Friday, September 16, 2011

The National League and the DH

There isn't a more passionate topic for fans of National League baseball than the fact that in the National League, the pitchers hit when the American League has the DH. For those fans of National League baseball, it's akin to a right of passage. It's a mark of heroism. This writer has to admit to growing up watching American League baseball. As such, the entire notion seems quaint and antiquated. But there is fear and trembling in writing this post because of the passion National League fans have of their purity. Purity is good in a world that is diluted with preservatives. But is it entertaining?

That's the point this writer comes back to over and over. Pitchers hitting is an exercise in failure. National League pitchers have a combined hitting line of: .142/.177/.182. And it's worse than even that sounds. Not including last night's games, pitchers have had a combined 4,406 at bats and have struck out 1,679 times. That's a whopping 38 percent strikeout rate. That makes Mark Reynolds and Adam Dunn look like contact hitters. Pitchers have sacrificed bunted 10.8 percent of their 5,159 plate appearances. If you add the strikeouts to the sacrifice bunts, that means that 2,238 plate appearances out of the 5,159 total result in either a strikeout or a bunt. No matter how hard you argue, you can't convince this writer this is entertaining. We all enjoy watching Matt Garza, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay pitch. But all three have struck out more than 30 times in less than 70 at bats. That's no fun.

The last time a starting pitcher walked more than fifteen times in a season was Vida Blue for the Giants way back in 1978. He hit .076 that season. The last starting pitcher to walk more than twenty times in a  season was Mickey Lolich in 1972. He batted .067. Walks aren't part of the pitching equation. Only 3.4 percent of the 5,159 plate appearances by pitchers have resulted in a walk. Only Vladimir Guerrero and Yuniesky Betancourt have a lower walk rate among batters who qualify for the batting title. Heck, even Darwin Barney walks more often than pitchers do. Instead, the walks go to the eighth place in the batting order (the position in front of the pitcher). Eighth place batters have been intentionally walked 166 times this season, the most of any batting order position. What fun is that?

And what happens if pitchers do get on base? They don't score. Batters who aren't pitchers by position score on average in a range from 42 percent (catchers) to 56 percent (center fielders) of their total hits. The pitcher only scores 38 percent of the time they get hits. Pitchers have by far the lowest BABIP of all positions. That means that only 22.2 percent of the balls pitchers put in play will fall in for a hit.

Pitchers hitting has other ramifications. To start a game, the manager puts his eight best position players on the field or at least the eight the manager feels gives him the most chance to win the game. If the manager makes a pitching change, we get the double switch, which means that one of those players will be replaced. Why? To hide the pitcher's batting spot to a batting order position that recently made out the inning before. How is losing one of your best eight players a good thing?

Then we have pinch hitters. If a team needs a run or has a rally going and the pitcher is due up to hit, the manager has to decide if he wants to lose his starting pitcher for the sake of a better chance to score. If the manager does decide to remove the starting pitcher (or any pitcher in the game for that matter) he really doesn't get that much of a bump in production. All pinch hitters this season in the NL have a combined slash hitting line of: .215/.292/.314 with a combined strikeout percentage of 24.9 percent.  Thrilling isn't it? 

Not using a DH gives the National League teams a disadvantage in interleague games and in the post season. American League designated hitters have a combined OPS of .773. When the NL has used the DH in interleague games this season, they had a combined OPS of .657. That's a huge difference. The DHs in the World Series last October went one for twelve in the post season though Aubrey Huff did have that one hit with a dramatic homer.

This writer loves low-scoring, crisply played games. They are exciting and dramatic. But having a pitcher hit is about as anti-climatic as it gets in baseball. Sure a Ross Ohlendorf will hit a homer in odd games like he did last night. Sure some teams will have a slight advantage because their pitchers can hit better than the other team's (the Brewers come to mind). Sure it's interesting that Livan Hernandez struck out only twice all season. But generally speaking, pitchers batting is a drag on the entertainment value of Major League Baseball. It would be the equivalent to having the placekicker play quarterback for a few plays a game. Perhaps that placekicker may complete a pass in ten attempts, but wouldn't you rather have a real quarterback back there?

A pitcher will succeed at the plate 177 times in 1,000 plate appearances. He will bunt in another 108 of those 1,000 plate appearances. Most now know that bunts lower the probability of scoring and not the opposite. It's a no win proposition. And while knowing that you NL fans will crucify this post, this is just one guy's opinion. The National League should adopt the DH. It's time.


Miles said...

passed time

Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

We are in full agreement here. I hate watching pitchers hit and it actually lessens strategy. Bring on the DH!

I also have probelms with the use of the DH "position" but that is another psot for another time.

Anonymous said...

I dont disagree with any of your numbers. But, I think it is rather unfair to compare the pitchers numbers directly against the DH position. I think you should compare it to the worst hitter in the lineup for an American league team. Because that is all the pitcher really is. He is most likely the worst hitter in the lineup. I think we would all agree that the DH is supposed to be a good hitter. You never see a DH batting 8th or 9th. But, how much productivity does the AL get out of those positions? The comparison would be much closer and not nearly the difference as between a pitcher and the DH.
As far as lessening strategy, you are out of your mind. The NL game is so much more complex than the AL it isnt funny.

William J. Tasker said...

Actually, Anon, I was comparing the AL DH with the NL DH's during the interleague sessions. If you want to compare the pitchers with the worst position in the AL, you'd have to go with catchers who have a slash line of: .239/.306/.393. Not very good, but significantly better than pitchers. Thanks for the comment and thanks also to Miles and Jonathan.

JasonW said...

The reason why I'd like to see the NL adopt the DH is because I would rather spare the pitchers of any embarrassment at the plate, plus I'd rather the pitchers pitch for as they're effective.

On the other hand, I am not a proponent of a full time DH unless one has a career BA over .300 in a ten year period.

I'd rather use the DH spot to enable greater flexibility between the regular starters (for a half-night off or as a bridge from injury rehab) and the bench players (to gain more at-bats and more time on the field, thus increasing trade value).

But with all that said, excellent article. Take care.

JasonW said...

* that should say "as long as they're effective" reffering to the pitchers.

William J. Tasker said...

Thanks, Jason. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

The DH is another step toward glorifying home-runs over pitching. Pitching is boring. Baseball is boring. We need more homers, or so is MLB's thinking.
I love a good 1-0 pitching duel.
Having to decide whether to leave a pitcher in or take a pitcher out for a pinch hitter gives NL managers ulcers! Where's the pressure in the AL where managers don't have to think who to play. Where are the AL tacticians?

Anonymous said...

Based on the numbers, I will respond with one name, Mario Mendoza. 'Nuff said.