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Thoughts on a universal designated hitter

We might see the DH in the NL if there’s a 2020 season

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The designated hitter is one of the most polarizing topics in baseball. On one hand, it makes lots of logical sense. On the other hand, it violates long-standing tradition, which tends to carry a lot of weight in this sport. Reasonable people have significantly different opinions on the matter.

One way or other, the DH could be coming in 2020, even if only temporarily. With the coronavirus pandemic shortening any potential season that might happen this summer, the league and players union may end up agreeing to some special new rules to make everything work. One thing that both sides seem to agree on is a universal DH, reports insider Jon Heyman.

Such a change would be sensible for this year. Some of the proposed plans have featured heavy doses of interleague play, maybe even for over half of all games, and with that unusual schedule it might help to have both leagues playing by the same rules. There’s also the matter of pitcher health, as they will already have to contend with a shorter-than-usual warmup period whenever “spring training” resumes. Letting them focus on just the primary aspect of their job, which already has extreme injury risk on its own, could be beneficial.

But even if the DH is adopted league-wide this year, there will presumably still be the question of whether that should be a permanent change.

As a lifelong fan of an AL team, I support the DH. I think it’s obviously better than the alternative of forcing pitchers to do a non-pitching thing that they’re all terrible at. That’s boring to watch, even after accounting for the occasional Bartolo Colon homer or Brett Anderson single, and it does lead to some extra injuries within a demographic that already leads the sport in getting hurt.

That said, I’ve never felt a great urgency to make this change. I don’t follow any NL teams closely, and my favorite team rarely plays by NL rules, so it just doesn’t affect me — if fans of the other 15 teams prefer a clearly worse way of doing things, then what do I care? To each their own.

A similar sentiment was expressed a couple weeks ago in a series of tweets by writer and podcaster Bill Parker. He premised his thoughts by making clear this wasn’t an advocacy for change, but didn’t pull any punches in countering the usual arguments against the DH. Here’s the full text:

I don’t have a strong feeling about the DH and everyone should like what they wanna like, but man, I just saw some *arguments* against the DH and just none of them hold up to like two seconds of scrutiny ...

... comparing to other sports doesn’t work; there’s no sport that forces elite athletes to do something that has nothing to do with what they’re elite at and at which in fact they’re uniformly terrible ...

... Basically in 1876 the National League was a step above today’s high school teams, so all the pitchers could also hit and play shortstop and all the shortstops could also pitch. Just like now, the slowest slugging first baseman in baseball was definitely a pitcher and SS in HS ...

... but as the game got more popular and players more specialized it became clear that hitting and pitching were just incomparably different skills and the odds of any one person being world-class at both of them were pretty close to zero ...

... Anyway. Also the “strategy” argument is BS. There’s no additional skill involved—bunt if there are runners on, PH if it’s like the sixth or later and an actual hitter has a chance to impact the game. Also RPs have to face 3 hitters now, so we don’t care about strategy anymore

Let’s begin with that first point, about other sports. Football is an easy example, where every position is so specialized that virtually every player is like a DH; almost nobody plays offense and defense, and teams have different players just for different types of kicking. In hockey, the goalie isn’t forced to go on offense several times per game.

Basketball is the best counter-example, where even bad shooters can be forced into taking free-throws, but the worst free-throwers are nowhere near as bad as the worst hitting pitchers. No qualified player has shot under 50% the last three seasons, which means the very worst free-thrower is still at least two-thirds as good as league-average. On the other hand, last season pitchers posted a collective .322 OPS, meaning the average pitcher is just over 40% as good as league-average (.758).

Even Madison Bumgarner, the poster child for letting pitchers hit, has a career OPS of just .532 (about 73% of the .728 league average during that span) and a career wRC+ of 45. In other words, the guy generally cited as the best-hitting pitcher in the sport is about as effective as the worst NBA free-thrower in any given season. In the most recent NBA season, the worst free-thrower (Andre Drummond) shot .575, or 74.5% of average.

No, there’s no cross-sport comparison, and the NBA/free-throw comp doesn’t pass even minor scrutiny. Pitchers hitting are a whole other level of bad. Personally, when I’m paying money to watch pro sports, I’m doing so to see them be good at things.

Parker’s next point, regarding what the game was like in 1876, is presumably meant to counter the argument that pitchers hitting was one of the original rules of the sport and represents how real baseball is meant to be played. But, as he notes, times change and the sport evolves. You could fill volumes with the anachronistic rules and practices that have changed over the decades, mostly for the better. Granted, there should be a good reason for each change, and in this case there is — increased specialization has raised the bar for quality in all aspects of the game at the MLB level. Plenty of players are great at hitting and fielding, but nobody is great at hitting and pitching, so let’s stop asking them to do both.

And it’s not like this is a new experiment. The DH began in 1973, nearly 50 years ago, and it’s going wonderfully. We can thank it for the full greatness of careers from the likes of Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, and Harold Baines, among many others, and on the current Oakland A’s it maximizes the value of Khris Davis. Plenty of today’s NL players could benefit from moving into the role. How many decades does it take before it qualifies as a tradition in its own right? It’s already lasted nearly half of the Modern Era of the league (since 1900). It’s older than free agency.

And finally, the strategy argument, which has always been the most bogus of them all. The anti-DH crowd talks as if having to deal with the pitcher’s spot in the lineup makes every manager a Joe Maddon-level creative genius, but in reality it’s every bit as plug-and-play as the AL game, with well-established conventional wisdom guiding each decision. An NL manager might have to make more moves in a game, but they aren’t necessarily more difficult ones. Meanwhile in the AL, where the starter never needs to be pulled for offensive reasons, the manager more often has to make the tough call of whether to leave him in for another inning purely based on his pitching merit (while the NL manager never had to make that call because he already had to pinch-hit for his starter in the 6th).

I don’t need the DH to be permanently adopted in the NL, and I’ll admit there’s a certain charm to having the leagues separated by different sets of rules. But I also wouldn’t complain if the universal DH arrived tomorrow, and at the end of the day there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a better way to play MLB-level baseball.