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.