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The Designated Hitter Solution

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I have been a fan of Major League Baseball since the 1960's and I remember when the Designated Hitter Rule was established in 1973.

Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas

Recently a friend of mine suggested a rule change regarding the designated hitter. It seemed like a good idea and the longer I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make. As I began putting this article together, I became aware that the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has implemented this proposed rule change for the 2021 season. Apparently Major League Baseball (MLB) has an agreement with the Atlantic League to use that league for experimental rule changes. So obviously my friend and I are not the only people who have been thinking about this rule change. However, I have decided to go ahead with this article anyway, since I believe that the proposed rule change is a real good one.


Professional Baseball is the only major sport where at its highest level, its two leagues play under a significantly different rule. Historically baseball was played with the rule that the pitcher would bat like the other eight position players. However, in 1973 the American League adopted the Designated Hitter Rule, which permitted another player to bat in the place of the pitcher. The National League, however, continued to require the pitcher to bat.

The leagues continued to play under different rules until last year when both leagues used the Designated Hitter. However, the 2020 Season was sort of an outlier since it was unusually short due to Covid 19 and brought other new rules such as 7 inning double hitters and putting a runner on second base to start any extra innings. For the 2021 Season the National League has again rejected the Designated Hitter Rule and the two leagues are back to playing under different rules.

The main argument for the designated hitter (DH) is that pitchers are traditionally weak hitters and watching the pitcher bat is generally not very exciting. In addition, the designated hitter may allow an aging star player, whose skills in the field may have deteriorated, to continue to be able to hit without having to play in the field. Players like David Ortiz, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez who were some of the best hitters of all time, spent a good portion of their careers as designated hitters.

The main argument against the designated hitter is that it takes away from the strategy of the game. In the National League, where the pitcher bats, teams have to decide whether or not to pinch hit for the pitcher and then remove him from the game or allow him to hit with little chance of success. A pitcher may be throwing a good game, but the game remains close and when he comes to bat with runners on base it poses a difficult managerial decision. Since the designated hitter is usually one of the better hitters on the team, the American League Manager does not have to face this kind of decision.

So what is the solution? Do the two leagues go on playing under different rules with interleague games either having the DH or not depending on whether it is being played in a National or American League Park? Recent talk seems to be indicating that in the near future the National League will adopt the designated hitter rule. However, I believe there may be another option that might be preferable.

How about a rule where teams could use the designated hitter as long as the starting pitcher remained in the game. However, after the starter was removed the pitcher would then be required to bat. Currently, relief pitchers rarely bat in the National League anyway. It is the at bats of the starting pitcher that the public finds to be uninteresting. Once the relievers enter the game, the pitcher is generally removed for a pinch hitter.

It would seem that this rule may be the “best of both worlds”. The DH would still be in play, but by removing the DH when the starter was removed, it would help keep the strategy of the game that the National League has wanted to retain. Under this rule, when the starter is removed, the team would have the option of just replacing the DH with the pitcher or putting the DH in the game and having the pitcher bat in the place in the order of the player that was removed from the game.

David Ortiz

David Ortiz

This rule also may benefit baseball in another more subtle way. The game of baseball is currently undergoing some major changes in how it is being played. Much of this change is being caused by the growing number of pitchers who are throwing with a higher velocity. Many of these pitchers are relief pitchers who come in for an inning or two and then are replaced by a similar hard throwing pitcher.

The result of this higher velocity pitching is that there are more strikeouts and fewer hits and generally more pitches being thrown. The average number of pitches per batter was 3.97 in 2020 compared to 3.83 in 2010 and 3.76 in 2000. With more pitches being thrown, the result is longer games. The average time of a game in 2020 was 3 hours and 7 minutes, in 2010 it was 2 hours and 50 minutes and in 1980 it was 2 hours and 33 minutes.

