The Universal Designated Hitter May Be Here to Stay

We’ll always have his epically improbable 2016 home run, but Bartolo Colon ain’t walking through that door. If the players union and the owners can agree to something along the lines of the latest volley of proposals without immolating themselves in fiery rhetoric — now that they’re at 100% pro rata, it shouldn’t be that difficult, yet here we are — then the days of pitchers hitting are likely at an end. Per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricort, MLB’s most recent proposal includes a universal designated hitter not only for this year, but for 2021, and ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers report the same is true for the union’s latest proposal. Beyond that, as Haudricourt notes, a universal DH is “almost certainly” going to be included in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that takes effect for the 2022 season. Not that hammering out that CBA will be a simple matter given the bad blood between the owners and the union, but it does appear that whenever they get around to playing again, the National League will finally join every other major circuit except Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League in adopting the DH.

The DH has been around since 1973, though its roots go back to the late 19th century. As the role of the pitcher became more important, necessitating they concentrate on improving that aspect of their game, the feeling was that pitchers should be excused from their offensive duties. While movements to adopt a “tenth man” came and went from time to time prior to World War II, it took until the late 1960s, amid declining offenses, for the Triple-A International League and various other minor leagues to begin experimenting. The AL and NL could not agree on whether to adopt the DH; they voted separately, and you know the results. The original plan was that after three years, both leagues would either adopt or discard the rule, but the AL enjoyed the significant bumps in scoring and attendance in the wake of the rule’s adoption, and the two differing brands of baseball were maintained.

That was easy to do so long as there was no interleague play, but the World Series presented an awkward clash. From 1973-75, no DH was used, while from 1976-85, an “Even-Odd” scheme was used, with the DH in the even-numbered years, and since then, the “When in Rome” scheme has been used, with the DH present in AL parks but not NL ones. That scheme was extended to the regular season when interleague play began in 1997. Thus the two brands of baseball have generally coexisted in peace for nearly half a century, albeit not without endless debates contrasting the purity of the game with its need to adapt, as well as the occasional push within the game to move one way or the other. Because the position’s duties tend to be filled by higher-salaried veterans, the Players Association sought the universal DH in negotiations for the 2011 and ’16 CBAs. They didn’t get it either time, but now it’s a useful bargaining chip for the owners to throw into the pot, and notable that the players have maintained it in their counteroffers.

For purists, the triumph of the DH and the end of pitchers hitting may be a dark day for baseball, and regardless of which side of the DH divide you fall on, your mind is likely made up. For my money, it’s past time for the pastime to move on from pitchers hitting, because while their occasional home runs are generally quite entertaining (unless it’s your team serving one up), watching the average pitcher hit is like watching a de-winged insect attempt to fly, a downright pitiful sight. Consider the numbers:

Aside from a one-year spike in 1974 — the second year of the designated hitter, when NL pitchers somehow mustered their best efforts and hit a sizzling .165/.208/.204 for a 15 wRC+ — pitchers’ collective wRC+ hasn’t been above 10 since 1958, three years before the majors’ first expansion, and it hasn’t been above zero since 1983. Since interleague play began, only six times has it been higher than -10, the last of which was 2011. It’s been -13 or lower every year since, numbers that resemble the average temperature of the South Pole in January, which is to say, well below zero even at the height of summer. Brrrrrr.

To put that back into slash-stat terms, here are pitchers’ annual batting averages, on-base percentages, and slugging percentages during the interleague era:

Last year, pitchers hit for a .128 average, 20 points lower than in 2000, the high for this period. They got on base at a .160 clip, 27 points below the high of .187, last seen in 1999, and they slugged .162, 30 points below the high of .192, set in 2000. The last time pitchers hit .200 was in 1930, the year the entire NL hit .303. The last time they managed a .200 on-base percentage was in that fluky season of 1974; aside from that, you have to dial back to 1961. The last time they slugged .200 was in 1977, the very periphery of my time watching baseball, more on which momentarily.

While many pitchers were also position players in the amateur ranks, the fact is that pitchers don’t get to hone their offensive skills once they reach pro ball; they don’t hit all in the lower minors, and generally do so in Double-A and Triple-A only when both clubs are NL affiliates. By the time they reach the majors, they’re far out of practice, and if they’re not on an NL club, they may only swing a bat a few times a year. Last year, no AL pitcher made more than 10 plate appearances, and only four collected multiple hits.

