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Last week I attended the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix. The Society for American Baseball Research, as I assume you know, is dedicated to researching the game. Many of you are SABR members, as am I. This isn’t an advertisement (though it is a great organization!); I just wanted to provide the background.

The Analytics Conference, as its name implies, is analytically focused. It’s more for baseball numbers nerds than general baseball nerds. That being said, everybody there’s a baseball fan and baseball fans have opinions.

One of their strongest is about the designated hitter. The DH was adopted by the American League in 1973, after a season in which scoring fell to 3.47 runs per game, the fourth-lowest in league history (3.41 in 1968, 3.441 in 1908, 3.443 in 1909). The intent of the DH was primarily to improve scoring, since the changes adopted in 1969 (lowered pitchers’ mound, smaller strike zone) proved to be only a temporary fix.

I don’t need to tell you that the DH has been controversial in each of its 44 years to date. Pro tip: If you’re giving an address to a SABR gathering, or pretty much any group of longtime baseball fans, any riff on “get rid of the DH” is likely to be a crowd-pleaser. Those of us who are OK with it are, in my experience, generally not all that passionate. That’s not always true of the anti-DH crowd.

I’m not here to litigate the DH. That’s not going to get us anywhere. But I do want to point out the trajectory of one of the arguments against it.

There’s the traditionalist argument: Nine players to a side, each plays offense and defense. Making the pitcher a one-way player violates that simplicity. While the slippery-slope-toward-offensive-and-defensive-platoons fear can probably be put to rest, it’s undoubtedly true that pitcher batting skills, never all that good in the first place, have atrophied:

I know, there’s a lot going on there. The key takeaway is that everything’s sloping down.

In a way, this sort of buttresses the pro-DH argument, doesn’t it? I mean, yeah, Bartolo Colon last year, but the pitcher's spot in the lineup has become more or less an automatic out (or, with runners on base, an automatic bunt attempt). There’s not a lot of drama in that.

But that’s not the argument I want to address. I want to talk about strategy.

The DH, it’s argued, robs the game of strategy. Pinch-hitting, double-switches, and everything else that the pitcher’s spot in the order may entail are, while interesting, pretty rote in most cases. But National League managers face a decision that their American League counterparts don’t: Whether to pull a pitcher who’s doing well for a pinch-hitter when tied or trailing.

Take April 14 in the first year of the DH, 1973. In the American League that day two starters, Bert Blyleven and Wilbur Wood, pitched well. Blyleven allowed two runs, eight hits, no walks, and struck out eight while pitching a complete game. Wood also went the distance, allowing three runs (all unearned) on three hits and two walks, with six strikeouts. But both of them took the loss, because Blyleven’s Twins scored only one run against the A’s and Wood’s White Sox scored none against the Royals.

Ah, but over in the DH-less National League, on April 24 of that same season, the Cubs were trailing the Giants 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning. Chicago manager Whitey Lockman had to make the tough decision to pull starter Rick Reuschel for a pinch-hitter with two outs and a runner on second. Reuschel had pitched well, allowing two runs and striking out 12 over seven innings, but the team needed to get back into the game. The strategy ultimately failed, as the pinch-hitter, Gene Hiser, flew out. And while the Cubs tied the game in the bottom of the ninth on a Ron Santo home run, Reuschel’s replacement on the mound, Bob Locker, gave up the winning run in the 10th.

If that game had been played in the American League, Reuschel could have stayed in the game and the Cubs may have won. But the desire to keep a successful pitcher on the mound was outweighed by the need to get runs on the board. That’s a decision that American League managers are spared. Ergo, less strategy.

But note that in the examples above from 1973, two of the pitchers went nine innings and the other went seven. In 1973, 54 percent of starting pitchers went seven innings or more. In 2016, that figure was only 23 percent. The decision whether to pinch-hit for a starter in the late innings of a game is a lot easier when the starter’s not in the game anymore! So maybe that aspect of strategy has fallen by the wayside.

