The Hidden Harm of the Designated Hitter

I swear I wasn’t going to talk about the DH yet. I was going to wait until I had a desperate need for pageviews and a total lack of ideas. But blog topics wait for no one, and the recent injuries—one probably season-ending—of two pitchers while batting in the National League has caused the topic to flare up again. At HardballTalk, Craig Calcaterra has maybe the best pro-DH post I’ve ever read: thorough, convincing, exploding one bad anti-DH argument after another. It has, I think, one big blind spot, and it’s in that blind spot that my opposition to a universal DH rule lies. I hope my response does justice to his post, and—not to be vain—points out a way of thinking about this issue that I’ve never seen anyone take up, yet is crucial for understanding why a reasonable person might oppose the DH.

On their own, as Calcaterra recognizes, the injuries to Wainwright and Scherzer would not be a convincing argument against the DH; injuries happen in sports (and pitching itself is the leading cause of baseball injuries), and we can’t determine the rules based on the most extreme cases, any more than the occasional pitcher home run proves that we should always let pitchers bat. But Calcaterra is correct that, if there is no benefit gained by having pitchers hit, then these injuries drive home the pointlessness of that practice: it is precisely because injuries are so frequent in sports that we should not have players do pointless things on the field. (This is used as an argument for eliminating the extra point in football, a position I agree with.)

I’m going to try to thread a tricky needle: I’m going to defend the anti-DH position, but I’m not actually going to defend pitchers hitting. About the most positive thing I can say for pitchers hitting is I don’t mind it, but I know that’s just because I’m used to it, and it certainly can get annoying watching the number eight hitter get intentionally walked to get to the pitcher and kill the rally. And I think Calcaterra is right to dismiss the argument from tradition, the idea that having every fielder bat is an essential part of baseball. That’s just another example of the kind of tautological argument I criticized in the post on clocks in baseball; it’s akin to arguing that there shouldn’t be a shortstop, because there are three bases so four infielders messes up the symmetry. Furthermore, it’s another case of thinking that a rule change is the only way tradition can be changed or violated, when in fact (as Joe Sheehan points out) pitchers’ roles have changed drastically from when the game began, even if those changes weren’t always reflected in the written rules.

So I certainly get the objection to pitchers batting (in fact, I don’t think that our only two choices are “pitchers bat” and “DH,” as I’ll explain below). But I do believe that there’s a substantive argument to be made against the DH: its harm to baseball strategy. Please, pro-DH folks, don’t close your browser tab in disgust: I’m not about to say what you think I’m about to say. The strategic argument has been misconstrued, by both sides of the debate. When people bring up “strategy” in this discussion, it’s always assumed that what is meant is in-game strategy—when to bunt, when to pinch-hit, when to make a defensive replacement. Craig, crucially, makes this assumption in his post:

So, if the DH isn’t some crazy fad, if it actually works and if it’s not the road to damnation, what’s the argument for keeping the NL rule? At least one not based merely on tradition? That it allows for pinch hitting and double switching. The old NL strategy thing. Intrigue. Cunning, etc. As if those are riveting events at the heart of baseball. And as if there isn’t pinch hitting in the AL.

This tweet by Joe Sheehan, and response from a reader, is another example:

Calcaterra and Sheehan, and other pro-DH writers, can’t be blamed for the assumption that the only “strategy” impacted by the DH is questions like when to bunt, because that’s what DH opponents always seem to point to as well. To me—and maybe other writers have made this point and I’ve just missed them—it seems obvious that the strategic harm caused by the DH has almost nothing to do with these questions. It has to do with lineup construction, and baseball’s fascinating tradeoff between offense and defense.

Sid Meier, the creator of the Civilization computer-game franchise, said, “A game is a series of interesting choices.” In other words, the tradeoffs between your options, and your ability to predict which choice is best, are what make a game compelling. That doesn’t map perfectly onto games based on athletic skill, because the results of players’ choices are partly dependent on their ability (all of the sprinters in a race are making the same choices but their ability to execute is different). But it does map perfectly onto sports tactics: whether to run or pass, when to make a substitution, what formation to adopt. That’s where, since the coach or manager has complete control, questions of opportunity cost come in, making those choices interesting.

And in baseball, the most interesting managerial decisions are not usually in-game, but pre-game, when the manager makes the lineup. This is where the “every position player bats” rule does have merit: unlike in football, where the offense and defense are strictly segregated, baseball players play both sides of the ball, so the manager often has to choose between strong hitters and strong fielders. This does not apply to the pitcher, for whom offense is beside the point; even the best-hitting pitchers in the game aren’t as good as the worst-hitting bench players. Not starting the pitcher isn’t an option, so there’s no opportunity cost (or “interesting choice”) there. It does apply to any position players who are good at offense or defense, but not both. That’s where the manager has to face tradeoffs: how many runs are we going to need to win? How many runs are we going to need the defense to prevent? Is this a challenging field to play in, one where we need a strong defender? Which would I rather have in reserve late in the game: a strong defensive replacement or a strong pinch-hitter?

