In Defense of the Designated Hitter

Ben SheetsOh Pierre. Oh young, naïve, stupid Pierre. Where do I even begin with all the inaccuracies and logical fallacies in your argument?

I think I ought to start with your most ludicrous claim: that somehow the AL benefits from interleague rules more than the NL. Tim and I touched on this briefly before, but this argument is practically indefensible.

Here’s why: Adding a DH to your lineup can never—I repeat, NEVER—make a team worse. Pierre points out that Matt Stairs and Ben Francisco are not as good as Hideki Matsui. Well, duh. And Mark Teixeira is better than Mark Teahen. But guess what? Stairs and Francisco are a lot better than the hitters they replaced: Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. There is also the added defensive upgrade of playing the better fielder—Francisco—in left over Raul Ibanez for two games.

On the other hand, losing the DH always makes a team worse. And for AL teams, it often makes them significantly worse. Hideki Matsui, the eventual World Series MVP, had to essentially sit out half of the games because of the NL’s antediluvian rules. People made a big deal—rightfully so—about Chase Utley tying Reggie Jackson’s record of five World Series home runs. Well, at Matsui’s rate—3 HRs in 14 plate appearances—he would have surpassed the record with as many opportunities as Utley. But, hey, Andy Pettitte got an RBI, so it all evened out!

Pierre mentions DHs who can play the field. Hey, he says, the 2007 Red Sox didn’t have to bench Ortiz! Only Youkilis! Only Kevin Youkilis, of the .390 OBP and 83 RBIs that year! I’m sure Jon Lester’s ABs were able to duplicate that production. And I’m sure Ortiz’s fielding at first base was on par with Youkilis’ Gold Glove-winning performance that year.

The difference between the Yankees lineup for almost all of their games this year and the lineup they had to use for half of the World Series was huge and not at all in their favor. Conversely, the difference between the Phillies’ standard lineup and their road World Series lineup was slight and mildly in their favor.

The key logical fallacy Pierre makes is comparing the Phillies lineup to the Yankees lineup—it is not “unfair” for one team to be better than another. The relevant comparison is not between the two teams, but between the one team as it is for 150+ games and how it is set up for half of the World Series.

Pierre is right that the NL team can rarely take full advantage of the DH (although the Dodgers could have this year, with Jim Thome on their bench), since AL DHs are better than NL DHs. But it’s not against the rules to be better. Chase Utley is a better hitting 2B than Robinson Cano. Is that unfair?

Of course, this is disingenuous. Pierre’s argument is that AL DHs are virtually always better for a systemic reason. And he’s right. But NL pitchers also hit better for a systemic reason. NL teams usually have deeper benches than AL teams for systemic reasons.

The problem isn’t simply that DHs from the AL are better than those from the NL; the problem is that the interleague rules force each team to play by rules it is not accustomed to and, therefore, not set up to play by. AL teams very often have two of their most important players share a position, since they can DH one for most of the year; an NL team would never be set up that way. Conversely, an AL lineup has nine regular hitters; an NL team has eight hitters and a pitcher. In interleague rules, however, an AL lineup becomes worse and an NL lineup becomes better. This clearly favors the NL, but the real problem is the difference in rules to begin with.

After making the ridiculous argument that the AL has an advantage in the World Series thanks to the interleague rules, the rest of Pierre’s post is about how the DH makes a lineup better. Once again, as the kids are saying: Obvs. Of course the DH makes your lineup better, that’s why the AL added it 36 years ago.

Of course Pierre even got that wrong. He implied that the inferior hitting by pitchers was the result of the DH, as opposed to the cause of it. This is just not true. According to Baseball Prospectus, the league batting average of pitchers in 1960 was almost 100 points lower than the next lowest positional batting average. The average slugging percentage of pitchers was 150 points lower than the next lowest. In other words, the difference between your average hitting pitcher and even a weak hitting regular was greater than the difference between the weak hitting regular and an All-Star. This was 13 years before the introduction of the DH.

Pitchers have been bad hitters (with some obvious exceptions, like Babe Ruth and, to a much lesser extent, Bob Gibson) since the beginning of baseball. The first person to suggest that they be replaced for this reason was Connie Mack in 1906.* This is not exactly groundbreaking stuff. The DH may have exacerbated the problem, since now pitchers stop hitting earlier, but the problem was there for everyone to see for 65 years before the DH.

*Although, to be fair, Connie Mack had a lot of ridiculous opinions about baseball in his day: He didn’t bunt, and he preferred players who got on base over those with high batting averages. What a nut.

And arguments against the DH are universally wrong and reek of reactionary traditionalism. Pierre claims that the DH was implemented to “solve two problems that no longer exist.” OK, so we had a problem, we made a change, and the problem stopped existing? That’s called a “solution.” Why would you undo that?

Doctor: We’ve removed the clot in your artery that caused the heart attack.

Patient: That’s great news!

Doctor: Well, now that the problem no longer exists…we’re going to put it back.

Pierre also claims that NL baseball is “the way the game was meant” to be played. What kind of argument is that? Baseball doesn’t have a will of its own. It’s a sport, and sports evolve. Football was “meant to be played” without the forward pass. Basketball was “meant to be played” without dribbling. Baseball itself was “meant to be played” without blacks. People who invent sports get things wrong. We should not feel bound to their mistakes.

So, despite all of Pierre’s inane claims and logical missteps, he did finally settle on the right conclusion: The National League should adopt the DH. For one, the whole “different rules for different leagues” thing is a disaster. No matter who gets the advantage in the World Series, nobody’s happy playing by the other league’s rules.