Let’s check for that. Here is a graph that shows the innings pitched per starter by league from the beginning of divisional play in 1969. The solid black line is 1973, the year the DH was implemented. (And yes, I realize, these numbers are somewhat polluted by interleague play, but with each team playing only 10 games per season with the other league’s DH rules, it’s not a big effect.)

As you can see, when the DH first came in American League starters did, in fact, stay in games longer than their National League counterparts. Since National League pitchers had lasted longer in the years heading into the DH, we can pretty safely say that the DH allowed AL managers to stick with starters longer. They didn’t have to face the pinch-hitting conundrum when trailing or tied in late innings. DH = less strategy.

But as starting pitchers have yielded to relievers earlier and earlier, the spread has not only declined, it’s vanished. Despite the DH, which in theory allows American League managers to leave pitchers in longer, National League starters have lasted longer in four of the last eight seasons and 11 of the 21 since the 1994-1995 strike. With starters lasting, on average, about 5 2/3 innings, the question of pinch-hitting for the starter in the seventh or eighth inning has become moot.

How moot? Well, as this chart illustrates, AL starters lasted at least a tenth of an inning longer than their NL counterparts in nine of the 14 years beginning in 1974, the year after the DH was established. It’s happened only four times in the subsequent 29 seasons.

But the DH doesn’t create, at least in theory, a strategic difference between the leagues in only starter usage. It affects bullpens as well. Just as a National League manager is more likely than American League manager to pull a starter (for a pinch-hitter) in the seventh inning of a game his team’s losing by a run, so too is the NL manager more likely to bring in a pinch-hitter in the late innings to replace an effective reliever.

In fact, the difference between the leagues in reliever usage was starker, post-DH, than starter usage. In 1972, before the DH, American League relievers averaged 1.59 innings per appearance. National League relievers averaged an almost identical 1.62. In 1973, the first year of the DH, NL relievers pitched an average of 1.54 innings per appearance, but AL reliever innings per appearance zoomed all the way up to 2.06, the highest level since World War II.

American League relievers stayed in games at least a tenth of an inning longer, on average, than their National League counterparts every year through 1988. That year, Dennis Eckersley recorded 21 one-inning saves under Tony La Russa’s American League champion A’s, and the trend to one-inning relievers was ignited. Have shorter relief outings yielded less of a difference between the leagues? Yes they have:

American League relievers still stay in games a little longer than National League relievers, but the difference hasn’t exceeded a tenth of an inning pitched since 2003, as this graph illustrates.

If you don’t like the DH because you think the two leagues should play by the same rules, fine. If you think everybody on the field should play on offense and defense, that’s OK. If you think it’s fun to see Bartolo Colon hit, you’re entitled to your opinion (as well as his .068/.083/.101 line excluding his May 7 homer).

But if your objection is that the DH robs the game of strategy, you’re fighting an outdated battle. The complaints about modern pitching staffs—starters who can’t pitch deep into games, a parade of relievers who last only an inning at a time—have all but eliminated the decision National League managers used to face about keeping a pitcher in the game or pulling him for a pinch-hitter. In today’s game, the pinch-hitter’s going to bat regardless, because the pitcher he’s replacing is done for the day. The strategic decision’s not on the table the way it was in 1973.

