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Batting Around: Designated differences

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Posted on August 12, 2011 | Blog Category:
By Ian Trombulak



In my last column, I wondered aloud why the two leagues in Major League Baseball — the American League and National League — have a different number of teams (the AL has 14, and the NL 16). Baseball, I concluded, is a game of details, and if two leagues are competing for the same prize, they ought to be competing under the same conditions. That means, quite simply (to borrow from my science vocabulary): where possible, hold everything equal.

Besides the league imbalance, there are a few other quirky differences between the AL and NL. That’s because the American and National Leagues began as competing enterprises, each seeking to become the definitive baseball league of America. They quickly realized they could both succeed (read: profit) if they embraced the competition and staged a baseball championship between the champions of each league, which they dubbed the World Series. After nearly a century of competing exclusively with one another under the banner of Major League Baseball, the two leagues were legally integrated in 2000.

But differences between the leagues remained. Perhaps the strangest is the designated hitter — a position exclusive to the AL.

The designated hitter (DH) rule is simple: instead of sending the pitcher to the plate, AL teams may designate one player who will bat but not play in the field. Thus, the team’s lineup would consist of the eight non-pitcher position players and a DH.

It is a theoretically sound rule that stems from the fact that most pitchers are terrible hitters and watching them flail their lumber at 90+ mph fastballs is like watching a high school pitcher face down a little leaguer. It was first tried experimentally at the major league level in the late 1960s, when it became clear the pitchers had an advantage over hitters (Bob Gibson’s ERA was a criminal 1.12, and Carl Yastrzemski led the majors in batting average with a meager .301).

Long story short (for the long story long, see Richard McKelvey’s All Bat, No Glove: A History of the Designated Hitter), the American League owners liked the DH, and the National League owners didn’t — and the rest is history.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, AL teams essentially play a different form of baseball than NL teams, with unique strategies to match. Consider, for example, a common game scenario:

A starting pitcher has given up two runs, both in the first inning, and since pitched six scoreless innings. His team hasn’t scored at all, leaving the score at 2-0 in the seventh inning, and the pitcher is on deck. The losing manager knows that his pitcher is still going strong, but also knows that he has nine outs left to get his offense going. What’s the play?

In the NL, there is a serious decision to make. With nine outs left before defeat, sending someone to the plate sporting a .083 batting average is an unwise gamble, no matter how well they are handling opposing hitters. Nine times out of ten, the pitcher is yanked, a pinch hitter is sent to the plate, and the bullpen takes over the mound thereafter.

In an AL game, there is no decision to make. The pitcher will return to the mound for the seventh, and possibly eighth and ninth, increasing their chances of grabbing a win for their strong effort.

That is one example of how a DH can affect a game without even stepping into the batter’s box. It’s not a stretch to say that the DH rule changes the complexion of the game entirely.

Of course, a more tangible way a DH can change the game is with their bat. With nine legitimate hitters in a lineup, AL teams ought to be able to do much more damage against opposing pitchers than NL teams with eight hitters and a pitcher.

This is reflected in the statistics. Since 2001: AL pitchers posted an earned run average (ERA) that is .176 higher than the NL; AL pitchers have recorded an average of 62.2 fewer strikeouts per year than NL pitchers; and AL pitchers have thrown, on average, 3.3 fewer quality starts per year than NL pitchers.

You can see the imbalance reflected in the offensive stats as well. Since 2001: the AL has scored, on average, 42.2 more runs per year than the NL; the AL has hit, on average, 7.1 more home runs per year than the NL; and the AL has collected, on average, 75.3 more total bases per year than the NL.

The statistics show that the AL is a tougher league for pitchers, while the NL is a tougher league for hitters.

Of course, it doesn’t much matter that the two leagues play different versions of the same game until they match up against one another. Besides mid-season interleague games, the only time this happens is during the seven most high stakes games of the season: the World Series.

For games played in AL stadiums, both teams use a DH. For games in NL stadiums, neither teams use a DH. Imagine playing all year with a DH, then — in the most high stakes series of the season — playing without. Theoretically, NL teams who gain an extra hitter in their away games (as opposed to AL teams who lose their DH for away games) ought to have an edge. But what does history say?

In fact, AL teams have prevailed more frequently in the World Series in the DH era, winning 21 of the 37 Series that have been played since 1973. The 21-16 AL advantage is mainly due to a dominant New York Yankees team that helped mount a 6-3 advantage over the NL during the 1990s (there was no Series in 1994 due to a player strike). Otherwise, the decade breakdowns look like this (AL-NL): 1970s, 4-3; 1980s, 5-5; 2000s, 6-4.

Is it possible that it’s harder to adjust to playing with a DH than to playing without one? It doesn’t seem logical, but it makes sense when you consider the role a DH plays. Position players keep their bodies warm and stay in the flow of the game when their team is in the field, which helps them stay loose and limber and ready to hit when it’s their turn. DHs stay in the dugout between their at-bats, which can often be two or three innings apart. That means every hour or so, they are expected to emerge from the dugout, cold, and hit the ball — and since that is their only job, they are naturally expected to do it better than anyone else on the team. It’s not the cakewalk that it might seem, and it’s no wonder than NL hitters have a hard time filling that role.

Ultimately, however, it strikes me as foolish that we even need to have this discussion. Why leave it open to theory and speculation which team has an advantage in the World Series? In a sport where there are so many intangibles that can affect every aspect of the game, why not hold everything, where possible, equal?

Get rid of the DH, or implement it universally — I have no preference. Watching nine solid hitters at the plate has its merits, but so does the pinch hitter strategy of the NL, and I could see myself getting on board with either one. But when I watch two teams play, I want the winning team to triumph because they are the best nine players on the field, not because of the ballpark they are in, or the foreign rules they are forced to play by.

With so much at stake, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.

Ian Trombulak is a rising senior at Middlebury College, and is interning at the Addison Independent as a news reporter and member of the online team this summer. He likes sports — a lot — and, as with most things he likes, he spends a lot of time thinking about them. He hopes that you enjoy the cathartic weekly release of those thoughts, and that you will share yours as well in the comments below.

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