The Designated Hitter Rule turns 35, still sucks

MLB.com has an article today about the designated hitter rule and the fact that it was adopted 35 years ago by the American League. In case it wasn’t clear from the title of this post, let me express my opinion: I do not like the designated hitter rule. Let me explain why. First of all, I think it breaks the symmetry of the game. Before the designated hitter rule, every player on a team had both an offensive and a defensive role. The designated hitter rule created a new position that plays only offense and it reduced the role of pitcher to solely defense. Reasons such as this are often cited by baseball purists who oppose the rule. However, I object to it on practical levels, as well.

By creating another starting position, the designated hitter rule necessitates larger club payrolls, which reduces the ability of small market teams to compete. Major League clubs pay large salaries for their starting infield, outfield, and (generally) 5 starting pitchers. However, AL teams also have to pay for a DH. While both NL and AL teams have only 25 players on their roster for most of the season, the non-starting players generally cost substantially less than the starting players. In addition, because the DH is a specialist position often filled by players who are at the peak of their earning potential, some clubs pay huge amounts of money to acquire elite DHs, while teams who can’t afford such players find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. For example, Jim Thome, the DH for the Chicago White Sox, will earn $15.67M this year, making him the highest paid player on his team. In fact, if we take an average over all the teams that have a full-time DH (that is, they do not use a platoon at the position), which is half of the AL, the DH is the 3rd highest paid player on the average team (including starting pitchers) and is paid over $10M per year. For small market teams whose entire payroll may be in the realm of $50M, paying $10M for a single player who plays no defense is just not feasible. However, not having that $10M hitting specialist (among other deficiencies) often leaves them in an uncompetitive position.

Does the presence of the DH position really make payrolls higher? To answer this question we observe that the average payroll for an AL team for 2008 is $97.49M while the average NL payroll is $83.28M – a difference of about $14M. This averages across all teams – both large and small markets – in each league. If you object that the AL average is skewed by the Yankees, let’s look at the median. For the AL, the median payroll is $88.81M and in the NL, it is $78.95M – a difference of about $10M. While I won’t claim that the DH position is solely responsible for that $10M difference, it is certainly a large factor in the disparity. In general, it is good for the league if every team can be competitive. However, the lack of a serious salary cap or revenue sharing plan in baseball means that small market teams generally can’t compete with teams from larger markets. The DH rule exacerbates the problem by requiring each team to have 9 starting-caliber offensive players rather than 8 in order to be competitive – something the small market teams can ill afford.

My second and final practical objection to the designated hitter rule comes back to symmetry. The designated hitter rule destroyed the symmetry of the two leagues. With the designated hitter rule in place, the NL is perpetually bested by the AL in Interleague play. Not only that, in the last 20 seasons (1987-2007) the NL has won the World Series only 7 times. Furthermore, in World Series games since 1987 the NL has won 44 games while the AL has won 64. Some may claim that the designated hitter rule can’t explain this difference because the AL team can’t use the DH in NL parks. That is true. However, in AL parks, the NL team just uses some guy off their bench as the DH, while the AL team has a $10M+ elite slugger filling the DH role. While NL teams have only 8 starting-caliber offensive players, the DH rule requires that AL teams have 9 in order to be competitive. Thus, in AL parks, NL teams are overmatched. The only advantage that NL teams might have in NL parks is that they are more used to playing without a DH but this seems like a meager advantage. Furthermore, when AL teams play in NL parks, they often bench one of their normal position players in order to keep their DH in the lineup. While the DH often represents a liability on defense, many managers feel that their DH’s superiority on offense more than makes up for his weakness on defense. Thus, the AL team may still have some advantage in NL parks.

So, to sum up, I object to the DH rule because it disrupts the symmetry of baseball and gives a competitive advantage to the AL in general and to large market AL teams in particular.

Fans of the DH rule would probably suggest that there is a way for the NL to compete with the AL again – that the NL introduce the DH rule themselves. They may say that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can either hang onto our beloved “pure” baseball or we can be competitive, but not both. That may be true, but I find it unfortunate. The DH rule was introduced at a time when offense in the AL was a joke. Offensive numbers were way down and the owners wanted a way to attract fans through increased offensive production. The DH rule, which had been discussed since the early 1900s, was adopted as a quick fix. Now, it is unlikely to ever be revoked. It would put a number of players out of jobs and owners wouldn’t like it because fans would miss big offensive numbers. So, it’s not clear what the resolution will be. Will the NL and its fans just grow accustomed to being the weaker league or will league officials eventually relent and adopt the DH rule themselves? I hope that it is neither but I’m afraid that there might be no third option.

1 Response to “The Designated Hitter Rule turns 35, still sucks”

  1. 1 Colin
    April 29, 2008 at 11:10 am

    For those not familiar with the baseball terminology used in this post, here’s a brief explanation. Major League Baseball is divided into two leagues: the National League (NL) and the American League (AL). The AL began using the designated hitter (DH) rule in 1973, while the NL still does not use it.

    In the NL, pitchers are assigned a place in the batting order and must bat or a pinch hitter must bat in their stead. If, at some point during the game, a pitcher is replaced with a pinch hitter in the batting lineup, he is not permitted to pitch any further during that game.

    In the American League, the DH always takes the pitcher’s position in the batting order and the pitcher never bats. Even though the DH has taken the pitcher’s position in the batting order, the pitcher is allowed to remain in the game until he is replaced by a different pitcher. Thus, the pitcher plays only a defensive role and the DH plays only an offensive role.

    In both leagues, 8 out of the 9 slots in the batting order are filled with starting players who are chosen on a combination of their offensive and defensive skill. In the NL, the 9th position in the batting order is filled by the pitcher, who is chosen solely for his defensive ability. Conversely, in the AL, the 9th position in the batting order is filled by the DH, who is chosen solely based on his offensive ability since he plays no defensive role. Thus, the average AL batting lineup is more potent offensively than the average NL batting lineup.

    Furthermore, in the NL, a team pays for 8 starting batters and the 9th slot in the batting order is filled by a pitcher who is paid for his pitching ability. In the AL a team pays their starting pitcher plus they pay for 9 starting batters. Thus, it should be clear that AL payrolls wind up being higher than NL payrolls because of the DH.

    If you read this article and certain aspects of it are still unclear, please let me know.

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