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0 Comments | Nov 18, 2011

On Why the Designated Hitter Rule is an Abomination and should be Abolished Forthwith

timthumb.phpAmericans are positively infatuated with scoring in sports. I don’t mean scoring in the sense of keeping score, though goodness knows there exist more than a few hard-core fans who, not content to simply sit and watch a game, will, instead, labor over every pitch, hit, throw, and error that occurs, writing each down in arcane hieroglyphics on score-sheets, for what possible use afterward one is hard-pressed to imagine. I’m talking here, though, about our national obsession with seeing the score of each sporting contest rise to as high a level as possible. There is something ingrained in our psyche that not only fuels the need for clearly defined winners and losers, but also demands that the actual productive output of each event be both measurable and as large as possible.

It’s the principal reason why soccer has never taken off in this country beyond being a fun activity for your third grade son to participate in after school. No serious American sports fan is going to put up with investing an hour and a half in a game whose outcome might be either a scoreless tie or decided by a one-to-zero score[1]. All those Brazilian and Italian guys running around the soccer pitch, screaming and tearing their shirts off because they scored one point after an hour of play are as foreign in demeanor to us as they are in nationality. Never mind that soccer never stops for commercials, which automatically dooms it in the American market, it’s the profound lack of output that makes it viscerally unacceptable to us[2].

It’s why we like NASCAR, where the lead changes every fifteen seconds, as opposed to Formula One, where overtaking is so rare that they break into regular television programming in Europe whenever it happens. And it’s why the American public never got too terribly agitated over the steroid controversies of a few years back in baseball. Yes, we all agree, at some conceptual level, that tolerating drug use among our professional athletes might be a bad precedent to set for our young people, but there’s no denying that watching all those home runs is sure exciting. All of which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of the designated hitter rule.

The Designated Hitter (DH)[3] is to baseball rather like what the “enforcer” is to hockey, except that he doesn’t get to walk out onto the field and punch one of the opposing team’s players in the face with impunity. Instead, his only function is to hit the ball, either very hard or very reliably, preferably the former[4]. His role is so narrowly defined that when he does get a hit, very frequently (assuming it isn’t a home run) he’s not even allowed to run the bases, often being substituted out for a faster runner[5]. DHs do not play a fielding position. If they were skilled enough to both hit and field, they would be doing it. Quite frequently the DH is an older guy who used to be a position player, but who no longer possesses the required agility, though he can still swing a bat reasonably well.

Since the DH rule’s inception nearly forty years ago, there has been continuous and often acrimonious debate about the relative merits of the game with and without the position. The pro-DH crowd will typically offer some hackneyed argument to the effect that surely it’s more interesting to see a skillful hitter at work than to waste one’s time watching some pitcher (who didn’t even have the common decency to pick a batting helmet that fits) make a lame, half-hearted swing at an oh-and-two fastball. This argument is not without merit, as far as it goes. Problem is, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. However, before proceeding on to the evisceration of the DH rule, allow me to enumerate the other reasons cited by the misguided souls who support it.

Not only is it arguably more entertaining to watch a bona fide hitter at work than someone for whom the task is an annoyance, there is, as well, the genuine risk of injury at the plate, either from being hit by a pitch or perhaps swinging the bat in a bizarre and unpracticed manner[6]. As if that isn’t bad enough, on the off-chance that the pitcher actually manages to get a hit, he is then obliged to run the bases, unless, of course, the manager elects to remove him for a pinch runner, in which case his pitching duties for the duration of that game are over. Not only does running the bases consume energy that the pitcher might otherwise be conserving sitting in the dugout between innings, there is, as well, the potential hazard of sliding into base, particularly if one is inclined to do so head-first[7]. The final argument for the DH rule is that, by asking only that these players hit, it has extended the careers of some otherwise marginal players whose days of fielding are long behind them[8].

I have a theory about the designated hitter rule, one I can neither prove nor which MLB would ever own up to, and it goes back to my opening observations about the American sports enthusiast’s love of high scoring. For the same reason that we don’t particularly care if our athletes are bulked up on steroids, we also don’t care if our pitchers aren’t called upon to hit. The end result is more scoring. Many baseball fans will tell you that they enjoy a good pitcher’s duel, i.e., a game in which there is virtually no hitting or scoring. These people are lying. Their proposition is no more credible than the auto racing fan who denies going to races just to see the wrecks. From that first moment in the schoolyard when everyone gathers around to watch two bullies fighting (but no one tries to stop them), we are brought up to relish the brawling aspect of competition. When it comes to baseball, which is a relatively mild sport compared to football or hockey, the only thing more entertaining than a clutch home run is the occasional bench-clearing brawl between teams, which is, alas, all too infrequent.

