The American League implemented the designated hitter (“DH”) before the start of the 1973 season. The National League did not adopt the DH rule then and continues to this day with the pitcher occupying a slot in the batting order. It’s about time that the National League put the DH rule into effect for all of its games.
The DH debate has been ongoing since at least 1891. The passion demonstrated by both proponents of, and opponents to a universal DH rule has endured over the years. The debating points, which have not changed much over the years, are as follows:
Key arguments in favour of the DH rule
- Pitchers are terrible hitters
- No, pitchers are just awful hitters
Primary arguments against the DH rule
- There is more in-game strategy in a National League contest compared to an American League game
- Less use of the double switch
- A non-DH game contains more “small” ball than a game with a DH
Unless otherwise indicated, all data is from FanGraphs; the period examined covers the 2010-2019 seasons. Where appropriate, charts contain per team data, which addresses the fact that there were 16 National League teams and 14 American League teams during the 2010-2012 seasons. After 2012, there were 15 teams in each league.
Pitchers are terrible hitters
Two charts highlight the inability of pitchers to hit at a tolerable level. Chart 1 presents the disparities between American League designated hitters and National League pitchers. Pitchers made their mark with a K%, batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS of 37.4%, 0.132, 0.163, and 0.331, respectively. To the surprise of few, American League designated hitters surpassed those data points with scores of 21.2%, 0.256, 0.332, and 0.777, respectively.
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Chart 2 shows the average OPS over the past ten seasons by place in the batting order. For each slot from 1 to 8, there is not much difference between the respective OPS of the American League and the National League. However, in the 9th slot, the American League OPS is 0.639; the National League comes in at 0.485. Of that weighted 0.485, National League pitchers contributed a rock-bottom 0.331 OPS (unweighted); real hitters provided an unweighted 0.677 OPS. (OPS weighted by plate appearances).
Furthermore, there has been a significant divergence in the number of intentional walks received between the two leagues. The 10-year average is 40 per season per team in the National League and 27 in the American League. Of that variance, 73% is due to the additional intentional walks given to National League #8 hitters compared to American League #8 batters. Chart 3 illustrates this phenomenon. Pitchers are generally such unproductive hitters that it makes strategic sense to walk the #8 hitter in certain circumstances intentionally. Moreover, over the past ten seasons, no batting position in either league has garnered more intentional walks than the National League’s #8 slot. It is the absence of the DH that has caused this outcome.
No, pitchers are just awful hitters
When it comes to hitting, pitchers are the “Eddie the Eagle” of the batter’s box.
Opponents to a universal designated hitter will point to the more complex pitching-change calculus faced by a Manager in a non-DH game. When deciding to replace a pitcher, Managers in both leagues consider factors such as effectiveness and match-ups. However, National League Managers think about the pitcher’s place in the upcoming batting order and the score of the game. Thus, managing a pitching staff is more challenging in the National League than it is in the American League.
- Over the past ten seasons, the length of the average outing of a National League starter is 5.8 innings; it is 5.7 innings for an American League starter
- Given the emphasis in recent years on pitch counts and the number of times through the batting order, the similarity of innings per outing between the two leagues suggests that the absence of a designated hitter is not as key a factor in the decision of when a Manager replaces the starting pitcher as it may have been in the past
However, the additional tactical element in a National League game still exists for handling the bullpen.
Less use of the double switch
Many DH opponents will cite the impact upon the usage of the double switch as a reason to avoid the adoption of the DH. I think opponents of the DH rule overstate the intricacies of the maneuver; it is not that complicated. It is a standard move when a team wants to push the pitcher’s batting slot as far down the future batting order as possible.
From a data perspective, I was unable to find a source for the usage frequency of the double switch. Thus, I had to make an estimate. For details of the methodology, please refer to the Appendix.
- According to the analysis, a double switch occurs once every four National League, non-DH games. For those four games, on average, there will be 17 plate appearances by National League pitchers
- Therefore, the price to witness one double switch is to endure 17 plate appearances by National League pitchers and their paltry OBP
A non-DH game contains more “small” ball than a game with a DH
Without the designated hitter, DH opponents argue that National League teams have to manufacture runs more than their junior circuit compadres do. Those “small” ball strategies include the following:
- Stolen base attempts
- Scoring a runner from third with less than two outs
- Advancing runners
- Scoring runs from balls in play
- Sacrifice bunts
- Base stealing attempts per team are about the same in both leagues (see Chart 4)
- Per Baseball-Reference, the average success rate of scoring a runner on third with less than two outs is almost identical for the two leagues (National League – 50.2%; American League – 51.0%)
- Concerning that success rate, the total of sacrifice bunts and flies is slightly higher (as a percentage of plate appearances in this situation) in the American League (13.7%) than it is in the National League (13.4%)
- The average success rate of advancing a runner on second with no outs is slightly higher for the American League (54.0%) than it is for the senior circuit (53.8%), according to Baseball-Reference
- In terms of advancing this runner, total sacrifice bunts are marginally lower (as a percentage of plate appearances in this situation) in the American League (5.5%) compared to the National League (6.5%)
- The average runs per team per season from balls in play favours the American League (419) over the National League (414)
Except for sacrifice bunts, there is little difference between the two leagues in terms of playing small ball/manufacturing runs. Therefore, playing with a DH does not lead to a reduction of small ball.
Well, there’s always the increased employment of the sacrifice bunt in the National League compared to the American League. This statement is correct up to a point. However, Chart 5 shows that the number of sacrifice bunt attempts and successful bunts per season per team has been in decline since 2010 in both leagues. This dip is probably due in part to the influence of Sabermetrics.
- American League position players have executed more sacrifice bunts than their National League counterparts every season in the 2010-2019 period (see Chart 6)
- Charts 5 and 6 suggest that National League Managers, similar to their American League brethren, are inclined to use the sacrifice bunt less than it was in the past
- The data also implies that National League Managers have pitchers bunt because they can’t do much else at the plate
The last word
By not having the designated hitter, National League games have some tactical aspects not found in an American League contest. However, pitchers are not competitive MLB hitters; their futility at the plate outweighs the benefits of any incremental strategic elements that are inherent in a non-DH game. Also, except for sacrifice bunts by pitchers, the amount of small ball is very similar in both leagues. Therefore, the National League should adopt the universal designated hitter.