The Baseballist: Three Reasons Why Adding The DH Makes Sense For The NL

While no outcome in baseball is certain, some outcomes are more certain than others.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more consistently reliable outcome than what transpires when major league pitchers step into the batter’s box. Pitchers accounted for an out 86.2 percent of the time they came to the plate in 2014, the highest rate of the DH era, while they likewise reached historical low points in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging capability.

The major league-wide pitcher batting line last season–.122/.153/.153–looks even worse when compared with non-pitcher rates. Despite flagging batting ratios all over the diamond, pitchers’ cumulative OBP was 48 percent as productive, and the slugging percentage 39 percent as loud, as position-player output in 2014. Those are all-time low comparisons, meaning that even as position-player batting rates have declined in recent years, pitchers have fallen further behind even the lowered baseline.

In fact, pitchers have not compared more unfavorably with non-pitchers in the 42 completed seasons of the DH era. Their adjusted-OPS+* last season, when compared with the league-wide average for all non-pitchers, fell to -13, which means pitchers were roughly 113 percent less productive than position players. This is yet another dubious all-time achievement for pitchers in the DH era.

Just A Trend?

Pitchers always have been poor hitters, granted, but for the first five years of the DH era, they were 90 percent less effective than non-pitchers. Through a decade of DH play, they had slipped a bit to 92 percent worse–but the rate of decline picked up speed soon after and has continued unabated.

Pitchers hit the century mark in 1983, the 11th season of the DH era, when they registered a zero OPS+, which made them 100 percent less effective with a bat in their hands than non-pitchers. What’s more, just twice in the intervening 31 years have pitchers peeked their head above zero, and with a 2 OPS+ in 1984 and a 1 in 1989, they did not accomplish that goal with much room to spare.

The trend line for pitchers hitting shows no sign of a course correction, either, not with an average -3 OPS+ for the 1990s, a -5 for the 2000s and now a -7 (and dropping) through five seasons of this decade.

We Cannot Cling To The Old Dreams Anymore

Stated bluntly: The time has come for the National League to adopt the DH rule that the American League has played with since 1973. From a personal standpoint, I have reversed course on the DH issue after divorcing notions of aesthetic preference and tradition in favor of evidence and heartless logic. I don’t think I’m alone. Pro-DH sentiment seems to be gathering momentum in the industry.

When Baseball America polled big league managers during our Best Tools balloting in the summer of 2013, we learned that two-thirds of managers–12 of 18 respondents to a confidential survey–would be in favor of adding the DH rule to the NL.

Front office executives seem to be more split in their opinions, but one NL assistant general manager believes AL teams hold a distinct advantage because of their access to the DH. “They can ‘rest’ a player but still get four at-bats from him in a given night,” he said. “On the other hand, when we give (our best player) a day off, it’s a full day off, and we can’t take advantage of his bat.”

Plus, AL clubs already have the DH position stocked for interleague and World Series competition, giving them a theoretical advantage on NL teams.

One AL farm director expects the NL to add the DH eventually, but only after the players concede something through collective bargaining because, he said, adding the DH to the NL would create more high-paying jobs.

No Competition

Not only is it a demonstrable fact that pitchers are worse hitters today, in both absolute and comparative terms, but they will only become less and less proficient at the plate in the coming years.

“I think much of the reason for (the declining production of pitchers hitting) is the increased specialization at the youth levels,” one NL farm director said. “As amateurs, many pitchers focus entirely on that craft and don’t play a position when they’re not on the mound.

“As with anything, there are exceptions. Some guys are two-way players, but I think the large majority are exclusively pitchers. It’s very similar to youth sports–fewer and fewer kids are playing multiple sports when they’re young.”

The pitcher at-bat has become increasingly non-competitive in the major leagues, and given the anecdotal evidence suggesting early specialization at the amateur level and the hard evidence pointing to decreased performance at the big league level, pitcher at-bats can only become less competitive from this point forward. Also, in a game starved for more frequent balls in play, the pitcher strikeout rate borders on 37 percent in the past three completed seasons.

Nearly nine out of 10 pitcher plate appearances today result in an out being made–occasionally with a baserunner advancing via a sacrifice bunt–and this level of futility, in the grand scheme, does not make for compelling viewing. Nor does keeping the NL rules intact for the sake of tradition do anything to enhance the game’s appeal for potential fans, especially younger ones.

Neither Means Nor Incentive

Pitchers as a whole simply don’t receive the meaningful experience in the minor leagues required to improve their ability to hit high-level pitchers. Nor does good batsmanship enhance their odds for advancement through the minors, meaning that pro pitchers have neither the means nor incentive to improve their hitting skill.

Not only do many top-flight pitchers forgo batting repetitions while amateurs, but not even as professionals do they focus on honing their swings.

“It’s really a question of time and value,” the NL assistant GM said. “We don’t have much time for our guys to practice, so we choose to make sure they practice the pitching side of things rather than the offensive side of things.

“There’s also the question of potential injury when a pitcher has to hit–they aren’t used to the swing and oftentimes to running the bases, so there is risk there.”

Such a low priority for NL clubs is developing their pitchers’ batting chops that most don’t object to the current minor league arrangement in which pitchers never bat in games until they reach Double-A or Triple-A–and even then only if both clubs are NL affiliates.

Making use of the DH rule in the minors allows NL clubs to evaluate one extra position prospect per night, even as it creates a situation where the typical NL pitching prospect will take more plate appearances in one major league season than he will during his entire minor league career. (See table at right.)

“Pitchers barely get any plate appearances prior to their major league debut,” the NL farm director said, “but I’m OK with that because it means more at-bats for our position players, and it enhances their development. We do our best to get (pitchers) some work in the batter’s box during practice, but there’s only so much we can do.”

Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Specialization has infiltrated every corner of baseball today, most significantly in the intertwined realms of pitching and fielding. Managers possess all manner of hot-zone and spray-chart data they can bring to bear on opposing batters, forcing those batters to make rapid adjustments or risk a return trip to Triple-A.

As the number of matchup relievers in the majors continues to mount, and the number of unique defensive alignments continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to view purely offensive aspects of the game, such as the DH, as excessively specialized by comparison.

Even if a hard-hitting DH such as David Ortiz supplies no value with his glove and next to nothing with his baserunning, how much different are his contributions to the offense than the run-prevention contributions supplied to the defense by the myriad matchup specialists and gerrymandered defensive alignments?

I would argue that the DH and the pitcher in today’s game are two sides of the same, hyper-specialized coin, one supplying value only to the offense and the other functioning as the key constituent of the defense.

Major league organizations do little to address the deficient hitting displayed by pitchers, and they expect nothing from the 5,500-odd plate appearances taken by pitchers each season, so why should we as fans feel any differently? Either enhance the means and incentive for pitchers to improve their hitting skill–or bring the DH to the National League.

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