Why the National League Should Adopt the Designated Hitter
Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams said, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Every player dreams of hitting his way to a .300 batting average, a tell of the successful hitter. Yet, a .300 hitter does not get a hit 70% of the time he steps into the batter’s box. Ted Williams is perfectly accurate. Despite the statistical probabilities, every fan and hitter views an at-bat not in terms of what will most likely happen, but with what could happen. This is the mysterious and majestic quality of the baseball hitter. It is this reverence in which the idea of the designated hitter receives such regard by its proponents. By examining the conditions that warranted its implementation, one discovers the beneficial impact that increased offense has on the baseball’s integrity and financial well-being, arguing for its adoption by the National League.
Babe Ruth ruined baseball. The excitement generated from his slugging prowess changed the game forever. If the players before him were mere infantry of the sport, he was the atomic bomb that revolutionized the game. Before him, the game of baseball was boring and uneventful. In his book The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Alan Schwarz describes the bleakness of baseball pre-Ruth. “Baseball in the teens…had basically degenerated into tedious, daily pitcher’s duels. Runs scored one at a time, manufactured piecemeal by the steal-and-sacrifice style…” (44). There was no excitement, no overt drama. Nothing warranted die-hard fascination from the game’s fans. Baseball needed a savior.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth would revive baseball, his bat would be his Lazarus, and he would turn the game into what it currently is—a game of offense. Even those with scarce interest in sports have heard his name uttered among conversations of legendry. The most common association with the mythical hitter is the homerun. By June of 1919, roughly mid-way through the baseball season, Ruth hit his 11th homerun against future hall of fame pitcher Walter Johnson. In fifteen years prior to that hit, no player in the American League had more than 12 home runs in an entire season. Babe Ruth became a star.
Ruth’s power was unprecedented, if not under appreciated. Schwarz writes, “Home runs at that time were like triples today—freak hits that were too rare to be fully appreciated” (45). However, the spectacle of the home run grew with Ruth’s popularity. In 1920, he would hit 54 home runs. He hit 59 one year later. Ruth and his offensive explosion altered the fan base of baseball. Schwarz describes:
The fans Ruth attracted were no the die-hards who put up with the soporific game that baseball had become before and during [World War I]. These new fans who wanted to see runs score, and relished the thrill of watching Ruth swing mightily to make that happen (47).
There was now drama and excitement in baseball. But, perhaps the most ironic aspect to Ruth’s legend comes from knowing his initial role in the sport. The original position of the man that would launch baseball into an era of offensive power, drama, and statistics was that of the archenemy of the baseball hitter—he was a pitcher.
If only every pitcher had the potential for power that Ruth did. General Managers and their team of scouts would purge the U.S. (and every other country, for that matter) of these anomalies for their rosters. However, the game of baseball has evolved over the years since Babe Ruth launched baseballs into mobs of spectators. The offensive efficacy of pitchers has decreased over the years to the near point of embarrassment. Political columnist, and an avid baseball fan, George F. Will goes so far to refer to many of them as “laughable” (not all pitchers are atrocious: Livan Hernandez has a lifetime .234 batting average, Dontrelle Willis, .222). However, most pitchers do not have the talent with the bat that these pitchers do. Despite this, traditionalists remain skeptical of, arguably, the most radical alteration to the game of baseball—the designated hitter.
The reason for the designated hitter is a logical one. The early part of the 1960’s brought the famous home run race involving New York Yankee great Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs in 1961. This culminated an impressive offensive performance in the preceding decade. G. Richard McKelvey recounts the offensive explosion occurring in baseball in his book All Bat, No Glove: A History of the Designated Hitter. He calculated that during the 1950’s, major league teams had combined for an average of 17.7 hits and 8.8 runs per game (McKelvey 9). As such, the commissioner of baseball after the 1962 season, Ford Frick, persuaded the rules committee of Major League Baseball to enlarge the strike zone, so pitchers would have an advantage against the prevalent offensive potency of their counterparts. This, combined with an increase in the use of relief pitchers by their managers (as batters have a more difficult time adjusting to numerous pitchers in a game as opposed to one, or two), stifled offensive production. In 1968, the combined major league batting average dropped to .237, the second lowest in the century (McKelvey 12). The plan to “equalize” the offense-defense relationship had backfired, and the American League felt the brunt of the force. In 1971, the NL had topped the AL by 129 runs, and they stretched that lead to 824 in 1972 (McKelvey 16). Separate was not equal.
The fans were well aware of the offensive disparity between the two leagues. Without an offensive race that Roger Maris or a Babe Ruth could provide, fans were reluctant to take in a baseball game at American League ballparks. Eight of the twelve AL clubs reported that they had finished in the red in 1972. However, that same season, the NL had nine of its twelve teams attracted over a million fans, compared to three in the AL (McKelvey 19-20). American League owners began to look awfully hard at the different designated hitter appropriations in their minor league affiliates. Finally, by the start of the 1973 season, the American League went ahead with the designated hitter. This change to the rules of baseball was the first in eighty years, when the pitching mound was moved from fifty feet to sixty feet, six inches.
