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Want more strategy in baseball? Then you definitely want to use the DH
A few weeks ago I took part in an online discussion about the designated hitter, which remains controversial even after 40 years of existence. I am pro-DH and the person I was talking to was surprised to learn my reason why: I like the DH because it increases strategy.
I can hear the gasps. Increases strategy? But the common wisdom is that the DH decreases strategy.
As is often the case, common wisdom is much more often common than it is wise.
Let’s digress for a moment to address the concept of strategy. By definition, strategy is a plan to achieve a specific goal. In the broader terms of going head to head with someone, it is devising a plan that the opponent is not expecting in an effort to gain an advantage. Doing the expected is not strategy.
Military commanders constantly strive to create plans that the enemy is not expecting in order to gain the advantage in battle. George Washington sent his troops across a nearly-frozen Delaware River on Christmas night in order to attack the Hessian mercenaries hired by the British.
It was a brilliant strategy. The Hessians, not expecting an attack, had celebrated the holiday as many people do even today by getting drunk. They discovered that it’s hard to fight a battle with a raging hangover.
In baseball, strategy also involves trying things the opposing team isn’t expecting. While managing the Cubs, Don Zimmer once called two pitch outs in succession with a known basestealer on first. On the next pitch the runner took off because common wisdom says no one will call three straight pitchouts, right? Except that’s what Zimmer did and the runner was gunned down at second.
A brief history of the DH
So that is strategy. Now let’s look at a brief history of the designated hitter.
Many people are surprised to learn that the concept of the designated hitter is almost as old as baseball itself. Legendary manager Connie Mack proposed the idea in the early 1900s. In 1929 National League owners seriously discussed changing their rules to allow a DH, but it failed to gain enough support to be enacted.
Then came the pitching era of the 1960s when the bottom dropped out of offense. The mound height was lowered starting in the 1969 season and while offense recovered, the American League seemed to lag behind. In hindsight, we can see that probably was mostly due to some of the best pitchers in baseball history all playing at roughly the same time, plus the fact that American League still had some older, larger parks.
The solution, the AL decided, was to eliminate the nearly-useless bat in the pitcher’s hand and insert a permanent pinch-hitter. The first DH in history was the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg, who came to the plate in the first inning against the Red Sox on April 6, 1973. He walked with the bases loaded.
The DH initially gave a lot of older players and those who were essentially disabled a chance to remain in the game. Rusty Staub, Tony Oliva, Orlando Cepeda, Lee May, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew were among the early DHes
Here are the runs per game averages for each league in the five years before and after the DH.
Runs per game before the DH
Runs per game after the DH
Now the DH has been a part of baseball for 40 years, more than a third of the American League’s existence.
As I stated before, common wisdom says that the DH decreases strategy. The thought is that managers no longer have to think, they can just sit back in the dugout and wait for their sluggers to outslug the other team. Of course, that isn’t true at all.
The overrated double switch
Before I go on, I want to address the most common argument for the NL having more strategy – the double switch. This is one of the most overrated moves in a baseball.
To hear announcers talk, you need the educational equivalent of a NASA scientist or at least a membership in Mensa to be able to figure out the double switch. They always worry about AL managers in an NL park having trouble with the double switch.
In reality, even Little League managers use the double switch and, having spent a few years coaching at that level, I can attest that most of them could barely spell NASA. It’s a simple maneuver. I’m sure most AL managers would be surprised to learn that their ability to make this change is being questioned.
And it’s not like having a DH prohibits the double switch. AL managers still make it, just not involving the pitcher. You send an outfielder up to pinch hit for the second baseman, then leave the outfielder in the game in right field. That means you slide the new second baseman into the right fielder’s spot in the batting order. The double switch doesn’t happen all at once on the field, like it does in the NL, but it’s the same concept.
Looking at an NL situation
Now, finally, let’s get to how the DH adds strategy. First, let’s look at a typical NL situation with the pitcher batting in the ninth spot.
Let’s say Bennigan, the No. 7 hitter, gets on first. What do you do now as the manager? Well, you won’t have Bennigan steal because if he’s successful the other team would simply walk Chipotle, the No. 8 hitter, to face the pitcher.
You probably won’t call for the hit and run because if it’s unsuccessful you’ve made another out and you’re already assuming an out from the pitcher’s spot. And you’re not going to sacrifice, because what is the point of putting the runner in scoring position for someone who can’t hit. So the answer is simply to let Chipotle hit away.
The pitcher comes to the plate - and bunts
But suppose it’s Chipotle who gets on first, bringing up the pitcher, McDonald. If there are less than two outs, what is the call? If you said anything other than bunt you haven’t watched any NL games. The pitcher will always bunt in that situation. The third baseman usually plays at about 45 feet in anticipation.
Bunting is strategy, right? While many people define this as strategy, if we go back to the earlier definition of strategy, of doing something other than what the opponent is expecting, then clearly this isn’t strategy. (Besides, one thing sabermetricians have shown us is that the chances of a runner scoring from first with no outs is greater than one scoring from second with one out, so giving up the out on a sacrifice is almost the opposite of strategy.)
No manager will ever signal for a steal with the pitcher batting. He’ll never call for the hit and run with the pitcher batting. It will always be a bunt, sometimes with the bases loaded or even with the bases empty.
