It’s Time for Uniformity in Baseball’s Designated Hitter Rule

Photo Credit: Adam Hunger/USA Today

Baseball’s crazy Designated Hitter rule is something I’ve written about in the past and is something I feel very strongly about. However, it’s not something that I’ve ever really taken a deep dive into, but that changes right now. In this post, I’ll tell you what I think of the universal DH and pitchers hitting; my opinion on this is relevant due to recent events and the present landscape of baseball.

Yesterday, the San Francisco Giants concluded their four-game weekend series against the Washington Nationals. Matt Cain started the game and carried a no-hitter through the first five innings. However, Cain threw nearly 100 pitches in the process and was only making his third start since missing almost two months of the season with a hamstring injury. So manager Bruce Bochy came up with a brilliant idea; the Giants would pinch-hit Cain with Cy Young Contender and Pitcher Who Rakes Madison Bumgarner. And lo and behold, it worked!

But wait, there’s more. Not only did Bochy use Bumgarner to hit but he also pinch-ran Bumgarner with Jeff Samardzija, another one of his pitchers. Samardzija would eventually score on an error by the Nats’ Anthony Rendon. On the surface, the strategy was ingenious; the Giants used no position players and even scored a run in the process. But this is the problem: it put two pitchers at risk, a risk we’ve seen come to fruition on several occasions. But hey, why put one pitcher at risk when you can endanger two?

The Giants ended up winning the game 3-1, and the 5th inning of Bumgarner and Samardzija played a major role in the final outcome. But the outcome would be very different if one or both of the team’s star pitchers sustained injuries in the process of their journey around the bases.

There is an argument to be made for pitchers hitting in both leagues. For example, there’s the shock value that accompanies any positive result that comes out of any at-bat by a pitcher. And then there’s also a good deal of entertainment value that comes from watching pitchers work. Just look at Bartolo Colon.

Colon, who stands at 5’11”, 285 lb. and is widely known by the nickname “Big Sexy”, is one of the most entertaining at-bats in all of baseball. This is’nt because he’s a great hitter or has a great swing or works deep into counts. It’s because he puts his all into every swing, sometimes at the expense of his helmet or even his bat.

His at-bats were regarded as a complete joke… and then he hit the home run. It’s one of the great moments of my lifetime and getting to experience it is something that none of us will ever forget.

Simply put, we enjoy watching Bartolo Colon at the plate; the entertainment value in watching an oversized neophyte trying to hit a baseball is far greater than watching a designated hitter give a far more professional at-bat. However, we have to reach a point where we look beyond humor value and study the actual numbers behind pitchers hitting and ask ourselves whether it’s worth it to keep the same rules in place.

This season, like many others before it, has seen some really bad hitting from baseball’s pitchers. In the majors, pitchers are hitting just .131, and the sample size (3,499 at-bats) is not small, either. The numbers get even uglier, though, when you go to the American League: over there, pitchers are hitting .119 in just 268 at-bats. Aside from a few exceptions to the rule (Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Greinke), pitchers as a whole are terrible at the plate. And most pitchers don’t commit outs with Colon’s entertainment value, so having pitchers hit is not exactly aesthetically pleasing to the baseball viewer’s eye. But hey, let’s keep the rule the way it is because that’s the way it always was. That makes a ton of sense.

(statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus)

The other question we need to ask ourselves is this: is it fair to have a different set of rules for each league? For example, do you know of any other sport that has a different set of rules between its two leagues? If basketball allowed more contact in the Western Conference than the Eastern Conference, would that be fair to the players, especially come playoff time? What if the NFL allowed the offense to have a twelfth player on the field, but only in the AFC? Would that bring unity to the NFL product? My guess is that it would not, and the league would never do it because keeping the same set of rules for everyone is actually something that actually protects the shield.

Well, guess what? This is what Major League Baseball is dealing with here. But I guess nothing is really surprising when you consider that the league decides home-field advantage in the World Series by way of an exhibition game that just this year alone let 60 different players take the field over the course of just 9 innings.

This is the bottom line: it’s not good for baseball to have a different set of rules for each league. In basically every World Series, discussion arises about how the NL team will use the DH and whether or not the AL team’s DH will be able to play the field in the NL team’s park. I’m not even really against having the pitcher hit in both leagues just as long as each league is playing by the same set of rules. 

The numbers also tell the story of an unnecessary disparity: the National League has scored 230 fewer runs than the American League so far this season. What’s worse is that National League teams have played an average of roughly one more game than each American League team, so at this point, we basically know what we’re getting out of each league.

But is it fair to all major league teams to have a different set of rules for each league? Is it fair to the pitchers to put them at risk by making them do something they really aren’t good at? This particularly pertains to AL pitchers who only have to hit a handful of times over the course of a season. And is it fair to the fans of this game to make them watch what is often a sure out at the bottom of the lineup? Granted, there is some strategy in having pitchers hit (bunting, intentionally walking the 8th hitter, etc.), but the product is not as good as it would be if both leagues had a Designated Hitter.

But even if that’s not going to happen, can we just have the same set of rules for each league? It’s much fairer and would create a better, more unified product for the fans and players. More importantly, it would make interleague play much easier and would remove questions about what each team would do if it played in a ballpark of the other league.

But we know that this won’t happen, so let’s just roll with the current system and pray for another #BigSexyBomb in the very near future.