Sports, Column

Point/Counterpoint: Is the Universal Designated Hitter Good for Baseball?

Ott: The universal DH is a flawed attempt to broaden baseball’s appeal.

American League baseball is plastic. It’s a fake, sculpted-silicone version of what once was, wrapped in the most digestible, consumerist packaging possible. It’s Banksy street art behind glass in a billionaire’s art collection. It’s the hippies of the ’60s voting for Reagan in the ’80s, and it’s Metallica suing people for downloading its music. 

Why? The designated hitter is a sellout.

It takes baseball—a game of strategy, chance, and tradition—and strips it of everything redeemable. The universal DH sacrifices what makes baseball great for a faster pace and more action in hopes of appeasing non-fans complaining that the game is boring.

Thanks to the DH, the American League looks like the National League summering in Orange County with lip fillers, a leased ferrari, and spray tan. Now, because of Manfred and the universal DH, this is all of baseball’s reality.

Prior to 1973, baseball players played baseball. Everyone on the field hit and played defense, pitchers included. After the American League implemented the DH, however, the game was marred forever. 

Suddenly, you got to pick. You could play offense, defense, or both. It’s like if you told James Harden that he could hang out on one side of the court and play offense and Draymond Green would take his spot on the other side playing defense. 

This idea is such an obvious cop out it’s senseless. So, why did the MLB implement it? The answer is as simple as it is deplorable: because pitchers are bad at hitting, of course. 

But the stereotype that pitchers can’t hit is false. From 2011–2021, 16 pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances batted over .200. In that same time period, 195 position players with at least 50 plate appearances batted under .200. 

In 2021, Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried had the highest pitcher batting average at .273. For reference, Giancarlo Stanton also hit .273 in 2021. Fried is a pitcher, and Stanton is batting cleanup for the New York Yankees on a $325 million deal. 

Colorado Rockies starter German Marquez was the second-best hitting pitcher in 2021. He posted a .264 average and a .415 slugging percentage. Mookie Betts also hit .264 in 2021. Betts bats leadoff for the LA Dodgers on a $365 million deal. 

And when pitchers get on base, the wait is well worth it. 

In 2017, Madison Bumgarner became the first pitcher to hit two home runs in a game on opening day against the Arizona Diamondbacks. When you google 2017 San Francisco Giants highlights, that’s the first video that pops up. 

When Giants pitcher Kevin Gausman stepped up to the plate as a pinch-hitter on Sept. 17, 2021 against the Atlanta Braves, his season was on the line. The Giants were in the midst of a season-long fight for first place in the NL West and held a slight two-game edge on the Dodgers. 

Gausman had a chance to send his team home with a win in the 11th inning and had the green light with a full count and one out. He got under a pitch down the middle, lofting it into right field as Oracle Park escalated into a roar. Brandon Crawford dove into home and was called safe to seal the win, and the rest of the Giants swarmed the field, mobbing Gausman as he rounded first

“That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my entire career,” Gausman said after the game. “When it was 3–2 and everybody stood up, it probably was one of the coolest moments of my life.”

The most adverse effect of the designated hitter is its effect on strategy. One of the most important jobs of a manager is knowing how to use your pitchers. The decision to pull a starter is often dictated by where in the lineup that starter is batting. 

The strategy gets even more complex when considering things like double switches and conserving pinch hitters in extra-inning games. 

It is nonsensical for a player to only play on offense. 

The effect of this is the presence of athletes—Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols—who look like they belong in an elderly home or esports tournament rather than at the highest level of one of the most physically taxing sports in existence.

While the rest of his team puts it all on the line on both offense and defense, the designated hitter gets to sit back and only step up to the plate three or four times per game. It doesn’t make sense. Hockey players play offense and defense. Basketball and soccer players do too. Why shouldn’t baseball players? Their other eight teammates do.

Sacrificing the strategy and tradition that makes baseball great for a rule aimed at appeasing non-fans is a sad move by Manfred. It’s just one more move in a series of pathetic attempts to grow baseball’s fan base to a demographic with no interest in the sport. 

MLB is not the NFL or the NBA, and sacrificing what is special about the game to make it a little more fast paced or exciting is disgraceful to its authentic form. The designated hitter represents the shift to a manufactured, materialistic brand of baseball, and fans can only hope the sport survives its current crisis.

Ackerly: Pitchers underperform at the plate, and a universal DH would promote a more enjoyable brand of baseball.

Ethan, I see we are back again for a third round of our favorite game show: innovation-happy technocrat versus old man-yells-at-cloud baseball purist. In our first two bouts, I hitched my wagon to the romantic horse, arguing that MLB should not use robot umpires and that college baseball should not adopt the extra-innings, runner-on-second rule. 

For our third battle, I’ve let you take the side of baseball nostalgia. Debating the universal introduction of the designated hitter is not a duel between baseball history and unnecessary, gimmicky adjustments like the robot umps and extra innings changes. It is a question of whether we would like to watch, write about, and dedicate ourselves to a game that is more enjoyable or less. 

Pitchers cannot hit. They have never been able to hit. In the over 50 years since the National League turned its cheek to the American League and decided to keep pitchers batting, the overall pitcher batting average has never surpassed .150. The year 1998 was one of the best years for pitchers at the plate. Their cumulative slash line that season? .146/.187/.183. 

Things have only gotten worse in recent years as pitch velocity has increased and pitchers have become less prone to just feed strikes to their temporarily inconvenienced peers and wait for weak contact. The cumulative pitchers’ batting average has stood just a tick above .100 over the last couple seasons. Replacing pitchers with even average designated hitters would have handed every NL team an extra 80 runs in 2019, according to The Washington Post

Baseball is a family game. The cannibalization can go on no longer. We have reached unprecedented heights of pitcher-on-pitcher crime, and it must be stopped. 

In a joyous land of milk and honey where runs came aplenty and MLB stadiums were full, those extra 80 runs might not be a huge issue. But nowadays, as scoring reaches record lows and attendance continues to fall, losing those runs has become much more of a problem. There is nothing romantic to the average fan about a rally-killing strikeout against a pitcher at bat or an intentional walk to a hot, eighth-place hitter to bring up a batter who is, at best, hopelessly overmatched and, at worst, disinterested. 

Pitchers have provided some incredible moments at the plate over the years, and as San Francisco Giants fans, Ethan and I have been privileged to enjoy more than our fair share. 

Just this past year, Gausman gave the Giants a key September victory over the Braves with a walk-off sac fly in extra innings. Two weeks later, Logan Webb capped off a stellar eight-inning performance with a two-run home run and joked after the game that he needed the hit to keep up with Gausman. Pitcher heroics at the plate are not new in San Francisco. Bumgarner hit 19 home runs during his time in the Bay, a hitting tenure peaked by a ridiculous 2014 season in which his OBP stood 50 points above league average—the league average for everybody

Still, for every Webb home run and Gausman walk-off, there are hundreds more pitcher at-bats that end with a strikeout or weak grounder to the mound. Bumgarner’s 2014 is the massive exception to the rule, a shining light that is held up by those that argue against the DH, but that should have no bearing on the decision. 

There is a time and place to choose romanticism over efficiency. Robot umpires affect every pitch. Extra innings rules come into play regularly. Those changes immeasurably affect our experience and understanding of the game. What is the frequency of these memorable at-bats that create our fantasies about pitchers hitting? Every month? We are sacrificing improvement to every game for a handful of laughs and feel-good stories every season. No more.

Featured Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

March 20, 2022