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jimoneill
3/13
If MLB had been truly prescient, it would have established eight man lineups with the pitcher never hitting. The skill sets required for pitchers and non-pitchers are very different and yet we still insist that pitchers attempt to display a skill that never mattered when they were scouted and signed. Can you you imagine some scout saying "I love the way this Kershaw kid throws but I don't think he'll ever hit enough to be a big leaguer." If hitting and fielding were criteria for the selection of pitchers Jon Lester would be an accountant. So we are to be subjected to the ghastly sight of pitchers flailing away hopelessly, allude to an outlier like Bumgarner, laugh at the silly stylings of Colon, all in the name of strategy. Gimme a break.
Oleoay
3/13
I'm not sure how MLB could've been prescient. When the game was invented, in the olden days where people weren't even really wearing gloves, a pitcher could hit as well as anybody. But once it became important for a pitcher to throw strikes or throw hard, specialization developed. Since then, MLB's attempt to rectify that are things like a DH rule. But they can't go back in time to reinvent the game.
Shauncore
3/13
Totally agree, particularly with the strategy component. The often cited example is "What if it's 1-0 in the 6th/7th and the pitcher is dealing, do you pinch hit for him and take him out?" YES. First if it's a 1-0 game then runs will be at a premium and you want to increase your chance to score any marginal (and subbing in an actual hitter is more than marginal) way you can. Secondly, it's also the time to switch pitchers anyways. In the 6th/7th the starter is probably at or near the third time through the order. The difference between your best reliever and your starter going through the third time is a big difference.
mainsr
3/13
Yes, exactly. As I said, there usually isn't a pitcher to be taken out in the seventh. He's already on the bench or icing his elbow or getting a massage or whatever.
ErikBFlom
3/13
Baseball is not only played at the pro level. Pitchers are often among the better athletes on their teams because at a young age they could throw hard enough and accurately enough to throw a strike. In my experience, at age 10 or so, they can also hit. A completely social question is what effect the DH in the pros has on youth baseball. Some pitchers are even used as pinch-hitters. Yes, it is as rare as great-hit, great-field players. So every pitcher in baseball basically has to be great when he takes the field. Some of those can hit decently. One had to become an outfielder because he hit way, way too well. I actually like the DH in pro ball. But I worry.
mainsr
3/13
That's a good point. On a lot of high school teams, the best athlete's at P or SS (or both). I can support the DH more at the professional level than amateur.
jsdspud
3/13
Amateur baseball is becoming more specialized. I heard an interview with Lucas Giolito and he stopped batting in 10 grade. I believe the only time he batted while in the Nats org was in the upper levels if there was an agreement with the opponent not to use the DH. Pitchers (some) are hitting in high school, then taking a few seasons off in the minors. They haven't had a chance to hone their hitting skills against weaker competition, so results have suffered over the years.
mainsr
3/13
Yeah, as per the above comment, that's an issue. I don't see a lot of upside from that level of specialization filtering down so far.
mhagerstrom
3/13
Don't watch the AL much, but the double switch is something that I see quite often in the NL.
mainsr
3/13
I am probably going to write something about double switches, but while it's true that there are more DSs in the NL, the difference isn't large--37 average per team in the NL, 33 in the AL.
mhagerstrom
3/13
Thanks. Hadn't realized that.
13Muchachos
3/13
What if it's 1-0 in the bottom ninth because a DH had a HR in the top of the first????? Weren't we better off watching two pitchers carve up two hitting lineups as opposed to relief and bench playing out that game. I mean if they are that exciting to watch why didn't they start the game? Get rid of those damn pitchers hitting, they are PITCHERS pitching to HITTERS. I bet we could sell Matt Adams and the Cardinals on that one...
mainsr
3/13
Well, if you go back to 1973, the explicit reason for the DH was to increase scoring. If you don't agree with that goal, fine. My point is that objecting for the strategic reason of pinch-hitting for a pitcher's been rendered moot.
13Muchachos
3/13