The DH, whatever its other benefits, simply cuts through this interesting choice. This was driven home to me in the 2010 World Series, between the Giants and the Rangers. The NL had home-field advantage that year, so the first two games were played without the DH, which gave Ron Washington an interesting decision to make: should he play his veteran slugger, Vladimir Guerrero? Guerrero was still an effective hitter—he batted cleanup for the Rangers that year—but his days as a competent outfielder were well behind him. In the event, Washington played him, and the results were not good; Guerrero misplayed several balls in the field and, despite driving in the first run of the game, was a net negative for his team that day. The next day, Washington was forced to start his regular right fielder, David Murphy. I remember being disappointed as a Giants fan that Guerrero’s disastrous game had come in a blowout, making the decision to bench him easier for Washington; I would have preferred him to be exposed in a closer game, making the incorrect decision to start him more meaningful. Then the series went to Texas, and…Guerrero was the DH. Problem solved. No conflict between offense and defense. No interesting choices.

This is the problem, aesthetically and intellectually, with rules that encourage specialization: specialists get to exhibit their strengths and hide their flaws, which is great for them but not for us since it leaves out a large part of what makes sports compelling. (Again, I am not talking about pitchers’ inability to hit as an entertaining flaw here.) You sometimes see the argument that we already have plenty of specialists in baseball (late-game defensive replacements, lefty relievers, closers, even the occasional pinch-runner like Darren Ford), so what’s one more. In one tweet, Calcaterra seemed to be arguing that DH opponents are somehow inconsistent or hypocritical in their criticism of specialists in baseball:

This is uncompelling reasoning. First, the DH is the only specialist role that gets its own lineup position, so there’s nothing inconsistent in paying it special attention. In fact, the DH is fundamentally different from the other specialists being discussed. There’s a tradeoff in putting in a relief pitcher or a pinch-runner or any other substitute—you lose the player being replaced for the rest of the game. But there’s no tradeoff in starting the DH; it’s all upside, and that’s not interesting.

Second, who says DH opponents love all those other forms of specialization? I’m in favor of reducing the number of pitchers on the roster to something like 10 rather than 12 or 13. I want to see less specialization across the board. One of my least favorite fallacies—not just in sports arguments, in general—is the idea that you can’t oppose a practice in good faith unless you also campaign against all other instances of the problem. “If baseball really cared about the pace of game, they’d reduce ad time between innings, so these new rules are pointless.” “If we paid college football and basketball players, we’d have to pay all of the others too.” “The issue of concussions in football is debated exhaustively, despite the fact that boxing — where the goal is to hit your opponent in the face as hard as possible — still exists.” (That last gem is a direct quote.) We need to deal with the specialization aspect of the DH on its own merits, not dismiss it because specialization can be found elsewhere in baseball.

I want to know if DH proponents like those other forms of specialization, and if not, what makes the DH an exception. If I had to guess, I’d say many would argue that pitchers are so abysmal at batting that it’s worth letting some specialization into the game to spare us watching them do it. And I honestly think there’s merit to that. If we had to have both leagues adopt the same system, I don’t think I’d want either of the ones we have now; I’d prefer an 8-player lineup, where the pitcher doesn’t bat but all the other position players (and no one else) do. That way, we would avoid the pitcher’s nearly-automatic out without including a position who only has to play one side of the ball. Yes, that would mess with the evenly-divisible innings—three outs goes evenly into nine batters—but this seems like another “tradition” objection, something we don’t want to change because we’re used to it rather than for any coherent reason.

But fortunately we don’t have to have one system for both leagues! Call it status quo bias, but I like that the NL and the AL are different in this regard. People are saying that, with more and more interleague play going on, the National League will be forced to adopt the DH, but I see no reason this should be true. In fact, having the DH in one league and not in another heightens the strategic intrigue during interleague games, because you have teams built for one system squaring off against teams built for the other. We understand this just fine when it comes to baseball stadiums being dramatically different from each other and thus favoring different players’ strengths, and even in other sports, like golf or tennis, where a player who is good on grass may not be as good on clay, or a player who excels at St Andrews might not do as well at Pebble Beach (or wherever; I don’t follow golf). We can choose to embrace the quirk rather than bemoaning it, but only if we look honestly at what we get out of it.

It’s true, and unfortunate, that plenty of DH opponents use the language of knee-jerk fanatics who aren’t thinking the question through. But I think their passion for the subject is based in a real benefit that, for all the drawbacks of pitchers batting, these fans don’t want to lose. I don’t know if the DH will ever come to the National League. But it’s not coming any time soon, so those of us who see no merit in it should look more closely. There really is something there.

Image credit: Vladimir Guerrero by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

5 thoughts on “The Hidden Harm of the Designated Hitter

  1. I am in complete agreement that the inter league play really brings an extra “interest” to the DH question. However, I really think that (as an NL fan) the pitchers in the NL really enjoy the challenge of hitting/bunting. Pitchers are athletes, they enjoy competition! And the best pitchers, in my opinion, are not the stars with low ERA’s and high win totals, but rather the pitchers who contribute to their team in any way possible, whether it be pitching 8 innings and saving the bullpen or hitting a sac bunt to move a runner into scoring position. Bottom line, baseball is the ultimate team sport, and that means everyone plays both sides.

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