The President of the National League, Charles “Chub” Feeney was opposed to such a dramatic alteration. “Our League doesn’t believe in change for change’s sake. The people know when a tight situation is coming up and it’s fun to sit back and try to figure out who the manager is going to hit for the pitcher. The baseball fan likes to second-guess the manager.” (McKelvey 24). The DH eliminates a piece of strategy whereby the manager must weigh the option of removing a pitcher from the batting lineup for the sake of a pinch-hitter. The pinch-hitter is later replaced by a relief pitcher when the team moves to defense. The “second-guessing” comes into play when one must debate whether a starting pitcher’s performance is more beneficial to a team than their offensive replacement. A close game in late innings makes this an especially intriguing scenario. The opinion of Feeney echoes common, modern objections to the DH. George F. Will summarizes the protests of those opposed to the DH. “The three arguments against the DH are: Tradition opposes it, logic forbids it, and it is anti-intellectual because it diminishes strategy” (58).
Players themselves are split over the decision. In his book Pure Baseball: Pitch by Pitch for the Advanced Fan, former player Keith Hernandez writes:
…if you believe there’s more to baseball than offense, if you believe that a lot of interesting ramifications flow from the fact that your most important player—your pitcher—is, by way of contradiction, probably a weak hitter and that having him bat for himself, or not bat for himself, makes the game more complicated in a dozen ways, then you’re with me (196).
However, the argument against the DH that it minimizes strategy is not universally shared. George F. Will posed this very question to Tony LaRussa, then manager of the Oakland Athletics (LaRussa led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series championship in 2006) in his book Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball“: "Warming to his defense of the DH, he says that handling a pitching staff—perhaps a manager’s most important task—is tougher in the American League. ‘Every decision you make in the American League regarding your pitching staff is based solely on who you think should pitch to the next hitter, or in the next inning. In the National League you get certain times when the decision is taken right out of your hands’” (59). The DH doesn’t eliminate strategy—it only alters it. Will grasps this point:
In some ways the DH makes managing more difficult. Again, most pinch-hitting situations are obvious. What often is far from obvious is when to remove pitchers who never need to be removed to increase offense. That is an American League manager’s problem (59).
There is another distinction between AL and NL ball play. When pitchers are in a lineup the offense needs to be more aggressive to compensate for the inadequate hitting pitchers. Because NL lineups have only eight adequate hitters, one less then in AL lineups, offensive risk becomes more acceptable, namely, through the use of stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. This leaves the prototypical American League third base coach with less responsibility. In his book The Hidden Game of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime, Paul Dickson discusses this phenomenon:
The number of offensive signs…in the American League dramatically declined with the advent of the designated hitter in 1973. Baseball historian Andy McCue interviewed several third-base coaches in 1989. He was told by men in both leagues that there were considerably fewer signs given in the early and middle innings of American League games…‘Taking an extra base [via base stealing] is also a one-run strategy, and since an AL third base coach never has to contemplate a pitcher in the on-deck circle as a runner approaches third, he is much freer to put up the stop sign’ (132).
National League lineups require more adverse risk that ultimately diminishes offensive performance. Should the NL adopt the DH, the league would find a minimal need to compensate for inadequate hitting pitchers by sacrificing needed outs through base stealing and sacrifice bunting.
Just as fans flocked to the offensive mammoth that was Babe Ruth, so did they return to the American League ballparks after the implementation of the DH. The American League became the league of power, the home run, the “long ball.” The National League, maintaining the traditional interpretation of the rules and the affirmation of the “intellectual” aspect of the game, was (and still is) known for “small ball,” because of the lack of reliance on pure power in favor of meager strategy. In 1980, well-known Washington Post sports columnist Tom Boswell compared the two leagues eight years after the American League implemented the DH. He wrote that the AL has scored 10.7 percent more runs per team, almost as great as the 12.7 percent that the NL had prior to the DH adoption (McKelvey 65). Accordingly, the AL surpassed the NL in the growth of fan attendance. Between 1973-1982, the regular season attendance increased by 64% in the AL. There was only a 28% increase in the National League (McKelvey 75). The fans liked watching offense, just as they did with Babe Ruth.
The American League is not the sole custodian of the DH. In fact, it seems that most baseball organizations agree with the rule. In the well-regarded Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game, Daniel Okrent describes the prevalence of the DH in baseball. “Still, by 1982, only the National League, and Japan’s Central League, allowed pitchers to hit. In every other baseball league in existence, from Little League and high schools through all of the American minor leagues, the DH rule prevailed” (133, emphases mine). The National League is behind the times.
