perform in all aspects of the game. Or you can make the tradeoff as you were talking about, putting in great offensive talent that might struggle in the field.

      I agree that baseball is trying to chase an audience that they may never capture but I also think that it isn’t a good argument to keep it the way things are.

      One thing that I have sadly come to realize is that there might be a large enough contingent of people who want to standardize the leagues (which is wholly unnecessary) that a compromise might have to be made. I haven’t fully explored the topic but there are currently experiments with only allowing a DH to stay in for the starting pitcher. Although it doesn’t make me as happy as just leaving the DH out of everything, it decreases the value of holding someone on the roster who can only hit for maybe 6 innings a game and incentivizes longer outings at the plate. It still allows room for managerial manipulations as well as good bullpen work and it’s as they say, a good compromise is one in which both sides come out unhappy. I think it might sate those who need the idea of more hitting in the MLB while maintaining some of the quirk and tradition of baseball. I’d be curious to hear what you think.

      I’m sure this did not come out nearly as focused or well put as your comment but I’d be curious to hear what you think about that proposition and I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

      Eli

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  • April 18, 2021 at 2:42 am
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    Eli…the problem I have with the “DH accompanying starting pitcher” compromise is that it still will allow one player starting at DH to be hidden from fielding on the diamond for a guesstimated 6 innings that it takes for relief pitching to enter the game. Also, it will still essentially shield the starting pitchers from doing much, if any hitting at all. And from the previous comment of the Bartolo Colon homerun, we would be deprived of starters like Colon performing unpredictable feats of success. Even tonight, a starting pitcher played a key role in a marquee game, when the Dodgers Kershaw drove in the games first run with a bases loaded walk with 2 outs in what turned out to be 2-0 game, edging the opposing Padres starter, Yu Darvish. Oddly, Darvish even smashed a solid liner with what looked like a hit for a moment, despite his .094 lifetime BA and his apprehension of pitchers hitting. I also have misgivings about complicated baseball rules, such as the extra inning runners on 2nd base. That rule is a discussion for a different thread, but I believe the “starting pitcher” compromise will muddy up long played baseball rules that do not need to be recalibrated with more complicated sets of rules. This brings me to your other comment of standardizing the leagues with the same rule, one way or another. It will seem to alienate either the traditionalists or the DH backers. I would think the game can continue to exist as it has for the last 48 years, with each league supplying their own rule–one league excluding DH, and one including it. That way, both sides have more of what they want than the starting pitcher compromise. Suffice to say if I had the final decision on this, I would prefer both leagues abolish the DH. However, it just seems like the only way that we might bring all parties to a compromise is if we continue to see the aging hitting stars in the AL and the NL with young newcomers that have to field their positions, and pitchers taking their respective hacks. The quirkiness that has always been a part of baseball may actually remain intact by the separate rules for each league, which gives each league its own style. Each league has always seemed to have its own distinctness, which is a good thing when the World Series pits these two distinct styles. Even now, with what I would consider unnecessary interleague games making the MLB seem more monolithic, that distinctness of leagues gets maintained by the two separate rules.

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  • April 19, 2021 at 7:32 am
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    One rule for all of baseball. Either DH or no DH. Can’t have two separate rules for American and National because it ruins the game. DH would make stop pitchers from injuries on the bases.

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  • April 19, 2021 at 1:08 pm
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    To Joe Brofsky. If this is the same Dentist–Dr. Joe Brofsky, you are good friends with my brother-in-law Jim. Back to your point, I would respectfully disagree. I used to believe that the two leagues should be unified with the same rule, but then I realized that baseball has functioned in the last 48 years with the split on the DH rule. Furthermore, I think that alienation of entire swaths of fans will occur if we consolidate into one or the other league rule. For the sake of players unions and owners, I think the split of rule works. Regarding injuries to pitchers, I have always found that as a selective argument. Catchers probably take the most physical punishment during games but we do not see an outcry to shield them from injury. I think pitchers are just as strong now as they were in 1975. They are pro athletes. Injuries can occur in any sport. Pitchers should be able to run. I also have not seen a rash of injuries on the bases. That remains constant to pitchers and other players.

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