I think my point is I would rather have someone at the plate who cared about what they were doing, having a plan and being prepared. 90% of the time you see pitchers now taking terrible swings and looking totally disinterested. Let's talk about the strategy behind throwing three or four pitches to a guy you know isn't going to hurt you compared to those lengthy at bats where an actual hitter can impact the game. Throwing eight or nine meaningful pitches a few more times in the game makes a difference. The overall results may seem insignificant from the DH vs pitcher stats since 73, but I'm positive making a pitcher work harder to a hitter is going to show later in a game, somehow. Granted if the DH wasn't introduced pitchers may have in fact worked on that part of their game, but just because the player who is batting in place of the pitcher isn't showing overwhelming results, doesn't mean offence isn't improved due to the more challenging match up. Yes that pinch hitter would be a qualified presence, but 4 at bats against 1 pinch hit appearance shouldn't even be an argument. That bench player would be somewhere playing everyday if he was so equivalent. I just think there is something to be said for having the DH in both leagues. Could the Cubs be even more fun seeing a guy like Baez playing everyday at a new position while the guy he replaces still getting his ABs? That's my double switch. I can't believe Manford hasn't instituted the DH in the NL for pace of play purposes. If you pinch hit the pitcher you go to more bullpen guys, more warm ups, match ups, mound visits! That's not baseball (sarcasm). And Rob, -1? What's that? Seriously I don't know what that's supposed to be? Did I do something wrong?
mainsr
3/13
Second point first. If anyone takes the time to read one of my posts and comment on it, unless it's to question my lineage or something, I always give the comment a plus vote, as I did for yours. Somebody out there (if it's at -1, as it is now, that's two somebodies) didn't appreciate your comment, but it wasn't I. I believe the research has shown that pitchers don't let up that much when facing opposing pitchers--they seem to have only one gear--but unquestionably, if those are shorter PAs, that makes the pitcher's job easier, so I agree with you. And yeah, it's tougher to PH than DH; MGL and others have demonstrated that. So I'm with you about the universal DH. I don't think we're going to get a lot of support if we take this out beyond the BP subscriber base, though.
holley
3/13
Feel like you've got the idea right here under general circumstances -- with specialization and shorter outings by pitchers limiting strategic impact of the DH -- but I don't believe this would hold quite as true if you solely target individual high-leverage situations in important late season games, and I think it is the strategic impact in precisely those situations that really rile the anti-DH advocates.
mainsr
3/13
The way the game's played today, there aren't that many of those situations, it seems. I know, 1991 Jack Morris Game 7, but what manager's going to leave his starter in the game for nine, much less extras? The situation where I could see it is when a team has a strong starter on the mound and a bullpen not as good as the Cubs' or Indians' last season. Like maybe Mets-Royals Game 5? Collins let Harvey bat in the last of the seventh. Granted, the Mets were up 2-0, but if it were a 0-0 or 1-1 or 0-1 game and he'd have pinch-hit for him, and the Mets lost, yeah, people would probably be talking about it (instead of talking about how he left Harvey in too long, so in the end, Collins looks bad either way). So yeah, I see your point.
holley
3/14
I agree that there aren't many of these situations, and would add that perhaps there shouldn't be much of an uproar over the strategic impact of the DH because of the limited nature of those situations. Of course, views aren't always purely logical, and for those adamantly opposed to the DH, I think those situations -- limited though they may be -- play an outsized role in shaping their beliefs on the issue. Can't say I can relate to it directly, because the DH doesn't really move the needle for me in either direction, but I feel that is part of the mechanism for those opposed to the DH. Enjoyed your piece, by the way. Keep up the good work.
mainsr
3/14
Thanks. And I agree, from what I've seen, the emotions are higher on the anti-DH than the pro-DH side, though my perception may be colored by my own views on the subject.
TonyMollica
3/13
With how expensive good pitching is, why would the owners want pitchers to bat and risk injury?
mainsr
3/13
I immediately thought of Chien-Ming Wang: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/16/sports/baseball/16yankees.html
NYYanks826
3/14
Don't forget Adam Wainwright, too.
mainsr
3/14
Ah, of course. Wainwright's more recent, too. My dad's torn the same achilles twice so I have this unnatural fear to the injury, so maybe I repressed it or something.
NYYanks826
3/15
I'm with you, Rob. My wife and I both like to run, and my wife dealt with an achilles injury for two years that pretty much kept her from running that whole time. It seems like such a small part of your body, but any injury to it is debilitating.