The original desire for the DH rule was to rectify the dominance of pitchers. Pitching has become a more specialized phenomenon within the sport since the game’s inception. In the early days, it would not be uncommon for a starting pitcher to work into the ninth inning. Their descendents, on the other hand, do not measure up to the mettle of their ancestors. In 1901, 87.3 percent of all games were completed by the starting pitcher. In 1988 only 14.8 were. In 1989 only 11.4 were (Will 135). Why might this happen? George F. Will offers the opinion that the difference the DH makes has attributed the 46% decrease in the number of complete games between the years 1978 through 1987 (Will 135). Will suggest a correlation between the DH rule and the increased usage of relief pitchers. With the addition of more potent hitter replacing a less-adequate one (the pitcher), pitchers would not have the luxury of an “assured” out. However, the addition of one sole hitter can’t solely account for the 46% decline in complete games. If part of the “intellectual” aspect of National League ball is deciding when to replace a starting pitcher with a pinch hitter, then if there was evidence to suggest that pitchers have decreased in hitting competency, one could argue that managers are “forced” to pinch hit more often, requiring more relief pitchers.
Comparing statistics is one of the more difficult undertakings in baseball. How does one compare the offensive performance between two, or more, players? It is not cut and dry as one might think. For instance, managers will often create a lineup where a proficient hitter will bat before a well-known “slugger.” The rationale is that the opposing pitcher would most likely prefer to avoid the slugger. As such, the pitcher will be careful not to walk the batter preceding the slugger, giving him better pitches from which he can hit. However, if the hitter is in, say, the eight spot (usually before the pitcher in the lineup) will most likely not receive hittable pitches—at least ideally—because, even if he should draw a walk, the opposing pitcher will face the opposing pitcher, a far less formidable foe. Comparing a hitter who bats before a “slugger” and one before a pitcher would not yield a truly accurate comparison—the differing variables surrounding their plate appearance are too strong.
Comparing hitters from different generations is even more difficult. How does one account for the different sizes of ballparks, the lack of night games, a shorter season, even a different baseball between decades? There is no scientific way to perfectly “normalize” every variable, and no way to accurately compare different hitters. However, statisticians do try.
One such statistician is David Gassko who, in his February 2007 article “Hitting Pitchers,” which appeared on the online journal The Hardball Times, looked at this very question. He first examined the combined offensive performance of pitchers. He found that pitchers, as a whole, batted .132 in 2006 (the mean of the best and worst MLB team averages was .271). However, Gassko wanted to examine the offensive performance of pitchers in relation to their fielding contemporaries throughout history. Gassko describes his process:
I calculated the [offensive performance] for each player in each season from 1871 to 2005, using whatever statistics were available [this affirms the lack of statistics recorded in the nineteenth century as opposed to the prevalence of modern statistical observation]…I then classified each player in each season as either a pitcher (if he made at least one appearance as a pitcher that year) or a hitter (if he did not), and calculated the league average [offensive performance] BA for both pitchers and hitters…Pitchers were compared to the pitcher average in calculating their runs above average, which were corrected for park factor and then into wins above average to adjust for varying run environments (Hardball Times).
Below is a line graph displaying the results that Gassko found in his research and analysis.
Although occasional spikes from year to year, there is a clear trend of descending pitcher offensive performance with that of fielding hitters. Pitchers are worse hitters now than they were at the game’s inception.
It appears George F. Will’s description of the hitting abilities of pitchers as “laughable” is not so unwarranted. Although the National League maintains the game’s tradition and intellectual dynamic as an essential rationale for avoiding what the majority of other baseball leagues have adopted, one has evidence that NL teams focus too much on the mere words of baseball’s tradition instead of the game’s current spirit and actuality. Of course the original rules of the game stipulated for pitchers to bat, they were actually competent in that day! They no longer are. Fans respond to offense, offense that the designated hitter can provide. The American League exemplifies this point perfectly. Should the NL adopt the designated hitter, they would see similar results, as their fans would see baseball for what it was intended—with nine adequate hitters; not eight.
Works CitedBoswell, Thomas. “Time to End 9th-Bat Split.” The Washington Post 31 July 1980, sec. 6.
Dickson, Paul. The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sing-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime. New York: Walker & Co., 2003.
Gassko, David. “Hitting Pitchers.” Chart. The Hardball Times. 25 Feb. 2007 Feb. 2007
Hernandez, Keith, and Mike Bryan. Pure Baseball: Pitch by Pitch for the Advanced Fan. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
McKelvey, G. Richard. All Bat, No Glove: A History of the Designated Hitter. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2004.
Okrent, Daniel. Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Schwarz, Alan. The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2004.
Twombly, Wells. “Now the 10th Man.” New York Times Magazine 1 April 1974, 21, 23.
Will, George F. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.