This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the cause of baseball’s great schism: the designated hitter rule. The value of the rule- and its implications on style and quality of play- have been the subject of much debate. Here, I examine some of its consequences.
Variation across era- in terms of style of play and use of the designated hitter- make it surprisingly difficult to evaluate the consequences of the DH rule. In a previous article, https://theumassminutemen.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/major-league-baseball-peds-deterrence-policy-why-and-how-effective/, I listed home-run statistics from 1990-2012. The statistics portrayed clearly the effect of PED’s: home-run numbers soared during the proliferation of such drugs, and fell to pre-PED era levels once deterrence policies were implemented. Style of play- specifically the value and frequency of the home-run and power numbers in general- varied greatly from the mid 1990’s to mid 2000’s. So too did the value and use of the DH. When power won games, the designated hitter was more likely to be a dependable, power-producing fixture in the lineup.
This was not always the case, and in today’s game, is no longer the case. As Tim Kurkjian explains: “In 1973, the first year of the DH, eight players were used in 100 games at DH: Frank Robinson, Tony Oliva, Orlando Cepeda, Tommy Davis, Alex Johnson, Deron Johnson, Gates Brown and Jim Ray Hart. All eight fit essentially the same profile: good hitters nearing the end of their careers, most of them done as defensive players.” (http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/hotstove10/columns/story?columnist=kurkjian_tim&id=6014374)
In these years, though the average designated hitter was a dependable fixture in a given lineup- in terms of games played anyway- his skills were generally waning. He was the DH as much because he could not play defense as he was because of his offense. In these years- though the numbers are difficult to come by- we can imagine that there was a fairly significant difference between National League and American League run production; a professional hitter- even a declining one- is still much more offensively effective than the average pitcher. That 1/9th of a National League lineup was a near automatic out- and one 1/9th of an American League lineup was a player whose sole responsibility was to hit- made the National League weaker offensively.
The offensive gap between leagues expanded in the PED era when run production and power numbers rose and the DH was transformed from a refuge for aging defensive liabilities into a middle of the lineup power-slot. Though roughly the same number of players were tabbed as full time DH’s- in 1991, 11 players were used as full time DH’s (http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/hotstove10/columns/story?columnist=kurkjian_tim&id=6014374)- the DH played a more significant role in the average American League lineup. That the American league won 10 of 14 All-Star game contests between 1990 and 2003 (it tied 1) and 8 of 13 World Series Championships between these same years illustrates the influence of the PED era DH and its implications on style and quality of play between leagues during these years. Clearly, in a home-run era, the league that substituted a home-run hitter for a pitcher was the better league.
Because of PED deterrence policy and its implications on power numbers and style of play the DH is no longer a powerful, or even stable, fixture in the average American league lineup. In 2010, every American League team inserted at least 10 players into the DH spot; ten teams used at least 15. (http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/hotstove10/columns/story?columnist=kurkjian_tim&id=6014374). From 2008-2010, only 13 teams used a player 100 times in a season at the DH position.
This data suggests that the DH rule is currently used to create favorable matchups or to give players quasi-rest days. If this is true, the gap between leagues has probably narrowed. Between 2004-2012, the National League won 5 of 9 World Series, and though they lost the first six All-Star games in this span, they have won the last three. The gap in run production has also generally narrowed between 2002 and 2012:
So the consequences of the DH rule have varied significantly by era. The difference between an aging but dependable DH; a potent, every-day DH; and a match-up based DH is obvious. Less obvious is why the National League- especially during the PED era- did not adopt the rule. Baseball traditionalism is probably the primary reason. Baseball officials are especially averse to change; drug testing, instant replay and other features of modern sports were- and in the case of replay, still are- stymied by ‘traditionalist’ forces.
Beyond pure aversion to change, enemies of the DH suggest that the DH eliminates strategy from the game; while National League managers must consider whether they should pinch hit for the pitcher, American League managers do not have this same concern, and therefore, have a less challenging job. This argument is silly; major league baseball managers are not game-changers to begin with; they have a more limited role than any other major sport coach. Football, Basketball and Hockey coaches have involvement in just about every play; baseball manager’s fill out lineup cards and occasionally substitute pitchers. They have no control over where the ball goes or who it goes to. They do not design or call plays (the exception being signs that direct steals, pick off moves, etc); their voice can barely be heard during the game. Taking one or two moves away from a manager whose influence is minimal compared to the forces of probability does little to change the complexion of the game. So the concern of strategy is far outweighed by the type and quality of play. Fans watch baseball for the players, not the managers; we should be unsurprised that there is a home-run and not a pitching change or pinch-hitting derby.
As the below graphic- which lists data from 57 pitchers between 2000 and 2005- illustrates, pitchers who move from the American League to the National League flourish, while those who move from the National League to the American League struggle.
Players are paid to perform; they are aware of differences in league conditions. The data above was gathered from 29 players transitioning from the American League to the National League, and 28 from the National League to the American League. This even distribution might ease one’s concerns that pitchers would flee the more difficult American League for the weaker National League. It should not. Proven players generally have more control of their trade destination; the players that make the most impact are generally in their prime and as a result of their service time, have contract clauses that stipulate which teams they are willing to play for. These players are aware of the differences between leagues. With these factors in mind, we should be unsurprised that there are far more examples of elite pitchers moving from the National League to the American League than the converse in recent years: Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Zack Greinke etc, compared to Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, and Josh Johnson. (Roger Clemens, Cliff Lee, and Randy Johnson switched leagues multiple times.)
The movement of elite pitchers from one league to the other is thus a predictable consequence of the DH rule. But as the gap between leagues has narrowed, this concern has become less significant- though it still exists. So until the National League adds the DH, we can expect good pitchers to move to the National League, and the National League’s run production to suffer from the lack of the DH and better pitching. The gap between the leagues has narrowed, but it persists- however unnecessarily.