Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Examining the Arguments Against the DH

More and more people lately seem to be weighing in on the designated hitter. It started a little over a month ago, with Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer sustaining injuries while batting. I expected it to be a story for a while then go away, but I’ve continued to see rumblings about it since then, so I figured I should finally weigh in on the matter.

I’ve never really had much of a preference on the matter. I like that the leagues have different rules and all that. But the more I think about it the last month, the more that I think if I had to pick one rule to govern both the AL and NL, I’d unquestionably come down in favor of the DH.

I realize that most of the reasoning is aesthetics. Having 1/9th of a lineup be an automatic rally-killer is irritating. I realize that fans of the pitcher batting will argue that it isn’t, that I should look at things like Clayton Kershaw’s 3-hit game last night. Yes, it’s great that Kershaw made headlines for going 3-4 with a double. But that in and of itself kind of just shows how sad the situation is; Kershaw got headlines for his 3 hit games, despite the fact that he was arguably the worst of the eight hitters who managed the feat on June 1st alone (and that was on a travel day-the day before saw 20 such games). He wasn’t even the best 3-hit game on his own team on Monday.

Player Date Tm Rslt PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB SO GDP SB CS Pos
1 Freddie Freeman 2015-06-01 ATL W 8-1 5 5 2 3 0 0 1 3 0 0 0 1 0 0 1B
2 Clayton Kershaw 2015-06-01 LAD W 11-4 4 4 1 3 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 P
3 Albert Pujols 2015-06-01 LAA W 7-3 5 5 2 3 0 0 2 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1B
4 Ruben Tejada 2015-06-01 NYM W 7-0 5 5 2 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 3B
5 Chris Stewart 2015-06-01 PIT W 4-3 4 4 0 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 C
6 Andrelton Simmons 2015-06-01 ATL W 8-1 5 5 1 3 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 SS
7 Daniel Murphy 2015-06-01 NYM W 7-0 5 5 3 4 1 0 1 3 0 0 0 0 0 1 2B
8 Adrian Gonzalez 2015-06-01 LAD W 11-4 5 4 1 4 2 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1B
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/2/2015.

The AL also encourages lighter use of intentional walks and sacrifice bunts, which I find to be an unquestionably good thing. I believe it was Joe Posnanski who described the intentional walk as “Baseball’s version of the Hack-a-Shaq”, a phrasing which I agree with very strongly; the sacrifice bunt rates pretty similarly for me. Without a pitcher to deal with, the AL saw 43 fewer intentional walks and (more significantly) 429 fewer sac bunts. That alone would make it worth the trade-off to me.

That said, those thoughts don’t add up to much more than a preference for me, not something I would actively campaign over or anything. That being said, I feel like I see people trying to “prove” that a DH-less game is better using some pretty specious arguments, which is more of what I’d like to address.

The first is the argument is that pitchers batting allows players to “police the game” better, with regards to beanball wars. While that may sound right, the results don’t seem to bare this out. Last year, the AL collectively saw only 8 more HBPs than the NL. The year before that, the NL outpaced the AL by 140. The year before that, the NL led by 44. This year, the AL has a lead of 22 already. Basically, there doesn’t seem to be a trend. And for good reason, too; even in the NL, no one is going to throw at the other pitcher on purpose. It’s basically a free out, so why give that up? Much as you would expect, only 18 pitchers were beaned last year a grand total of 19 times (Travis Wood was the unlucky repeat victim). 2013 saw seven HBPs across 17 pitchers. In 2012, both figures were 13. Any actual policing seems to be extremely minimal.

Next, people like to argue about the DH removing strategy. I’d argue that it doesn’t remove strategy, just moves around the type of strategy. Sure, you lose most instances of the double switch, but is the double switch really that complex of a strategy? You could already easily automate when to pinch hit for a pitcher if you wanted, and adding a “double switch” condition on top of that would be easy. It’s really not some esoteric gambit. There’s even an argument for the DH-style being more complicated, given that you no longer have the spot in a lineup to fall back on for deciding when to pull the pitcher; you just need to know. Also, the DH allows for creative uses of off-days, platooning and such. None of those are exactly huge either, but it’s also not like the game without a DH is infinitely more complicated.

The last one argument that seems to pop up all the time is “well, why don’t you just make 9 designated hitters then? We have nine positions for a reason” Setting aside that we technically already had a rather specialized “designated” position in the form of the pitcher (no one is telling the first baseman to go in and throw an inning every night, which I feel like negates the 9-9 “balance” argument), I don’t think we’re in danger of anyone extending this beyond pitchers. Part of my reasoning is that we’ve made it 42 years without even convincing everyone to extend it to all pitchers. But part of my reasoning is that no one else hits even close to as poorly as pitchers to an almost comical extent.

Just for one reference, let’s look at weighted Runs Created+, or wRC+. This works like OPS+, in that it sets the baseline performance for a batter to 100, and each point over or under that is a percentage point better or worse than an average hitter. However, that “100 baseline” is actually calculated without counting pitcher batting stats. Pitchers, despite representing just 3% of all plate appearances in 2014, brought the baseline down to 96. How bad do they need to be to do that? Well, the average wRC+ by position is as follows:

1B: 109
DH: 106
LF: 103
CF: 103
3B: 100
RF: 100
C: 93
2B: 88
SS: 87
P: -19

Yep, pitchers ranked 106 points lower than the next worst position. In a hitting stat that centers around 100. And that’s the average pitcher. Of the 116 pitchers with 10 plate appearances last year, only eight had a wRC+ higher than Zack Cozart’s 56, and Cozart was, coincidentally, the worst-hitting position player to qualify for a batting title (out of 146) in 2014. And this is unquestionably the low point for pitcher offense throughout history, by a long shot.

Interestingly though, like most pitchers, Cozart managed a positive Wins Above Replacement last season (1.2) thanks to one of the strongest gloves in the game. Fangraphs put him seventh (and in a virtual tie for sixth) in defensive WAR. He’s certainly elite at that facet of the game, at the very least. What do you think he’d get as a free agent? Before this season started, would teams have been throwing him, a slick-field shortstop entering his age 29 season, $50 million deals? $100 million? $200 million? Doubtful; his hitting is just too poor.

Now let’s take a roughly-average hitting (0 wRC+, but in limited playing time) pitcher who is equally-elite on the other side of the ball. Top seven in the game at least, for sure. Would his bat enter into it at all? What would he get on the 2014-15 free agent market? My guess is $210 million.

The converse to the Max Scherzer argument is Micah Owings. He was a fantastic hitter for a pitcher-career 104 wRC+ and all that. Surely, if pitcher batting mattered at all, he would have found a taker, some team willing to take the hit on the “defensive” side to get his bat in the lineup, just as there were teams willing to put players like Delmon Young or Nelson Cruz in the field this year for their bats. And yet, he languishes in the minors.

Which leads to my reasoning for discarding the slippery slope argument DH opponents pose: front offices are already evaluating pitchers on a totally different scale from other positions, as if their offense doesn’t matter, and to extents the second-worst offensive players can never dream of. I think that’s more than enough reason to think this will be the place to stop, as I can’t imagine us ever reaching the point where GMs totally disregard a shortstop’s bat in handing him an absurdly-huge contract the way they do for a starter. It’s easy to imagine them stopping before they go off this slippery slope, in part because there’s no indication they’re even on the same slope anymore.

Like I said at the start, I realize that it mostly comes down to aesthetics. If you like the pitcher batting, you like the pitcher batting. But the arguments used to argue against the DH beyond said aesthetics seem very lacking, to me.  

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