So why do I regard the DH rule with such contempt and, in my title, call for its abolition as an abomination? A big part of the answer to this question derives from the fundamental characteristics that distinguish baseball from our other three great American sports. The most important of these differences is that baseball is generally regarded as the most cerebral of our pastimes. Football and hockey are relatively fast-paced and violent to the point of criminality, thriving primarily on the bloodlust of the typical American male. Basketball, on the other hand, is such a juvenile and mind-numbingly repetitive activity that laboratory rats have been trained to do it[9]. Also, in the case of football and basketball, the games are played by unnaturally enormous human beings who spend most of their non-playing time struggling to find cars they can fit into and suits they can wear without tearing the seams apart.

One of the many reasons why the common man can identify with baseball a bit more readily is that, with a few notable exceptions, most of the players are of reasonably ordinary stature. When one encounters a player up-close, instead of saying “Good Christ! What have they been feeding this guy?” (a common enough reaction upon meeting a pro football or basketball player), the reaction is more likely to be along the lines of “I could almost do that,” which, while delusional, is not completely divorced from reality, questions of speed and skill notwithstanding. Another important distinguishing aspect of baseball is that each player is called upon to perform at least three pretty much unrelated activities in order to be regarded as an excellent player. One must hit the ball reasonably well[10], play a position in the field competently, and run with some measure of speed and acumen on the base paths. Don’t get me wrong here—there are precious few players who excel at all three of these endeavors, but most manage at least two[11]. It’s the breadth of responsibility, and the unpredictability with which each skill will be called upon, that is part of what makes baseball special, all of which goes for pitchers too. And while every position player is, periodically, expected to throw the ball to another player with accuracy and speed, it is the pitcher’s unique responsibility to do so more than one hundred times in each game. Calling upon him to strike at the ball with a fat wooden stick once every two or three innings, like everybody else on the team, is simply part of the job description, or at least it ought to be. The fact that pitchers are historically lousy at the job[12] only adds to the richness of the game.

A slight digression is called for at this point. It completely eludes me why it is that pitchers are historically such poor hitters. Prior to 1973 they all had to do it. The most popular explanation is that starting pitchers only take the field every fifth day, which would seem to limit their at-bat opportunities[13]. Still, though, I find this an implausible excuse for the phenomenon. There are, after all, plenty of pinch hitters who come off the bench but once or twice a week and still manage to do a passable job of making contact with the ball. Seems to me there’s a strong chicken-and-egg element to this problem[14]. Somewhere back at the start of baseball (presumably even before the ‘bambino’ proved that it was at least possible for pitchers to hit), the word got out that, as a class, pitchers weren’t going to be any good at this particular field of endeavor. With the bar thus lowered, they stopped taking batting practice or otherwise being coached in hitting, and created an (as it were) major league self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also worth noting here that many major league pitchers come out of college programs where they played other positions and, so, were required to bat as often as everyone else on the team. Again, it makes little sense, but there you go.

Even more compelling than the sheer human pathos of watching an utterly unqualified player attempt to hit a baseball[15] are the strategic elements of the situation. One of the inconvenient rules of non-DH baseball is that if you want to stay in the game and continue to play your position, you are obliged to bat when your turn comes around. Almost without exception, pitchers get put last in the nine-man batting order, precisely because they are so poor at it. Nevertheless, their turn still inexorably arrives, like every other player, either three or four times in a typical game.[16] Very frequently, most typically in the final three innings of a game, the pitcher’s turn at bat will come up at an inauspicious moment like, for example, when their team is losing by three runs[17] and they have two men on base with two outs. If it is, say, the sixth or seventh inning and the pitcher is having a reasonably good game[18], the manager is placed in the dubious position of either letting his pitcher hit, with attendant offensive consequences, or substituting a genuine hitter into his spot, but then being obliged to bring in a relief pitcher, who may or may not be equipped to do as good a job as the starting pitcher. If the team happens, as well, to have a marginal bullpen, this makes the substitution decision all the more fraught. And, of course, there is no guarantee that the pinch hitter who takes the pitcher’s place at the plate is going to produce a hit either. It’s simply a matter of comparative mathematical probabilities. That said, many a manager has torn his hair out after yanking a competent pitcher for a pinch hitter, only to have the pinch hitter ground into an inning-ending double play.