And since one league needs to switch, the NL ought to add the DH. They shouldn’t do it “begrudgingly” or out of pressure from the American League; they should do it because it’s good for baseball. It makes teams better and it makes the quality of play better. So Pierre’s conclusion is right, even if his thinking is so, so wrong.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Monsieur S,

    Your argument that a designated hitter always makes a team better is comical. The quality of a team in a series matters only in regards to that of the team against which they are competing. For instance, say that for the World Series each team were allowed to add a 10th hitter to their lineup. The Yankees are given Albert Pujols; the Phillies are given Mark DeRosa.

    “Foul!” Philly fans cry out. “Why do we get DeRosa when they get Pujols?”

    “Calm down,” John S says. “You can’t deny your lineup is better with DeRosa than it was without. All is fair.”

    There are, in fact, degrees of improvement, and it is more than disingenuous to overlook the differences between adding Matsui to the lineup and adding Benjamin Francisco.

    Furthermore, you mention but do not address the point that the advantage is systemic. The differences between pitchers’ batting averages and a National League’s team bench are practically negligible. In fact, I would say American League teams have better benches in the World Series, since they have their DH on it half the time.

    For the sake of enlightenment, another hypothetical: Let’s say the American League is not allowed to use left-handed starting pitchers in AL stadiums. They can use them in relief (say, no more than three innings per appearance) and whenever they play in an NL park.

    “Foul!” you cry.

    But I would respond with, “But hey, you get to ADD Sabtahia to your rotation in the World Series. And before then, you have a wicked bullpen. It doesn’t matter that no sane left-handed starting pitcher would EVER sign in the American League. Think of all the right-handers you guys get!”

    Perhaps your most ridiculous assertion of all is your own hypothetical regarding solutions and problems. As I hope you are aware, mon frère, one does not continue to take medicine when the illness has gone away.

    “Your cancer is in remission!”
    “Phew, now I can stop chemo.”
    “Never! If we stop for a day, it could come back!”

    To imply that baseball’s offensive woes and sagging attendance would immediately return if and when the DH were abandoned is, I think, a bit ignorant.

    Finally, although my argument for the elimination of the designated hitter was but tangential to the overall one, I would hope that you recognize that rules changed well in advance of the creation of a professional league (see: the forward pass and dribbling) become more intrinsic components of sport than those changed a century after the establishment of a professional league.

    Remaining in the right,



  2. Posted by John S on November 7, 2009 at 11:30 PM

    You know, Pierre, just because you’re French doesn’t mean you get to be wrong AND a dick about it.

    Your Mark DeRosa/Albert Pujols example is stupid, and I would venture to say that you know it is. Francisco and Matsui are not arbitrarily assigned to the teams for the sake of the World Series. Matsui is an integral part of New York’s lineup for an entire regular season and two playoff rounds. He is not some ringer brought in on a whim of Bud Selig.

    The logical fallacy you’re committing is to view the DH as an addition for both teams. By this logic, yes, the Yankees Lineup + Matsui is unfair compared to the Phillies Lineup + Francisco. But that is not how it works. The DH is not perceived as an “addition” by an AL team. Matsui is part of the Yankees Lineup. The DH is a fact of life for AL teams, not an addition. We sign players and build teams around it.

    AL teams view playing by NL rules as an unfair subtraction. By this logic, Yankees Lineup -Matsui is compared to the Phillies Lineup – Francisco. By this logic, the balance is tilted in Philadelphia’s favor. The player they lose is less important than the player we lose.

    Of course, both perspectives are wrong. The relevant comparison is whether the value of “-Matsui” is exceeded by the value of “+Francisco” I think, pretty clearly, that it is not. Hence, the advantage is in the NL’s favor.

    You’ll likely respond, with your usual French arrogance, that the Yankees Lineup is, by virtue of the DH, better than the Phillies Lineup. To this I say: Yes, but that’s not relevant. We’re discussing who benefits more from interleague rules, which require each team to play by the other team’s rules for half of the World Series. The DH obviously makes a lineup better; that is what it was designed to do.

    Which brings us to your doctor analogy. Like mine, I presume, it was somewhat in jest. I agree that removing the DH would not lead to 1968 levels of offense. But it would reduce offense; as you yourself admit, a DH makes a lineup better. This is a good thing.

    As for your final point, I don’t see what bearing “the creation of a professional league” has on the evolution of a sport. Once players begin to be paid, the rules are set in stone?

    If your point is merely that the passage of time makes rules more essential, then I would point out the DH has now been around for 36 years. An entire generation of fans and players has now grown up always having the DH. This, of course, is not an argument in its favor, it merely highlights the absurdity of those born after 1973 decrying the “introduction” of the DH.


  3. Posted by doc on November 8, 2009 at 1:01 PM

    Can MLB just make the DH a universal rule for both leagues? The DH not only impacts the way the game is played, but also the pitching stats in the 2 leagues. Since the DH was implemented, other differences in the leagues have disappeared or traditions dumped. Umpires have been made uniform in their equipment and strike zone (look at games 30 years ago, AL umps had protective gear on outside, NL on the inside). Now, MLB has a complex playoff system in both leagues – it almost killed Bob Costas, but helped (with steroids) to save baseball. Individual approaches to the game have also changed in that time frame. Batting swings, pitching motions, weight lifting etc. are now much different. One inning closers are the norm. But, the DH remains in only one league – stupid.


  4. […] made a little habit of writing defenses of things that were pretty popular to begin with (the designated hitter, grammar, Brüno, and of course, Barenaked Ladies, just to name a few). That’s why […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: