There are few topics more polarizing among baseball fans than whether Major League Baseball should adopt a universal designated hitter. Proponents of the DH argue that there’s little excitement derived from watching pitchers hit, while detractors lament the loss of strategy that would come from removing the frequent double-switches, determining when to pinch-hit for a pitcher and the general small-ball aspects of the game that are inherently tied to pitchers hitting.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred touched on the subject briefly following the quarterly owners’ meetings this week, as Scott Boeck of USA Today writes. While Manfred didn’t delve into specifics, he did hint that the adoption of National League designated hitters could be on the horizon.
“I think that is a continuing source of conversation among the ownership group and I think that the dialogue actually probably moved a little bit,” Manfred said of the ongoing discussion regarding the DH being utilized by National League clubs. That certainly doesn’t indicate when a potential change of the rules would be put into place, but it does make it sound likelier that said change will be implemented at some point in the future.
It’s true that employing a designated hitter in both leagues would eliminate some more conventional means of strategy. Double-switches force managers to get creative with their lineups and use their bench pieces in selective fashion. Pitchers hitting leads to more sacrifice bunting and creates some degree of gamesmanship when it comes to facing the eighth-place (or, in some instances, seventh-place) hitter ahead of the pitcher. Many hitters have seen an artificial boost to their OBP by virtue of being pitched around or intentionally walked in order to face the pitcher (or in order to force the opposing manager to pinch-hit and thus remove a starter from the game). Those elements, of course, would be no more. Fans who’ve spent decades primarily watching the game played in a certain fashion may understandably bristle at the notion.
Does the advent of a DH in the National League necessarily “eliminate” strategy, though? At a time when defensive shifting is at an all-time high and becoming all the more advanced, it’d be easy to argue that the increased prevalence of data (and its manifestation in the on-field product) simply creates new types of strategy.
It’s commonplace now to not only see fielders shifting at the beginning of a player’s plate appearance but to even begin re-positioning themselves during said plate appearance based on the count. We’ve seen some teams, the Cubs most recently, shift pitchers to the outfield for one batter as a means of keeping them in the game to set up multiple left-on-left and right-on-right matchups that would otherwise be broken up by an opposite-handed batter. (Just this week, Chicago moved Steve Cishek to left field to get a lefty-lefty matchup against the Brewers before bringing Cishek back to the mound to face Lorenzo Cain — a move which Cain amusingly said “kind of broke my heart.”) The Rays have been using relief pitchers to open games in hopes of more effectively neutralizing an opponent’s best hitters early. If anything, strategy seems to be evolving rather than evaporating.
Still, many traditionalists simply enjoy the novelty that comes with pitchers taking turns at bat. I doubt I’m alone in acknowledging that I’ve watched Bartolo Colon’s home run against James Shields a borderline-unhealthy number of times in my life. Plenty of fans would like to see Madison Bumgarner participate in the Home Run Derby at some point in his career. The arrival of Shohei Ohtani in the United States has only further created some intrigue around pitchers hitting. Allowing pitchers to hit does create some unexpected moments of excitement, as any Diamondbacks fan who watched Archie Bradley’s seventh-inning, two-run triple during last year’s NL Wild Card game can attest.
At the same time, with the notable exception of Ohtani, there’s little denying that even the best-hitting pitchers simply aren’t good hitters. Bumgarner is considered the game’s best in that regard (again, excepting Ohtani), and the best four-year stretch of his career saw him bat .224/.272/.433 (from 2014-17). That’s a slightly worse level of output than Tommy Joseph turned in for the Phillies last season before being designated for assignment, claimed by the Rangers and, eventually, being sent outright to Double-A.
Pitchers are batting a collective .111/.144/.140 this season and striking out at a 42.8 percent pace. Conversely, the league-average non-pitcher is hitting .249/.321/.413 with a 21.8 percent strikeout rate. As the league explores ways in which to increase the frequency of the ball being put into play, giving the National League a regular designated hitter would be one way to go about doing so. Pitchers batted 5277 times last season and struck out in 2028 of those plate appearances (38.4 percent). Nearly halving that number would’ve resulted in (roughly) 1,000 fewer strikeouts, and the discrepancy between hitter and pitcher strikeouts has only increased from 2017 to 2018.
While many fans would argue that the American League should simply drop the DH, there’s no way that the MLBPA would agree to that during collective bargaining agreement talks, as it’d remove as many as 15 jobs for offensive-minded position players, so for the purposes of this poll, I’ll withhold that option from being an answer. That said, the topic generally makes for a rather spirited debate, so we’ll open this up for all of our readers to weigh in (link to poll for Trade Rumors app users).