Real Fans Love the DH
What do the following have in common? Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove and Dazzy Vance. Right, they were all truly awful hitters. What about these three? Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg? Right again. They were all mediocre to poor fielders.
Somehow all six managed to get elected to the Hall of Fame.
Let's try another quiz. What connects Wes Ferrell, Don Newcombe and Bucky Walters? Well done, they are among the best-hitting pitchers in history. On the other hand, the similarity among Paul Blair, Roy McMillan and Jerry Grote is that they are among the best fielders at critical defensive positions. Except, in this case, none of the six is in the Hall of Fame with the only one receiving any support being Ferrell.
We can consider the issue another way. Suppose two shortstops are competing for a roster spot. Shortstop A is a brilliant fielder but barely adequate with the bat. Shortstop B is a decent enough fielder and a star with the bat. Is it conceivable a team might choose B over A? On the other hand, Pitcher A is a decent hurler with a great bat while B is a brilliant pitcher with no bat at all. Is there any chance that the team would select A over B for the rotation?
In other words (assuming we answer the questions the same way), while we ascribe practically no value to a pitcher's hitting and never evaluate their effectiveness based on their bats, we insist that they should come to the plate to do that which we do not value. We rhapsodize over a game where the pitcher is a "complete" player, but only care about it when arguing theoretically. In practice, it plays no part in our choices.
There are three categories of reasons why I consider the Designated Hitter the superior form of baseball and the non-DH game as fundamentally dishonest. One concerns baseball strategy. A second has to do with the nature of the game and the third rests on the evolution of the game.
Contrary to commonly accepted belief, the DH increases strategic choices and eliminates one of the more egregious sins of baseball managers. For all the sentiment about how important it is for managers to decide when to use a pinch hitter or make the double switch, that is a vastly overrated strategic decision. In almost every case, the choice is made for the manager; every fan pretty much knows when the manager has to pinch hit in a game. The exceptions are rare. And while not quite so dramatic, the decision to pinch hit for a weak hitting defensive shortstop or center fielder remains in the DH game. As for the double switch, I am genuinely amused by the stress put on the complexity of this move, as if an AL manager moving to the NL needs hours of special courses to understand and utilize the concept.
The same holds for the sacrifice bunt. In most cases, its use is pre-determined by the situation, and we all know exactly when it will happen. The few variations from this standard practice hardly alter the predictability of it in the vast majority of cases. And, of course, there is also the abomination of the one-out sacrifice bunt. Can you imagine it ever being used except in the case of the pitcher at bat? It is the baseball equivalent of the quarterback taking a knee at the end of the game. Its purpose is not to score but to avoid losing. In fact, watching pitchers run to first base or come to bat with no intention of swinging or simply to swing wildly 3 times so as to avoid getting hurt or tired violates the competitive nature of baseball. I know there are exceptions, which is the point. They are exceptions. In most cases, the pitcher's spot is where the pitcher can relax a bit, where there really is no competition. The focus on the eighth-place batter getting on base so as to clear the pitcher's spot from the next inning when you really are trying to score demonstrates the fundamental dishonesty of pitchers coming to the plate.
The above discussion leads us to the real strategies. With the pitcher due up, the #8 hitter will rarely try to steal. The possibilities of hit and run or run and hit are virtually eliminated. The effort of the baserunner to distract the pitcher is pretty much discarded and is even less likely if the pitcher gets on base. With a DH, every spot in the lineup becomes part of the offense and all the strategies remain at the manager's disposal. There is far more suspense and far more interest generated in every at bat. Every at bat is competitive and none can be thrown away. It is honest baseball.
The very nature of baseball demands that pitchers not come to bat. It is incompatible with their function on the field, which is fundamentally different from every other position. Our very language, describing people as players OR pitchers, reflects the basic understanding of this fact. Is there any other position where it is conceivable to call someone with a line of .173/.193/.208 or .194/.234/.287 a good hitter for his position? But that is what we say of Greg Maddux and Warren Spahn, the perpetrators of those rate stats. True, there are outliers, some pitchers even serving occasionally as pinch hitters. Red Ruffing (.269/.306/.389) was one of the truly great hitting pitchers. He slugged 36 home runs or one for every 54 ABs. That is about as good as it gets outside of Wes Ferrell. Don Drysdale sometimes pinch hit, although his career line was only .186/.228/.295. He did, however, hit 29 home runs or one every 40 ABs. Great hitting pitchers are still lousy hitters.
But there is an elephant in the room. George Herman Ruth, the ultimate outlier. He hit and pitched brilliantly and simultaneously. And he demonstrates my point. Even the Babe could not keep it up. In fact, as his hitting prowess developed, he increasingly cut back on his appearances as a pitcher. In his last year in Boston, he pitched just 133.3 innings and had his least impressive results. Once in New York, he gave up pitching altogether, appearing in just 5 more games during his career in rather undistinguished fashion. Had he been able to combine strong pitching with great hitting, it would have made sense to have him do both, appearing as the #3 hitter as a pitcher while playing outfield the other days, but that was never tried once in NY. There may be other reasons for not maximizing his effectiveness as both hitter and pitcher, I suppose, but I think it most likely that it could not be done. In recent years, there have been some efforts to combine the two functions as with Brooks Kieschnick with middling results.
The fact remains that the pitcher's function is so specialized and unique, requires such concentration on particular skills, that it is not reasonable to expect them to divide their attention by focusing on batting to the extent they can become adept at it. I know many pride themselves on working on their hitting and on particular skills like bunting but, no matter the pride, it has to remain a minor component of their efforts. And even more than ever before, such minimal attention to hitting cannot lead to a really usable skill in the majors, the rare (apparent) exception like Micah Owings aside.
Which leads us to the evolution of the game. At its inception, pitching was a different creature from what it has become. The pitcher was in many ways the least important team member at the start, limited to pitching underhand and having to place the ball where the batter wanted. In the early history of the game, specialization was less developed, players moving from position to position regularly, including pitchers. It made sense for the pitcher to hit as he was no different from the other players. In fact, even the greatest stars like Ed Delahanty and Honus Wagner were expected to play infield and outfield. The tradition of specialization evolved, and I wouldn't be surprised if some early 20th century commentators can be found who decried the modern ballplayer who lacked the completeness of earlier stars by playing just one position.
This specialization was particularly spectacular in the case of pitchers. The skills they increasingly needed to succeed precluded them from developing their offensive capabilities. Even the greatest pitchers – Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Mordecai Brown – were terrible hitters. Partly this was because they did it so much less than before, although the great 19th century pitchers were awful hitters, too. Over the years, pitchers got fewer and fewer ABs, fewer opportunities to practice the skill on the field of play. Old Hoss Radbourne got to bat over 300 times in three separate seasons. Mathewson's high was 133 ABs, Tom Seaver's 95, and Maddux never topped 91. Relief pitchers, of course, nearly never come to bat.
We need to recognize that asking pitchers to hit eliminates the essence of the game which is fair competition. We remember the occasions when pitchers get a bit hit or contribute with the bat because it is so rare, and that is not a legitimate argument because what we should want is for every AB to provide the reasonable possibility of real competition. We do not justify a situation because of accidents. We get sentimental about the tradition of baseball in which pitchers hit, but we have to recognize that the game has changed and the urgency of correcting a mistake from the start, including placing pitchers in the lineup, should be corrected to reflect its increasing absurdity.
Were we starting fresh to create the game in 2008, it would make sense to separate the pitcher from all other players. There is no reason to keep it because the people who developed the game in the 1800s made the mistake to include them.
Bob Rittner is a retired history teacher. He plays softball to maintain the illusion of youth and shuffleboard as a hedge against that illusion being smashed.