But even including NL pitchers, these guys hardly stand a chance at the plate. Over the past five years, 161 pitchers have made at least 50 plate appearances. Only six of them have hit for at least a 50 wRC+, and just 17 have managed a 25 wRC+:

Best “Hitting” Pitchers, 2015-19
Michael Lorenzen Reds 145 7 .235 .279 .432 84
Brandon Woodruff Brewers 71 1 .254 .288 .365 70
Steven Brault Pirates 93 1 .265 .282 .337 66
Madison Bumgarner Giants 336 13 .188 .248 .349 61
Tyson Ross – – – 115 2 .224 .250 .316 59
Zack Greinke – – – 334 5 .231 .258 .339 54
Jose Fernandez Marlins 83 1 .229 .239 .314 49
Taylor Jungmann Brewers 52 0 .244 .261 .289 48
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 200 4 .194 .215 .349 46
Brent Suter Brewers 57 1 .167 .259 .250 41
Francisco Liriano – – – 113 2 .220 .227 .303 37
Jake Peavy Giants 72 1 .190 .227 .270 36
Vince Velasquez – – – 150 1 .224 .246 .261 33
Hyun-Jin Ryu 류현진 Dodgers 136 1 .176 .246 .231 33
Noah Syndergaard Mets 251 6 .153 .206 .266 29
Kyle Kendrick – – – 51 1 .182 .234 .295 26
Jacob deGrom Mets 337 3 .184 .225 .234 25
Ty Blach – – – 92 1 .167 .224 .231 23
Steven Matz Mets 197 3 .172 .203 .253 22
German Márquez Rockies 184 1 .233 .233 .302 22

Yes, it will be a bit of a bummer if Bumgarner doesn’t get to swing a bat, and the same goes for Greinke, but the latter is already marooned in the AL after his late-2019 trade to the Astros. The two-way Lorenzen experiment is a different matter; the righty reliever played 30 games in the outfield last year, even starting six, but per the new roster rules, which set the threshold for two-way players at 20 innings pitched and 20 starts at a position with at least three PA per game, only Shohei Ohtani qualifies as such, and that because of the parenthetical inclusion of the 2018 season (he didn’t pitch last year due to Tommy John surgery). None of this precludes the Reds from using Lorenzen as an outfielder, but he still counts towards the 13-pitcher limit.

From 2010 to ’19, pitcher strikeout rates jumped nearly 10 percentage points, from 33.7% to 43.5%, that while their walk rates remained virtually unchanged (3.2% to 3.1%). When they do make contact, they’re grounding into double plays more often (1.47% of all plate appearances vs. 1.06%), and executing successful sacrifice bunts less often as well (0.84% vs. 1.02%). Admittedly, I haven’t controlled for the number of opportunities in either of those two cases, but even without that adjustment, I don’t think they add up to a more entertaining game.

Facts and figures only go so far when it comes to letting pitchers hit versus adopting the designated hitter, however. I get it, because I grew up on National League baseball. The first home run that I can remember being hit by a pitcher was when the Phillies’ Steve Carlton went yard against the Dodgers’ Don Sutton in Game 3 of the 1978 NLCS. I recall being amazed upon learning that J.R. Richard not only homered during the 1978 season but had enough at-bats (101) to be listed in the batting stats appendix of All-Pro Baseball Stars 1979, and while we’re on the subject of the Astros and Dodgers, I also remember Nolan Ryan clubbing a three-run homer off Sutton in the former’s Astros debut on April 12, 1980, an NBC Game of the Week that ended up going 17 innings; I insisted upon trying to keep a box score of the five-hour, 35-minute marathon even at the dinner table, an early sign that I was destined to make a living as a baseball nerd.

I lived for that weirdness, and to some extent, still do. Colon’s May 7, 2016 home run off the Padres’ James Shields isn’t just a baseball anniversary that’s celebrated in the Jaffe-Span household (I even bought the Topps Now commemorative card), it inspired the “working title” of our in-utero daughter, whose nickname “Bartola” lives on in my mother-in-law Paula Span’s “Generation Grandparent” column in the New York Times, and in a banner hanging on my daughter’s bedroom door, a memento of the baby shower thrown by my wife’s Sports Illustrated colleagues.

