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Here are the numbers that show why the DH should be adopted in the National League

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And there might be another reason for the new DH proposal.

Someone who could be a very good DH for the Cubs
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Yesterday, Josh wrote this long article about possible rule changes for 2019, including a player proposal that the designated hitter should be adopted in the National League.

I’m not posting another poll; we already know that BCB readers are pretty much evenly split on the issue, and many have shared both pro- and anti-DH arguments.

What I’m going to do here is to present numbers that show how pitcher hitting has gone from “decent” to “mediocre” to “downright awful” since 1901. I’m using that date for the beginning since 1901 is the year the American League was formed and the 16-team structure that lasted for 60 years was created.

I looked at pitchers with at least 90 plate appearances in a season, figuring that’s a reasonable cutoff even today, when starting pitchers who complete a full season usually make 34 starts. 90 plate appearances over 34 starts is 2.65 per start, which seems about right in 2019. Of course, with more complete games in prior years, more pitchers would clear that bar. Then I searched for pitchers with an OPS over .500. Here are the results, noting how many pitchers qualified using those criteria and listing the best such performance in the time frame.

Pitchers with at least 90 PA and an OPS over. 500, 1901-2018

Years Number of pitchers Best OPS performance OPS
Years Number of pitchers Best OPS performance OPS
1901-1920 301 Babe Ruth, 1915 .952
1921-1940 284 Walter Johnson, 1925 1.033
1941-1960 146 Don Newcombe, 1955 1.028
1961-1980 79 Don Drysdale, 1965 .839
1981-2000 22 Rick Rhoden, 1984 .750
2001-2018 7 Jason Marquis, 2005 .786

As you can see, the number of pitchers hitting well declined precipitously over the 118 years covered here. Babe Ruth, of course, though a great pitcher, was an even greater hitter. Walter Johnson was known as being a good hitter in his time; he hit 24 career home runs and posted 12.7 bWAR as a hitter.

But those days were filled with pitchers who didn’t throw as hard as pitchers do today, nor did pitchers in Johnson’s and Ruth’s era have to face a parade of relievers throwing 95+.

Over the years there have still been some good-hitting pitchers. Don Drysdale hit seven home runs the year he posted that .839 OPS. The Dodgers were such a weak-hitting team that only six of his position-player teammates had more homers that year. On the other hand, Drysdale’s teammate Sandy Koufax, a great pitcher, hit .177/.242/.195 in 1965 and struck out 44 times in 127 plate appearances.

But since 1972, only three pitchers have hit five or more home runs in a season (Mike Hampton, seven in 2001; Carlos Zambrano, six in 2006 and Madison Bumgarner, five in 2015). And if you think that’s because the DH eliminated A.L. pitchers from hitting (most of the time), from 1900-72 there were 16 seasons of five or more homers by N.L. pitchers, 17 such seasons by A.L. pitchers. So at most, maybe we’re missing three such seasons because of the DH, if history is a guide.

Rick Rhoden was such a good hitter that he was actually used as a DH in one game, and by that I don’t mean he hit in a game he pitched for the Yankees — they actually used him as the designated hitter in a game someone else pitched. Here’s that 1988 game; Rhoden went 0-for-1 with a sacrifice fly before someone else took over at DH.

But even then, only 22 pitchers qualified by my criteria, and by the 2000s it was vanishingly rare. Just seven pitchers had at least 90 PA and a .500 OPS in the same season from 2001-18, and the .786 posted by Jason Marquis was the only one over .629.

Now, you’ll probably say that the stories I told above are good reasons to keep pitchers hitting. My point is that the things above happen so infrequently that it’s not really worth seeing a bad-hitting pitcher like Kyle Hendricks (.091/.119/.103 in 279 career PA with 123 strikeouts) take those three at-bats in a game — or fewer, because Hendricks is such a bad hitter that he’s more likely to be lifted for a pinch-hitter early, thus depriving the team of an inning or two of his pitching. Hendricks is just one example; last year two other pitchers (Aaron Nola and Mike Foltynewicz) had OPS lower than Kyle’s .180 with 60 or more PA. And for another example, you need look no further than Jose Quintana, who hit .077/.077/.077 (4-for-52) in 2017 with 26 strikeouts, and lifetime he’s even worse: .059/.077/.059, with 57 strikeouts in 119 plate appearances.

I mean, really... that’s awful, and not fun to watch.

There are even more numbers supporting the DH in two Joe Sheehan articles from previous years, which he has linked here:

Here’s a quote from the first of the linked articles in that tweet, which was originally written in 2013, that encapsulates my feeling on this topic:

Humans don’t have tails any longer because we don’t swing from tree branches any longer. We moved to the ground when the monkeys did not, we learned to walk upright and, over time, our tails went away. For pitchers, bats are tails. They learned a skill set that separated them from the other monkeys on the field, and the skills they did not need went away. The “nine players” argument that underpins the anti-DH position is, because of this, invalid. Pitchers are fundamentally a different class of player from the other eight on the diamond. Different rules apply to them. They’re compensated differently. They’re handled, within games and on rosters, differently. And they cannot, as a class, hit well enough to be asked to do so in a major-league setting. Their attempts to do so are an embarrassing anachronism not as of 2013, not as of 1973, but as of your great-great-great-grandparents’ baseball.

