Not long ago, a Twitter acquaintance who goes by the handle @CubicSnarkonia posted a blog at his Cubs-centric site, World Series Dreaming. In it, he posed a series of questions about the designated hitter, in light of the fact that, depending on who you ask (or when you ask them), the DH may or may not be coming to the NL in the near future. I was relieved, because those questions helped me find some focus for a piece I’d been trying to develop for a while. I have a strong (and fairly well-documented) opinion on the issue, but had been having a hard time figuring out exactly what piece of the puzzle I was trying to articulate this time around. I’ll get to that at the end, though. To begin, here are the questions Rice Cube asked in his piece, and the best answers I can offer to each. It was nice to have some objective, mostly neutral questions for a jumping-off point.
Does the DH increase game times to obnoxious levels?
Well, everyone’s definition of obnoxious is different, I suppose. In 2015, 39 games involving the DH lasted at least four hours. One hundred fifty-three lasted at least three and a half hours, and 564 lasted at least three hours. Also, because this turns out to be of some importance: five DH-in-effect games lasted at least five hours. Thirteen lasted at least four and a half hours.
Thirty-eight games that did not involve the DH lasted at least four hours—no difference there. One hundred forty-four lasted at least three and a half hours. At least 565 games lasted at least three hours. There were eight five-hour-plus non-DH games, and 16 four-and-a-half-hour-plus ones.
The first, most obvious difference there (and the differences are all small) is in three-and-a-half-hour contests. It does seem like the DH makes those otherwise average-plus, three-hours-and-change games stretch out closer to the fourth hour. I know what you’re thinking: Red Sox and Yankees. Yes, Boston and New York played six games of at least three and a half hours in 2015, so that’s part of the issue. At any rate, there probably is some real effect to having the extra bat in a lineup. It takes a little longer to get the 27 outs the winning team needs in order to win. Some managers in the AL might also make mid-inning pitching changes a little more proactively, without the complication of the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. Remove extra-inning games, and there were 466 DH-involved games last season that stretched past three hours, and 459 without the DH that went at least that long. Five games where the DH was used lasted at least four hours without going to extra frames; only one non-DH game went that long without stretching past nine. Yes, in a typical game, the DH leads to a few extra minutes of playing time, on average.
Of course, not all games are typical. Go back to the marathon games in the original numbers I listed: It’s actually more likely to end up stuck in a five-hour, 16-inning, slogging stalemate of a game when the DH is not in effect. That makes sense; there’s one fewer threat to untie the score every time through the order. Benches empty, relievers end up having to hit for themselves or be pinch-hit for by tomorrow’s starter, and rallies die, so stasis reigns.
Which type of game is more obnoxious? Because they’re somewhat more common, I think people most want to eradicate the three-and-a-half-hour affair that ends 7-4, and during which they fall asleep before the end of the eighth inning. It’s interesting, though, to note that if your concern is overlong games, there’s an argument in either direction—for spreading the DH, or for holding it at bay.
Is the DH just some guy who rides the bench all season?
Go ahead and read Rice Cube’s post itself; the context makes it clear that he’s trying to figure out whether teams prefer a full-time DH or a rotation of a few regulars through the spot. He came up with seven regular DHs from last season: Billy Butler, Prince Fielder, Evan Gattis, Victor Martinez, Kendrys Morales, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez. I took a slightly different angle to answering the question itself, by asking Play Index to show me the players who took the highest percentage of their plate appearances as DHs in 2015. Among guys who saw a reasonable amount of playing time, 10, not seven, stand out as close to full-time DHs, filling that role more than 80 percent of the time when they batted. (The guys I added, for the record, were John Jaso, Jimmy Paredes, and Miguel Sano. For various reasons, none of them played a full season, but when they were healthy and on the roster, their teams put them in the lineup most of the time, and most of the time, it was at DH.) Based on this info, I’m comfortable saying that a majority of AL teams still use a regular DH, when they can find a guy capable of holding onto the job. Obviously, that’s easier said than done.
Is the DH even that good of a hitter?
Here’s where Rice Cube wants to know, roughly speaking, how tough it really is to find guys with DH-playable bats. The short answer: DHs had a collective .270 TAv in 2015. The only seasons within the last decade during which it’s been higher were 2007 (.277) and 2011 (.271). Collectively, third basemen and center fielders were about the same level of hitter as were DHs in 2015. Right fielders were better (.276), first basemen were way better (.283), left fielders were worse (.267). The picture is a bit muddled, but in general, and in most years, a DH produces at roughly the level of an average corner guy, though not as well as most first basemen. Of the 268 players who had at least 300 plate appearances in 2015, 125 had at least a .270 TAv. Brandon Phillips was right at that number. If I had to sum up the findings here, I would say that a DH still has to be an above-average hitter—and that the standard is creeping upward—but that teams tend not to put their best hitters there except in cases of necessity, and that the threshold above which a player can help his team without providing any non-batting value is lower than most people imagine.
Is there a detriment to being a DH?
Yes. I think DH penalties are a statistical reality almost beyond doubt by now. Mitchel Lichtman found that batters do roughly four percent worse than they might be expected to do otherwise when DHing, and there’s some evidence (though not conclusive evidence) that the penalty is larger than that early in the game, and smaller later, when the opposing starter is lifted in favor a reliever. That’s a smaller effect than Lichtman and his co-authors originally found, in studying older data for The Book, but it’s certainly something. This is where it gets harder to find DH-worthy bats, because if a batter has to sustain a TAv at DH of .270, he needs to have a true-talent, unpenalized TAv of roughly .281. That was Starling Marte/Dexter Fowler territory in 2015. Only 90 of those 268 batters with at least 300 PA last year met that higher standard, so we’re moving from considering roughly four of every nine batters DH-qualified to just three in nine.
Obviously, that’s just the threshold for an ‘average’ DH, so half of the league already fields worse hitters than that at the position. Still, it’s interesting to put things that way. In a full lineup of randomly selected hitters, the DH penalty takes one guy from the right side of the break-even line to the wrong side.
Here’s what I want to add to what appears above: The DH is not being used inventively or imaginatively enough right now. For me, that shines through in both the number of regular DHs and the penalty they still suffer. More teams should, while keeping and using bat-first guys who fit best at DH, also get their other regular players off the field for a day more often by cycling them through the DH spot. Big-league position players don’t rest nearly often enough, and teams who have the DH at their disposal should be utilizing the extra space in their lineup to increase the rest they apportion to each of their players. One reason I favor the expansion of the rule is that it would stretch offensive talent thinner across the league, encouraging more innovation, and increasing the chances of someone doing something both more interesting and more optimal.
That reason is a microcosm of the broader reason why I want the DH everywhere, really: It’s evolution, man. A DH in every lineup would mean fewer bad sacrifice bunts, better-utilized benches, fewer extraneous complications of decisions made by managers with regard to pitching changes, and fewer anticlimactic rallies, which often make the early innings of NL games feel longer, whether they really are or not. At any rate, I learned something from the exercise of answering these questions, and hope you did, too.
Thank you for reading
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