Zack Greinke

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Good riddance to pitchers batting: VIVA THE UNIVERSAL DH!


Wednesday night we learned that the proposed “framework” for a deal discussed by Rob Manfred and Tony Clark includes the designated hitter rule for the 2020-21 seasons. As Bill noted last night, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on December 1, 2021, so it’s not hard to imagine — after 1.27 (or whatever) seasons of proof-of-concept — the DH becoming permanent in the NL from now on.

Good. Because pitchers batting in the National League is a dumb rule. A positively stupid and senseless rule. A rule that, if we were starting anew today, we’d never adopt. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

I shall now list all of the reasons why pitchers batting is dumb and contend with all of the (almost always bad) arguments in favor of the idiotic practice.

1. Pitchers Cannot Hit a Lick 

We know this. It’s an objective, verifiable truth. Even the pitchers who we laud for being “good hitters” suck.

Zack Greinke is generally considered the best hitting pitcher going these days. His career hitting line is .225/.263/.337 (61 OPS+). Madison Bumgarner is often called a “dangerous hitter.” His career line is .177/.228/303 (43 OPS+). Bumgarner’s  line, by the way, is only slightly better than that of guys like Mario Mendoza and Ray Oyler who are historic punchlines for their futility at the plate. Those are the best ones.

Heck, pitchers being so damn terrible at hitting is even accepted by people who passionately argue against the DH. Every DH argument since May 7, 2016 has mentioned that one home run Bartolo Colon managed to hit that time. When debating the topic people routinely say “why would you deprive us of this?!” and share the GIF of his horrible, lucky-as-all-get-out swing. Yes, they cite one home run amidst tens of thousands hit since then. The only reason it’s notable, of course, is because it’s a complete aberration. The only reason people think it was good is because it came off the bat of a guy who, in 21 seasons, managed to hit only .084/.092/.107 (-46 OPS+). Colon has more families than he has home runs. He should not, ever, be the poster boy for pitchers hitting. Not that other pitchers are that much better.

Anti-DH types often argue that things would be better if pitchers actually tried harder. Took more batting practice, say. They argue that a team that actually exploited the inefficiency of poor-hitting pitchers and truly made an effort to make their pitchers better hitters that they’d gain a competitive advantage.

Nah. That’s not true at all. As Howard Megdal of FanGraphs noted last year, there is no suggestion, statistical or otherwise, that such an effort would work. Rather, it’s simply the case that pitchers — scouted and drafted for their pitching talent, not their hitting — are unable to adjust to major league quality hitting. The numbers bear this out: despite the overall athleticism of pitchers increasing, there has been no improvement in pitcher batting stats in the past 50 years. Indeed, it’s gone the other direction, with at least one big league pitcher suggesting that teams are now trying harder to actually pitch pitchers tough. Suggesting that, in the past, they went kind of easy on them, not taking them seriously.

This is reflected non-statistically too. Major league teams — which employ analytics people who would walk 1,000 miles across a blazing desert if it meant finding even a scintilla of a competitive edge — make zero effort to teach their pitchers to hit. They just don’t see the point in it anymore. They can’t do it and, even if they play in the NL, they’re willing to punt pitchers’ hitting ability if it means more time for them to work on what they’re really there for: pitching. If there was any hope that pitchers could become even slightly-less-than-terrible at the plate, teams would be on it. They’re not.

Everyone remembers that one time Bartolo Colon hit a home run. Everyone wants to forget the countless times their team had runners on 2nd and 3rd with two outs and the pitcher struck out on three pitches to end the inning. The latter happens way more often.

2. Pitchers Batting Does Not Enhance In-Game Strategy 

A classic anti-DH argument is that when you have pitchers batting you get more strategy. The double switch! Pinch-hitting! Some exciting bunts! This is all completely overblown, however. And in some cases it’s simply wrong.

As Eno Sarris of The Athletic tweeted yesterday, as of now, a starting pitcher hits for himself 93% of his time or higher until fifth inning, so managers are not doing much thinking about his place in the lineup at all early on. They still bat for themselves 80% if they’ve made it to the fifth inning. In the sixth inning they bat for themselves 48% of the time, so yes, in that instance managers are truly making a judgment call. After that, however, they basically go to a pinch-hitter automatically. As a result, adding a DH to NL contests means removing one (1) decision from the game on average, and that’s in the sixth inning.

But even that dynamic is likely on the downswing. These days teams carry 12 or 13 pitchers and, in this odd 2020 season and likely in the future, rosters will be expanded to allow teams carry even more pitchers. Between that and the rise of the opener and bullpenning strategies, relief pitchers are becoming more and more important all the time. All of those pitching changes means that there will be even fewer strategic calls. When the ninth hole comes up, bam, a pinch hitter will come in, making it functionally as if you have a DH anyway. The “should I or shouldn’t I?!” conundrum of a manager is quickly becoming a thing of the past. 

But even if it wasn’t, the “strategy” the NL game allegedly employs is overrated. It’s not about adding an exciting element fo the game. It’s about dealing with the fact that “hey, our pitcher sucks as a hitter” and mitigating that bad thing. Maybe negativity avoidance is your bag, but as a strategic concern it’s something less-than-inspiring to me.

3. The Universal DH Does Not Logically Require The Replacement of Other Players

Once anti-DH zealots concede that pitchers can’t hit — and even if they grudgingly acknowledge that the strategy argument is overrated — they tend to trot out the old slippery slope fallacy. It goes like this: “OK, fine, replace the pitcher with a DH. Then why not replace a shortstop with a DH? A second baseman? Why not have a whole team of designated fielders and designated hitters?”