Another cause of longer games is a steady parade of relief pitchers, which necessitates extra time for each pitching change. In 2020 the average number of pitchers per game by one team was 4.43, in 2010 it was 3.87, in 1990 it was 3.02 and in 1980 it was 2.56. In addition, relief pitchers tend to walk and strikeout hitters at a higher rate than starters. In 2020 starters walked 8.3 % of the hitters they faced while relievers walked 10.2 % of the hitters they faced. Starters struck out 22.9 % of the hitters they faced where relievers struck out 24.1 % of the hitters they faced. Since relievers tend to walk and strikeout a higher percentage of hitters, they consequently will throw more pitches which takes more time.

From a fans standpoint the result of these changes are longer games with fewer balls being put into play due to all the strikeouts and therefore less action. So far in the 2021 season teams are averaging 9.05 strikeouts per game, which is the highest total on record. In 2010 it was 7.06 strikeouts per game, in 2000 it was 6.45 and in 1990 it was 5.67. In addition, so far in 2021 teams are averaging 7.70 hits per game which is the lowest total on record. In 2010 it was 8.76 hits per game, in 2000 it was 9.31 and in 1990 it was 8.75. Even in 1968 which was one of the most pitching dominated years on record, teams averaged 7.91 hits per game. This tremendous decline in offensive numbers and significant increase in strikeouts appears to threaten the long term popularity of the game.

These changes have also diminished the value of starting pitching. Historically starting pitching has arguably been the most important part of a team’s roster. The old saying “good pitching beats good hitting” usually meant that the team with the best starting pitching had a distinct advantage. That “innings eating” starter who could throw a complete game every fifth day was the cornerstone of the team.

However, now teams are generally only asking the starting pitcher to go five or maybe six innings before turning the game over to these hard throwing relievers. Since the demands of the starter are much less, there are many more starters who can do the job. As a result, the elite starters are no longer that much more valuable than an average starter.

Circling back to the proposed change to the designated hitter rule. If the designated hitter was only permitted to be in the game as long as the starter was in the game, it would create an incentive to keep the starter in the game. By keeping the starter in the game, the game would be shortened as a result of fewer pitching changes as well as fewer walks and strikeouts. In addition, since there would be fewer walks and strikeouts, there would be more balls put into play and therefore more action for the fans.

By creating an incentive to keep the starter in the game, this rule also would elevate the value of an elite starter who could go deep into the game and thereby keep the DH in the game. Elevating the value of starting pitching, in and of itself, may not necessarily improve the game. However, Baseball is also facing a problem of a lack of “star power”.

Pitching staffs are increasingly becoming more and more loaded with almost nameless and faceless relief pitchers and mediocre starters whom the fans of that team barely recognize. (The San Francisco Giants for the first time in many years decided to put the names of the players on the backs of their home jerseys) It is important for the fans to have a connection to not just the team, but to significant players on that team who are recognizable from year to year. Historically, it has been elite starting pitchers who have been some of the most recognizable players on a team.

In summation, this proposed rule change could potentially shorten the length of games which is currently a serious problem for MLB. It could reduce strikeouts and walks, thus providing more action for the fans and it could elevate the value of elite starting pitching which would help the games “star power”.

In addition it could once and for all bring both leagues together, playing under the same rules for the first time (other than 2020) in almost 50 years. Interleague games would finally be played on a level playing field for both teams.

There have been a number of rule changes proposed in the last couple of years by MLB and most of them seem to have both pluses and minuses. However, this rule change seems to have mostly pluses with very few, if any, clear minuses. If the league is going to implement any long term rule changes, this one should be at the top of the list.


Edgar Martinez

Edgar Martinez

SOURCES

Baseball Reference.com

Kent Walker-Suggested rule change

Comments

Dave Braun (author) from Chowchilla, CA on April 26, 2021:

Thanks for the comments. I am more of a national league guy and have been generally against the DH as well.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 25, 2021:

Interesting idea. Very well written hub.

I would actually do it the opposite way, starting pitcher bats until taken out. Then put in the DH. Though you're probably right, it would not help the speed of the game.

My preference is no DH at all, make the pitchers bat as much as possible. Make them athletes. I think pitchers have taken over the game too much anyway. I would even require the team to carry one less pitcher. That would set the union and pitching industrial complex on fire :) Might make the games go faster?

But the strikeouts are ridiculous. You can't sustain a sport that does not put the ball in play.

Keep up the good work. Stay well, CJK.

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