In addition to the substitution conundrum, there are a few other, more subtle, factors that come into play when a manager is deciding whether or not to substitute a pinch hitter for his pitcher or not. In the normal course of a game, the pitcher not only uses between-inning time in the dugout to rest his arm for the ensuing inning, but also to psychologically prepare for the upcoming slate of opposing batters. Calling upon him to bat, in addition to interfering with this regrouping time (both physical and mental), presents him with the strong likelihood of being humiliated yet again before tens of thousands of people, and raises, as well, the aforementioned risk of injury while batting or, potentially, being obliged to run around the bases. On an even more subtle note, since hitting requires the use of an entirely different set of muscles and tendons than does pitching, it is by no means certain that a pitcher will perform as well on the mound following an inning in which he’s come up to bat[19].

All of which leads to the indisputable conclusion that the non-DH game is a far richer and more entertaining experience for the fan (this one, at any rate). And while we’re on the topic of entertainment, it’s worth a word about interleague play, i.e., games in which American and National League teams play each other. By MLB rules, when teams from different leagues play each other, the home team’s rules apply. This means that during two short periods of each season, the fans are treated to games in which American League pitchers are obliged to hit National League pitching. Bearing in mind that these are, then, individuals who almost never touch a bat unless it’s to see what one feels like, the five or six at-bats that each such pitcher gets during a regular season are hysterically entertaining, even if such entertainment comes entirely at the pitcher’s expense.

I should have stated at the outset that I was driven to write all of this down when I first heard that the Houston Astros are going to be demoted to the American League starting with the 2013 season. As my hometown team of the past decade or so, I felt personally and egregiously offended by the move, negotiated as part of a transition in team ownership, and agreed upon in a transparent attempt by MLB to balance out the number of teams in each division. This is a laudable goal in its own right, but it comes at the cost of inflicting upon the citizens of Houston, already sorely beset by having to support an abysmal team, even grimmer entertainment prospects for the future. It doesn’t help matters any that the team has no one on the roster who’s good enough with a bat to serve in the DH role.

[1] Piece of advice to MLS supporters—modify the net so that it is about ten feet wider. Either that or make goalies play with their hands tied behind their backs.

[2] Interesting aside – Inasmuch as Americans love high scoring in their sports, it’s a bit curious that cricket has never gotten even a remote foothold in this country, what with their century at-bats and multi-hundred-point scores. I can only attribute it to the insufferable length of matches (particularly test matches, which drone on for five full days (taking time out for tea, of course), at the end of which a perfectly plausible/gentlemanly outcome is a draw). Aside to the aside—It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that the Church of England invented cricket in order to graphically instill in its adherents the concept of eternity.

[3] The Designated Hitter rule, or Major League Baseball Rule 6.10, was enacted in 1973 and adopted by (only) the American League. Fun DH trivia—The very first designated hitter ever in MLB was Ron Blomberg of the NY Yankees, who, on April 6, 1973, came up to bat against Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant. Blomberg rather missed the point of the new job, however, and got a walk.

[4] Very few in baseball achieve both simultaneously, despite the fact that hitting is their only job.

[5] This statement is more likely to be true late in a game when the DH is not likely to come around again in the batting rotation.

[6] Andy Pettite, the ace left-hander traded from the Yankees to the Astros in 2004, spent a large portion of that initial season on the disabled list because he threw out his pitching elbow during his very first at-bat in the National League (which was probably the first at-bat of his entire professional career, come to think of it).

[7] Head-first, in this case, being a misnomer, since all head-first slides are, in fact, arms/hands first.

[8] Never mind that keeping these reluctant retirees on the roster blocks the way for up-and-coming young players awaiting their shot at the majors.

[9] I’m not making this up. Check it out at Try teaching a rat to hit a low-and-away slider sometime.

[10] A surprisingly low bar, actually, considering that failing to hit the ball two out of every three attempts (which would net you a .333 batting average) is still regarded as excellent performance at the professional level.

[11] Oddly enough, speed on the base paths is the rarest of the three.

[12] With the notable exception of Babe Ruth, who apparently was good at everything in baseball short of selling the hotdogs.

[13] A situation exacerbated by the infrequency with which starters pitch a complete game.

[14] Which came first—pitchers as inherently poor hitters or pitchers who no longer attempt to be decent hitters?

[15] A fact just dripping with irony, since the pitcher who is attempting to make contact with the ball routinely falls victim to precisely the sort of aerodynamic shenanigans that he spends the rest of the game inflicting on the other team’s hitters. I am at a loss to conjure up any examples of systemic irony in our other three major sports.

[16] Assuming they pitch the entire game, which is, in fact, quite rare in modern baseball. But, still, they’re likely to get at least two at-bats before getting yanked.

[17] Which is almost certainly the fault of the less-than-stellar pitching of the very guy standing at the plate with the bat in his hands. Yet more irony.

[18] See previous footnote.

[19] For which reason more than one pitcher has adopted the approach of never removing the bat from his shoulder, regardless of how high quality a pitch may come his way.

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