Guest Article: The Great DH Debate

I’m going to introduce myself real quick. My name is Jackson Johnson and I am currently a junior at Jacksonville State University where I am majoring in Economics. I have been an avid baseball fan since I can remember and, I am a frequent reader of not only this blog but also Fangraphs along with many others. Please visit my site, Baseball in the Deep South, to read more about the Atlanta Braves and my opinions on America’s past time.

Bonds1Besides debating whether the alleged use of steroids should keep Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa out of the Hall of Fame, the next great issue argued among baseball fans is the Designated Hitter. I have had this dispute many a times, not only with my friends, but also with random people at the ballpark and in the bar. I still have yet to meet someone who is truly on the fence when it comes to the topic. Every baseball fan is either for or against it and feels the other position is bad for baseball. The steroids debate is in full swing, as it is Hall of Fame voting season, so I thought it would be fun to stir up another heated baseball topic. I am going to look at the main points in each side’s argument more in depth and wrap it up by telling you where I stand on the matter.

Let’s start with the traditionalists first

Against the DH 

  1. It’s not traditional baseball.

Ah, the oldest argument in the book. No, I’m being serious, it actually is. Rule 1.01 of baseball states, and I quote:

Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.” 

By this rule, the very first one you encounter when you crack open the baseball rulebook, the American League does not play real baseball. They play pseudo-baseball by adding a tenth man in the Designated Hitter. A pitcher is on the field just like the shortstop, right fielder, first baseman etc. and they should bat just like those players would.

2. Having the DH makes more batters get plunked in the American League versus the National League

In the first chapter of his book, The Baseball Economist, J.C. Bradbury shows how true that statement is due to the simple economic concept of opportunity cost.

There is an unwritten rule in baseball. If you plunk one of our players, then our team will subsequently plunk your pitcher the next time he is at bat as retaliation for pitching too high or inside on our guy. Thus, if a pitcher in the National League wants to plunk a batter or pitch inside to him, he is faced with weighing the cost of getting hit himself when he is due up in the batting order. You take the bat out of the pitcher’s hand, and he might be more likely to throw an inside pitch or some “chin music” as the cost of hitting a batter has just decreased.

Last year, a National League team averaged 48 hit batters in a season, where an American League team average 53 hit batters in a season.

3. It adds an extra element of strategy to the game

Having the pitcher bat gives each team’s manager more to think about and more to plan around.

Imagine, if you will, you are the manager of a national league team, any team. You are playing a game against your division rival and the game is currently tied 1-1, bottom of the sixth. You have runners on second and third with two outs. The game has obviously been a pitching duel so far, so this is your prime opportunity to jump ahead and possibly a turning point in the game. However, your pitcher is due up and you can’t decide what to do with him. He has been quite impressive thus far, only giving up one run through six innings and he could pitch one more solid inning then you will most likely have to turn to your bullpen. This is a great chance to score, and once you pinch-hit for him, he will no longer be allowed to come back into the game. If you don’t pinch hit for him then you most likely miss a great scoring opportunity and what might be a chance to win the game. What do you do?

As you can see, this is scenario and many like it are what National League managers are faced with each week, if not each game. Having the pitcher bat adds strategy and this way brings the manager more into the game.

For the DH 

  1. Keeps pitchers from getting hurt

Pitchers play an integral role in the game. They have the most important job on any team, besides maybe the catcher. Pitchers will always be the weakest hitters on a team because they spend the majority of their time working on their mechanics or strength and conditioning. They get the least amount of time in the batting cage of any player on the team so it will not bode well if we send someone to the plate who won’t know what he is doing. All this creates is an opportunity for one of our best players to get hurt which will severely hinder our team. Having the pitcher bat is not only an automatic out, but also a liability for any team trying to keep their postseason hopes alive.

2. Attracts more fans-offense sells

You want to talk about simple economics, huh? How about this one: supply and demand. No one likes a pitchers duel, except diehard baseball fans. The regular, common fan likes to see offense, and lots of it.