mainsr
3/16
Running injuries. I hear you, man. Lived/living it. As a guy I met said to his doctor, when asked about recreational drug use, "I'm a middle-aged runner. My recreational drugs are ice and Advil."
ErikBFlom
3/15
Earl Weaver pinch-ran pitchers in the AL. I remember Mike Boddicker being a pinch runner on several occasions. A pitcher is far more likely to injure himself pitching than hitting or running, especially if the player knows that he has that role on the team. I do agree that players that are put in circumstances for which they are not trained or do not practice have a greater chance of injury. In some sense the DH is unfair because it puts pitchers that move from the AL to the NL in an injury position. Which league's 'fault' this is more or less a baseball-religion question.
mainsr
3/16
"Baseball-religion." Love it. Yes, the NL as the last non-DH bastion left standing creates issues.
midzman
3/14
A primary issue I have with the DH is the DH's themselves. Baseball is a two-way game with players needing to be proficient in both its offensive and defensive aspects. What would Big Papi's career look like if he had to log 9 innings every day in the heat, cold, rain, etc instead of chilling in the dugout or clubhouse getting fat?
mainsr
3/15
Wouldn't you assume that he'd play first? He had earlier. If there weren't a DH, it's hard to imagine a batter that skilled not playing the game.
midzman
3/15
If I assume that, I also have to assume it would have an impact on his career. 1B is obviously the least demanding of the positions, but it still means doing more than sitting around waiting to hit again. In the NL, a day off means 1 PH AB. in the AL, it means 4-5 ABs w zero defensive implications. I hate the DH and its impact on strategies that I enjoy, but MLB has to get their shit together and make it uniform across the leages.
LlarryA
3/16
No it doesn't. For decades, there were functional differences between the leagues, and that was a *good* thing. In the late '60s, those differences faded, but the DH saved them. In the last 20 years, Czar Bud eliminated the remaining structural differences at the league office level (by eliminating the league offices), but there are those of us who feel that having a distinction between the leagues is important. Otherwise, we might as well just call them conferences and run a completely balanced schedule and be just like all the other sports.
Junts1
3/15
One thing about the DH that always bothered me, having lived in Omaha for a while, is seeing college teams with fantastic 2-way player pitchers, so some poor middle infielder gets DH'd for when that pitcher starts. I've always been a traditionalist about the DH, I can understand how it might lead to a better level of play, but one thing that I enjoy about baseball is the lack of specialist-type things, and that you have to pay a price for carrying a David Ortiz when there is no DH rule. Then again, I was the kid who used a wooden bat in little league, cause the metallic DINK is not the sound of baseball. This looks like it was written by a 60 year old, but I promise I'm only 35.
mainsr
3/15
This comment thread has gotten long, but somewhere up there, we talked about how the DH at the amateur level may not make sense.
chrisjacoby
3/15
NL Managers still have more of a strategy element to consider over AL Managers. Even though starting pitchers are pitching less and relief pitchers only pitch about an inning, their spot in the lineup still comes every 9th batter and the NL manager needs to decide which position player will take the at-bat over the pitcher. Therefore NL managers still employ more strategy (see Maddon's pitcher in the OF move) than their AL counterparts.
mainsr
3/15
No question, NL managers use a lot more PHs. However, I'd argue the decision about whom to use has become a lot more de rigueur and a lot less strategic today relative to where it was when the DH was established. As bullpens have become The Blob That Ate The Roster, an NL manager may find himself with just four players on his bench, two of whom (the utility infielder and the nth-string catcher) are likely to remain there rather than pinch-hit unless the game goes into extra innings, (1) in case of emergency and (2) because they can't hit. So the choice of which pinch hitter to use comes down to just a couple guys, and if one bats left and one right, or if one's clearly a superior hitter, it's really not a choice at all. Pitchers in the outfield are definitely fun. According to this SABR article (http://sabr.org/node/3254), from 1973 to 2010, there have been 40 pitchers who played in the field, 27 in the NL and 13 in the AL if I counted right. So I'll concede you that point. On the other hand, 40 pitchers in the field over 38 years is more an oddity (though a fun one!) than a feature, I'd argue.