The DH isn’t an abomination, it’s a necessary adaptation to evolution. I join my friend Christina Kahrl in calling for the National League to adopt the DH so that we can watch the best brand of baseball possible.

Here’s Sheehan’s conclusion from the second linked article:

If you accept one-inning relief pitchers as baseball players, which the game clearly does, then you have to accept designated hitters as well. They’re two sides of the same coin. Three hundred eighty-one men pitched in the National League last season. More than a third of them never batted. More than half of them batted twice or less. Without a rule change, without controversy, without exobytes of arguments, the “designated pitcher” came into being over the last quarter-century. Isn’t it time we let that inform the DH discussion?

Pitcher batting has become a joke, with pitchers more overmatched at the plate than ever before. The evolution of pitcher usage is such that pitchers are asked to bat less than they ever have. Most pitchers, even in the National League, rarely bat, and a significant number of them never do. We’ve opened the Hall of Fame to players, full-career National League players, who almost never batted, a trend that will surely continue.

The argument that baseball purity demands complete players, a nine-man game, is forever lost. Let’s acknowledge that to end the silliness of pitcher batting.

Things haven’t changed in regard to the DH since Sheehan wrote those two pieces in 2013. In fact, I think you can make the argument that the DH is needed more now, and in large part because of the risk of pitcher injuries while batting or running the bases. I need give you no better example of that than Pedro Strop’s pulled hamstring while running to first base last September in Washington. If the N.L. had the DH last year, Strop would have remained in that game — and been available for the season’s last three weeks, when the Cubs needed to win just one more game to avoid the tiebreaker.

Or what about Jimmy Nelson’s injury diving into first base [VIDEO] at Wrigley Field in September 2017?

At first glance that doesn’t appear to be a serious injury, though you can tell Nelson was hurting. He has not thrown a single pitch in a game since then. He’ll be at spring training this year with the Brewers, but they say they’re not going to rush him.

As Joe Sheehan said, and I think this is worth repeating: “Pitchers are fundamentally a different class of player from the other eight on the diamond. Different rules apply to them. They’re compensated differently. They’re handled, within games and on rosters, differently.”

And as a result, I think they should be excused from hitting, forever. This is not a new idea, either; the leagues nearly adopted the DH 91 years ago, a move that was sponsored by the N.L.:

At the 1928 meetings the Commissioner just missed casting the deciding vote on a measure which would radically have changed the playing of baseball, not only in the majors, but all the way down the line. National League president John Heydler, usually a conservative gentleman, proposed a radical change in the rules whereby a tenth player could be used by a manager to bat in place of the pitcher throughout the game. If the manager had a hitting pitcher, he could, of course, have permitted him to hit, but under the suggested rule most managers would have carried an extra player whose sole duty would have been to bat. It would have been a paradise for the “good hit, no field” guys.

The National League generally favored the innovation. The American League was opposed. In those days, it was a usual procedure for each league to oppose anything, no matter how commendable, which emanated from its rival. It looked as though it would be up to Landis to break the deadlock, and I heard at the time he would have supported the Heydler idea. When he had been a Chicago fan, he had suffered too often when some weak-hitting Cub or White Sox hurler spoiled a rally by smacking into a double play. However, just before the joint meeting, the National League withdrew the “tenth player” suggestion, and the public never did get to know whether Landis would have voted “yes” or “no.”

Here’s one further thought: The universal DH is just one of a number of proposals that have been made by both owners and players in an attempt to get more offense in the game. No doubt, having a DH in the N.L. would do that. One of the other proposals has been limiting or banning defensive shifts, something I’m adamantly opposed to. What if having the DH in both leagues would have the proposed shift ban put on the shelf, forever? I don’t want to watch a game where players have to stand in a certain position until the ball is hit.

The DH is a polarizing issue, no question about it. It’s worth noting what Len Kasper tweeted the other day:

I’m probably not going to change your mind if you’re dug into your position that you hate the DH, and Len says he’s not particularly a fan of the universal DH. But as Len’s last tweet above says — and I’ve made the point about MLB really being one league, even though we have two NFL-style conferences called “leagues” for historical consistency — the universal DH is coming. I think it’s better to embrace it, especially since in the baseball era we currently inhabit, it would likely be a very good thing for the Chicago Cubs.

Lastly, it was noted in the comments to Josh’s article that the rules of baseball say that it’s a “game of nine players” and that the DH makes 10. Here’s what the rule book actually says about that, right in the very first rule:

1.01 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.

What that rule does not say is that the teams have to use the same nine players on offense and defense. In a game that has a DH, nine players play the field, and nine players bat. Rule 1.01 notes that a game is played “in accordance with these rules.” If the rules say that one of the hitters is a designated hitter for a pitcher, that doesn’t violate any part of 1.01. Rule 6.10 explains how the DH is used in a game.

It’s time, long past time, actually, in my view. I hope the universal DH is adopted in time for the 2019 season.