If the DH aspect of the current proposals remains intact, I will have the distinction of having covered the last 1-0 complete game shutout in which a pitcher’s home run accounted for the game’s only run, accomplished by Syndergaard against the Reds last May 2. It was just the 10th such performance in major league history, making it more rare than a perfect game (of which there have been 23).

As all of these examples should illustrate, the pull of pitchers hitting, and a major facet of the argument against the universal adoption of the DH, is an emotional or sentimental one rather than a rational one. We can talk about the fun of pitchers hitting home runs, which happened an average of 24 times a year from 2015-19, or just shy of once a week over the course of a six-month season, but that’s a lot of tedium — bad bunts and weak strikeouts — to wade through just to get to a dinger, and most of those homers won’t bring a nation together the way Bartolo’s blast did.

On the other side of the coin, we can cite the career-altering injuries of players such as Jake Peavy, Mark Prior, and Chien-Ming Wang, or even the serious but less severe injuries of the likes of Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, A.J. Burnett and Randy Johnson that could have been prevented with the adoption of a DH. Both sets of examples rely upon the availability heuristic, a cognitive bias that relies upon the examples that immediately come to mind rather than a representation of the full set of information that we need to make an informed decision (for more about this, see Keith Law’s new book, The Inside Game). Are pitcher home runs fun? Hell yes. Does the overall per plate appearance entertainment value of a pitcher at-bat rival those of position players? Probably not. Are pitchers more likely than other players to get injured while batting or running the bases? I’m not sure anybody’s studied it, but I know that I’ve been guilty of simply citing the most severe examples in past arguments.

To these eyes, the loss of strategy via the elimination of pitchers’ hitting is a red herring, at least for the most part. Sabermetrics has already shown that sacrifice bunting is generally counterproductive, reducing a team’s chances of scoring; that goes even moreso when the bunting is done badly, with the attempt failing to advance a runner either due to a bad bunt or a strikeout. Pitching around the number eight hitter to get to the pitcher is often a no-brainer that makes for a dull-as-dishwater sequence, a fine time to visit the concession stand, the refrigerator, or the restroom. And look, we all need a break or two from the three-hour marathons that the games have become, but one can just as easily time such jaunts to coincide with the increasing number of pitching changes, not to mention the increased time between pitches, the largest driver of increased game lengths.

Even with the new roster rules (which may be tweaked, depending upon the outcome of negotiations), they would still make for much shorter benches than in past decades, limiting the number of opportunities for managers to pinch-hit for a pitcher or make a double switch — and nobody shows up to the ballpark anticipating a double switch. You want strategy? A manager deciding when to use a pinch-hitter or a substitute that hasn’t been dictated by his own need to change pitchers, but may force the opponent to do so — that’s strategy.

The relatively sudden application of the DH leaves some NL teams better positioned than others — the deeper ones, basically. Craig Edwards examined this in early May, identifying players such as the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, the Dodgers’ Max Muncy, the Rockies’ Daniel Murphy, the Reds’ Jesse Winker, and the Brewers’ Ryan Braun as seeing the biggest gains in playing time, and the largest value bumps for their respective teams. The Mets, who have a position player logjam that includes Yoenis Céspedes (if healthy) and Dominic Smith, have depth, but project to be one of the worst teams, though if Smith hits more like he did last year (133 wRC+) than prior (78 wRC+ in 2017-18), they have nothing to worry about even though, as shown in the table above, they’re losing out given the skills of deGrom and Matz at the bats (Syndergaard, alas, is out for the year due to Tommy John surgery).

As for the long-term ramifications, the universal DH is one way to alleviate the pinch felt by over-30 players over the last few years, but I’ll save any analysis over which players might benefit the most for another day. Likewise, I’ll direct you to former colleague Travis Sawchik’s 2019 breakdown at FiveThirtyEight, where he covers DH-related trends such as the two leagues’ scoring rates, starting pitcher workloads, and pace of play. This is a big move, one that won’t please all the people, and won’t be quickly digested. But it’s one whose time has come – and now. We’ll just have to hope that we see it in 2020, before the owners and players find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yet again.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

Deep in my baseball heart I will never accept the universal DH but after watching NL pitchers really muck around with their terrible at bats and constant threat of injury running to first base over the last few years (coupled with Jay’s excellent statistical breakdowns), I too have come the last stage of grief, acceptance.

One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them. The DHs will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new DH overlords. Like to remind them that as a trusted Internet commentator, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground DH caves.