Attendance has been on the rise the last couple of years, and if you take away the feeble-hitting pitcher and replace him with a masher, then offense will increase and so will ticket sales will go up even more. Teams will in turn generate more revenue, thus increasing payroll and the game will be more even. Give the people what they demand. No one likes seeing the pitcher make an out every time he steps up to the plate; it’s boring and certainly won’t sell seats. People flock to NBA and NFL games because they are offense driven. The DH will give baseball a chance to take a big chunk of our their respective fan bases.

Last year the AL had a slash line of .255/.320/.411 and an OPS of .731, the NL amassed a line of .254/.318/.400 with a .718 OPS. Also, the AL hit 179 homers and drove in 688 runs while the NL swatted 159 homers and only drove in 648 runs. If the NL could bring in more offense and make their stats closer to the AL’s, there is not doubt they would also see an increase in attendance and revenue.

3. Creates more jobs for players

Here’s another economic concept that can be applied to the game of baseball.

PujolsWhy do you think that Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols decided to jump leagues and sign with an AL team before the 2012 season? Also, why do you think Josh Hamilton was more inclined to stay in the American League this offseason? Sure, the money played a factor in it, but so did having the DH. They know they’re not superman. In a few years, their bodies and reflexes will wear down and they won’t be able to play in the field every day like they are used to. Having the DH creates more jobs and keeps players’ careers alive longer. A player may not be able to man the hot corner like he used to, but if he can make contact and generate power then he will be a valuable asset to his team as a DH every couple of games. It gives teams more options and lineup choices to help them win.

As you can see, both sides make good points. Before I state what side I am on, I am going to say one more thing. I believe that having the DH in only one league is quite bad for the game. Baseball needs to do away with having one league DH and the other league non-DH and make it equal across the board. A rift is created between the two leagues and makes the difference between them noticeable. The point of the DH creating jobs is exactly why this rift exists in the first place. If you look at the Pujols and Fielder example, then you see more big time free agents will be more inclined to go to the American League as they will be presented with being able to DH every couple of days instead of having to play in the field every day in order to hit. Having the DH in only one league creates an unlevel playing field.

With that being said, I do not like the DH. Citing the arguments above, I believe it is not real, traditional baseball, and just like any other player on the diamond, the pitcher should be required to have a turn in the batting order whenever his team is at bat. To illustrate my point, I present to you, the case of Alex Gonzalez.

Many of you know Alex Gonzalez. He not only is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, but was also on the 2003 Marlins World Series team, the one that participated in the infamous Steve Bartman game. He owes a puny .247/.292/.399 slash line accompanied with a career 4.8 BB% and a 18.7 K%. Despite these pitiful offensive numbers, he has managed to find work over the years, as he is known for having a slick-fielding glove. Now imagine this: what if in 2011, when he played for my beloved Atlanta Braves, upon taking the lineup card out to the umpire, Fredi Gonzalez said:

You know what? Gonzalez is a great defender and we love having him in the field, he does a lot for our team out there, but his bat isn’t worth anything, so we’re just going to have Eric Hinske bat for him when his turn in the lineup comes.

Is that not the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard/read? To me, that is what happens with the designated hitter. Yes, the pitcher plays a valuable role on the team, if not the most important, but he still deserves to bat just like any other player. This is because, just like any other player, he is in the field. You want to have another player come hit for your pitcher? That’s fine, but now your pitcher will not be allowed to return to the game.

As an economics major, I do realize the importance of supply and demand and, I do realized more fans want to see offense and not a pitcher’s duel. I know that while attendance has jumped the last two seasons, baseball still needs to find a way to boost ticket sales as the economy is still stagnant. Yes, I do see the writing on the wall. Major League Baseball does want to use the DH in both leagues, as shown by the Astros moving to the American League next year, evening both leagues out at 15 teams apiece. Yes, I do realize I am fighting a losing battle

However, I believe it is somewhat contradictory, as baseball has lagged behind in the field of expanded replay because the traditional way of umpires and no replay is how they’ve always done things, yet, they chose the less traditional route when it came to the DH.

I would like to thank Mr. Vogel for this writing opportunity. Feel free to continue the debate in the comments, and if you enjoyed this article then be sure to check out more of my writing at Baseball in the Deep South, an Atlanta Braves Blog. I wish you and your family a very safe and Merry Christmas.

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