MLB Must Finally Add Designated Hitter to NL After 46-Year Mistake

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 8, 2019

Please open the door for more players like David Ortiz.
Please open the door for more players like David Ortiz.Associated Press

Through the grapevine has come a hint that the designated hitter may become a universal reality in Major League Baseball in the not-too-distant future.

Hurry up. Oh, for the love of David Ortiz, Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas, please hurry up.

Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and Jeff Passan of ESPN, the MLB Players Association has been pushing for the DH—which has been saving American League pitchers from hitting for themselves since 1973—to come to the National League for the 2019 season.

With pitchers and catchers due to report for spring training next week, it's probably a bit late to adapt such a seismic change for the coming season. The same goes for some of the other big ideas (e.g., a 20-second pitch clock and a three-batter minimum for pitchers) being kicked around by the MLB and the MLBPA.

Still, it's significant that the concept of a universal DH is being pushed by the players. At last check, it was the owners who were doing the pushing.

"I think that is a continuing source of conversation among the ownership group, and I think that the dialogue actually probably moved a little bit," MLB commission Rob Manfred told reporters last June.

As far as baseball fans are concerned, this is where the bickering begins.

Anyone who's pro-DH is most likely an American League fan with fond memories of the great sluggers who've called the position home over the last 46 years. Anyone who's anti-DH is most likely a National League fan who much prefers the bunts, double switches and other strategic elements that come hand-in-hand with pitchers hitting for themselves.

Others, presumably, just can't bear to leave behind the #PitchersWhoRake lifestyle. This group includes at least one actual pitcher who rakes:

No matter your preference, you're not wrong. That's the thing about preferences; they're nice and subjective.

But if we're going to shift this discussion over to what's best for baseball, a fundamental problem with the anti-DH position arises. Once you get past "Because I like it," there aren't many objective arguments in favor of pitchers hitting for themselves.

The big one in favor of a universal DH is that pitchers are insultingly bad at hitting. This was true even as far back as the 1800s, when an article in Sporting Life (h/t SABR's John Cronin) posited: "Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try to hit the ball."

Here's a graph that shows it's only been getting worse since the AL and NL started rubbing elbows in 1901:

The central statistic here is a FanGraphs specialty called "weighted runs created plus," which measures total offensive value in relation to the league average of 100.

As that blue line shows, pitchers weren't close to league-average hitters to begin with. By the time the AL adopted the DH in 1973, they were already barreling toward zero. Now they're at a point where even a 0 wRC+ would be a feat worthy of champagne and trip to Disneyland.

The trouble is, pitchers aren't trained to hit anymore. The DH is a staple of organized baseball in high school, college and the minor leagues. Only the National League is holding out.

Jacob deGrom is not made for hitting.
Jacob deGrom is not made for hitting.David Banks/Getty Images

This could have changed as far back as 1980. In August of that year, representatives from the 12 National League clubs convened to hold a vote on whether to adapt the DH. The idea was rejected 5-4 with three abstentions, yet that marked notable progress toward a universal DH.

"I'm not surprised at today's vote," NL President Chub Feeney said at the time, per the Associated Press. "It's gotten fairly close from time to time, but it fluctuates. The vote was 10-2 the last time we took it, about a year ago."

In the ensuing years, however, the NL and MLB as a whole had bigger fish to fry. Such as: colluding against free agents in the 1980s, getting in and out of multiple work stoppages between 1980 and 1995 and cleaning up after the steroid era in the mid-2000s.

Nowadays, however, a universal DH can help MLB with two of its biggest challenges: livening up games and preventing the first work stoppage in a quarter of a century.

Strikeouts have been going up for years, and that there were more strikeouts than hits in 2018 is a dire warning that balls in play can't make a comeback on their own. Which brings us to another graph:

The strikeout rate has been higher in the National League, but not because the NL's actual hitters are more prone to punchouts than AL hitters. As the yellow dotted line shows, hitters from both leagues tend to have roughly the same strikeout rate. The problem, naturally, is the pitchers.

It wouldn't reverse it, but letting real hitters bat for pitchers in the NL would help stem the growth of MLB's strikeout rate, thereby reintroducing some action into games. If anyone's worried about this potentially leading to longer days at the ballpark, well, don't. Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight looked into that in 2014 and didn't find anything.

As to the work-stoppage threat—which Rosenthal reported is "palpable"—putting the DH in the National League would theoretically make it easier for players to regain some of the riches that owners have been hoarding in recent offseasons.

The number of clubs with a safety blanket for aging sluggers would double. That could lead to stronger markets not only for the likes of Nelson Cruz, but for super-long-term investments such as the Bryce Harpers and Manny Machados of this world. Younger sluggers could also benefit, as there would be more job openings for bat-only prospects (e.g., New York Mets slugger Peter Alonso).

Further, neither NL clubs nor AL clubs visiting NL parks would have to worry any longer about pitchers getting hurt doing things other than pitching. Maybe it wouldn't have a huge impact in the long run, but that would be one less hurdle in between pitchers and good paydays.

Beyond the allegedly entertaining strategic elements of NL-style ball, the biggest casualty of a universal DH would be the end of any true differentiation between MLB's two leagues. But since this "casualty" would nix unfair advantages for one league or the other in interleague games and the World Series, the mourning period would be brief.

As hinted at by that one Sporting Life quote from the 1891, the DH was a good idea long before it officially came into being in 1973. At this juncture, it's never looked more like a necessary idea.

So, again, please hurry up.

            

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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