That sort of argument sounds compelling, but only for a second. In reality it’s the classic slippery slope fallacy. The belief that, because a step has been taken in one direction there is no way we could reasonably stop the “slide.” With the DH we have a clear standard which arrests the inexorable slide into alleged Designated Damnation: simple math.

There’s a clear, statistically significant delineation between your average hitting pitcher (terrible) and your average hitting position player (substantially better). We have had a nearly 50-year experiment in which every organized baseball league in the world besides the NL and the Japanese Central League has utilized the DH without there being greedy calls for more substitute hitters. Whenever a shortstop or a catcher comes along who simply cannot handle himself even remotely good enough with a bat, there is always someone who can play that position well enough to replace him and solve that problem. The same goes for a guy who can’t field his position but who can hit. There’s always someone who could fit that bill better if a spot for him cannot be found. And, of course, the DH actually solves the problem in the latter case.

Put differently: teams still care if even glove-first shortstops or catchers hit. It’s still important because they still get results by doing so and they can still find ones who can do it. There’s no slippery slope here. There’s a clear, bright line between universally poor-hitting pitchers and position players who can’t hit very well or field very well. A universal DH will not cause some horrible inescapable chain reaction.

4. The Designated Hitter is not a “Gimmick” 

When all of the other arguments fail the anti-DH people tend to fall back on religion. Or at least something close to religion. The passionate belief — the faith — that the DH is unnatural and wrong. That, despite it being around for nearly half a century now, it’s a “gimmick” that goes against the essence of the sport.

I’m not exaggerating here. I once got into a DH argument with a very, very bright friend of mine — a guy I met via sabermetric websites over 20 years ago — who referred to the DH as “an abomination.”  That’s a religious term rooted in the notion of God Himself finding certain things vile. As I’ve had more DH arguments with that friend of mine, he has claimed that, rather than to God or the Bible, the DH is an abomination unto the baseball rule book and the tenet of baseball being a sport of nine players opposing nine players.

Like a lot of religious-based arguments, however, that one is insanely selective and ignores the ever-changing nature of the rule book. The Nine-on-Nine commandment was, obviously, amended in 1973. Hell, the existence of relief pitchers and bench players means that it’s never actually been nine-on-nine anyway. On any given night it’s more like 15 on 13 or something. At least until September when it becomes something akin to 22 on 19. The game is 9-on-9 in only the most hypothetical and theoretical of realms.

That argument also ignores the very history of the DH itself. Even if you want to grant that 1973 is still “recent,” thereby making the DH some sort of newfangled gimmicky — and I’m all for that, actually, as I was born in 1973 and I’m running out of reasons to think that I’m anything but old — it’s not like the notion of the DH was invented in some mint green shag carpeted Holiday Inn conference room right after Nixon was reelected. As Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, has detailed, the idea of the DH has been traced back to at least 1891.

That’s when Pirates owner W.C. Temple and the famous executive J. Walter Spalding discussed the matter and wrote about it in the publication Sporting Life. The premise on which they both agreed: pitchers could not hit and it was a terrible bore to fans and teammates to watch them try. Here’s Spalding, at the time:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

Pitchers were far, far worse hitters than even the worse position players 129 years ago too.  That stuff your dad or your grandpa told you about how, back in their day, pitchers worked on their hitting and were good at it is, like a lot of things they told you, baloney.

Spalding and Temple disagreed on what to do about that problem. Spalding proposed simply skipping the pitcher and using an eight-man lineup. Temple “favored the substitution of another man to take the pitcher’s place at the bat when it came his turn to go there,” which is what we have now in the American League and will, apparently, soon have in all of baseball.

What’s more, the idea of a designated hitter was not merely an exercise for a magazine article. Temple took the matter to the other National League owners and we almost had a DH during the damn Benjamin Harrison administration:

We came very near making it a rule to exempt the pitcher from batting in a game, under a resolution which permitted such exemption, when the captain of the team notified the umpire of such desire prior to the beginning of a game. The vote stood 7 to 5 for.

It would’ve needed eight votes to pass so, as it would do in 1973, when the NL declined to follow the AL into the DH era, the measure just barely failed.

So no: the DH is not some gimmick of the Astroturf age. It was not adopted because the hippies or whatever gave pitchers moral permission to cease trying to hit well. It was aimed at solving a legitimate baseball problem, first proposed well over a century ago. Pitchers have never hit well. The idea of baseball being a 9-on-9 game lest it be an abomination was not a thing even when people used the word “abomination” all the damn time.

Baseball rules were not given to us by Jehovah Himself, carved into stone, infallible. They, and the game’s very nature, have changed pretty constantly. The pitching rubber used to be 45 feet from home plate. A baserunner used to be out if you threw the ball at him and hit him. Pitchers used to bat. Life goes on.

So where does that leave the anti-DH person? With their own personal distaste for the DH and their own personal preference for pitchers hitting. Which, hey, that’s fine as long as you leave it at that. I may not quite get what you like about seeing an unqualified player take some weak, reluctant swings at pitches he has no chance of connecting with while wishing he was anyplace but in the batter’s box, but I’m certainly not going to tell you what to like.

But let’s leave it at that, OK? Let’s not pretend that your aesthetic preferences make them objectively superior and renders them immune to innovation. If the world worked like that we’d all be driving cars with tail fins. Those were boss, sure, but you don’t see anyone arguing that they we should still have them.