The pitcher reaches base
Now let’s suppose that McDonald, the pitcher, somehow reaches base. It happens occasionally even with the worst hitting pitchers. That brings Applebee, the leadoff man, to the plate with McDonald at first. Now what?
Well, McDonald isn’t going to steal. He’s the pitcher. You’re not going to call for the hit and run. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll give the sacrifice bunt signal, because a pitcher at second base doesn’t necessarily put him in scoring position, plus managers are loath to have their pitchers do any extra running. So the solution is to have Applebee hit away.
The potential of a pinch hitter
Let’s return for a moment to McDonald’s at bat. The manager has the option of sending in a pinch hitter for McDonald, and many NL managers do that. Rarely does a starting pitcher bat more than twice in a game unless he’s pitching extremely well and his team has a reasonably comfortable lead. NL relievers rarely bat. So the NL, in effect, has a revolving DH.
But even sending up a pinch hitter doesn’t do a great deal to increase strategy. Suppose in the above scenario, Chipotle reaches first and the manager sends King up to hit for McDonald.
That pretty much means you’re not going to bunt, because if you were, you’d have left McDonald in the game. Pinch hitting is by no means an easy thing to do, especially if the manager makes a split-second decision and the hitter has had no time to mentally prepare.
With that in mind, the hit and run is also probably out the window. You might have Chipotle steal and, depending how good Applebee is at hitting, the opposing team probably won’t intentionally walk the pinch hitter. So you do increase strategy slightly by inserting King to bat for the pitcher, but not by a great deal.
So with the pitcher in the lineup, the NL manager has potentially four spots in the batting order where he virtually has no decision to make. Conversely, the manager and players of the defensive team have much less to worry about in terms of counter strategy.
A look at the scenario with the DH
Now let’s view the same scenario in the American League (or any of the minor leagues, college, high school, AAU, Little League or slow-pitch softball, since the NL is the only league in the United States to not use the DH).
In this case, McDonald, the pitcher will not bat. The designated hitter will probably be in the middle of the lineup, so he’s not even going to factor into this discussion. We’ll still have Bennigan bat seventh and Chipotle eighth, but now the speedy leftfielder Friday is in the nine hole (Thurston Godwin Ignacio Friday, but he just uses his initials, TGI).
So many options
Let's go through the same scenarios. Bennigan reaches first. Now what do you do with Chipotle? You have options! Not only do you have more options as the manager of the offense, but the manager of the defense has to be much more wary.
Obviously Bennigan could steal and the opponent probably won’t walk Chipotle intentionally to face Friday. You could employ the hit and run or you could sacrifice Bennigan into scoring position.
Suppose it’s Chipotle on first with Friday at the plate. Do you sacrifice? You might. Or you might not. You could have Chipotle steal his way into scoring position. You could hit and run. Options abound.
And if it’s Friday who reaches first? He’s got speed, so a steal is a viable strategy. Applebee, your leadoff man, is up and can handle the bat so there’s the hit and run to consider. And depending on the situation, Applebee might put down a bunt to get Friday into scoring position for the big lumber coming up behind him.
In other words, you now have strategic options to think through with each batter in those four positions, and the opposing team has to be on its toes thinking through counter-strategies. While the DH himself may not figure into any of these strategies, having him in the lineup creates the possibilities throughout the batting order.
Judging a pitcher on his pitching not his hitting
This also now allows the AL manager to make pitching moves based on the pitcher’s pitching ability rather than his hitting ability. I’ve often seen an NL manager remove a starter who has been throwing well in a close game in favor of a pinch hitter, then sending a lesser pitcher to the mound the next inning.
Suddenly his team is no longer behind 1-0, it’s 4-0. While there’s no guarantee the starter wouldn’t have imploded that inning, too, the chances are that if he was feeling good he would have continued to keep his team close for another inning or two. But because he can’t hit a lick, he’s on the bench watching his team fall farther behind.
While this was a strategic move on the part of the NL manager, it was a move made from a position of weakness rather than on a strength. Those often don’t work out favorably.
Other strategic options
Beyond the playing field, the DH also opens up other strategic options. The Yankees have been pioneers at using the DH slot as a way to give their veterans a partial day off. This helps keep them fresher by the end of the season while still keeping their bats in the lineup.
Of course, there are occasions where a pitcher does come through with a hit. He didn’t get that .167 batting average by never putting the bat on the ball. But with rare exception, such as a Micah Owings or Ken Brett, even your backup second baseman has a better chance of being successful at the plate than a pitcher.
And just because an AL manager has more strategy available to him, it doesn’t mean he’s going to use it. Managers often let the bottom of the order hit away without calling anything strategic. But the option, at least, is there.
Agreement from the experts
But my contention is that using the designated hitter opens up many more strategic opportunities for a team to win than does having a pitcher bat.
You don’t have to believe me, though. All you have to do is look to the experts, the National League managers. Every one of them, without exception, when playing in an American League park will use the DH. Even a master strategist like Tony LaRussa used the DH.
Don’t you think that if having the pitcher batting increased strategy and improved a team’s chance of winning that the NL managers would eschew the use of the DH? Of course they would. You do what gives you the best chance of winning, and the DH does that.