Friday, March 27, 2015

The DH - Where I get NL fans mad at me again

National League fans are adamant, and I get it. We baseball people do not like people messing with our game. Even though replay worked great (IMHO) this past year, many still hate it because it takes away the "charm" of human error. But that human error cost teams World Series titles in the past. NL fans, pitchers batting has got to go. It doesn't cost games, but it sure costs enjoyment.
Let's break this down a bit into numbers. NL pitchers when batting as a group did not have as high an OPS as what is borderline acceptable as an on-base percentage. The group OPS of all NL pitchers last season was .312. OPS combines on-base percentage with slugging percentage. This is a terrible number.
How terrible? The league as a whole had an average OPS of .694. Therefore, collectively, pitchers' offense was 45% as good as league batters as a whole. NL pitchers when batting struck out 36.4% of their plate appearances. Pitchers walked only 3% of the time. And here is the part that gets me the most: Pitchers sacrificed bunted (successfully) 10.2% of their plate appearances.
Let's put some of this in perspective. NL pitchers came to the plate 5,141 times last year. They actually reached base a grand total of 722 times. That works out to an on-base percentage of .140. Let me clarify that point briefly. NL pitchers' official on-base percentage was .156. Why am I getting a different number? Sacrifice bunts.
An OBP and an OPS do not penalize a player for successful sacrifice bunts (or for sac flies for that matter). I have never agreed with this statistical anomaly. Whether a sacrifice is successful or not, the batter made an out. Yes, a runner got to second or third, but an out was still recorded.
Those numbers are bad enough. But there are other consequences. Pitchers having to bat means a greater reliance on pinch hitters. National League pinch hitters put up this unlovely triple slash line in 2014: .210/ .286/.319. That .605 OPS is second to only pitchers in futility among "positions." Their help only brought up the ninth spot in the lineup up to a grand total of a .444 OPS. Pinch hitters struck out 27% of the time. Heck, the pitcher could have done that!
It doesn't stop there.  The eighth place batter in a National League lineup becomes a moot point. The National League had a combined .625 OPS from the eighth spot in the batting order. Compare that with the American League which had a .680 OPS from their eighth position in the batting order.
Oh, and get this: That OPS is deceptive too. With the pitchers batting ninth, the eighth place batter often gets intentionally walked even if it is a weak hitter. The eighth place batters had fifty more intentional walks than any other lineup position, even the big boys in the third spot.
We are not really talking apples to apples here, but the National League scored 561 runs less than the American League in 2014.
If the commissioner is interested in improving offense and is concerned about the current run scoring climate, making the DH universal is a good place to start and is much better than outlawing shifts.
The long-term trends of pitcher batting have shown a gradual decline. Sacrifice bunts are up four percentage points from where they were in the early 1960s. OPS figures have stayed fairly static since 1961, but again, with sacrifice bunts trending up, the OPS is deceptive. The strikeout rate has always been high, but has spiked the last two seasons. The chart below starts with the 1961 season on the left and tracks the percentages to the present as you move right.
Pitchers batting
This decline makes a lot of sense really. In the old days, a pitcher would bat consistently through high school, college and the minor leagues. Today, most colleges use the DH and if a pitcher is drafted by an American League team, then the pitcher never hits. If that same pitcher gets traded to a National League organization, suddenly he has to hit and it might have been a few years since high school.
Plus, pitchers are much more valued (read "babied") than in the past. Most pitchers are encouraged to protect themselves when batting and not to run at full strength.
The weekly reality of interleague games also puts new wrinkles into the entire argument. National League teams are not constructed to have an offensive player available as the DH and suffers in AL parks. And if you think NL pitchers are terrible at batting, they are all Mike Trout compared to AL pitchers who have to hit in NL parks.
American League pitchers put together this triple slash line when batting last year: .090/.110/.109. In 154 such games, AL pitchers got on base a grand total of 35 times. It is a joke and a travesty to baseball. Making AL pitchers hit is like asking an NFL punter to play one game a year at offensive tackle. AL pitchers have a strikeout rate of over 40% when batting. Pathetic.
If you make the DH the norm for all interleague games, you are punishing NL teams that do not plan roster spots for DH types. So that doesn't make for an easy solution.
I know there is a lot of passion in this area of conversation. I'm sure two of my friends who cover the St. Louis Cardinals are glaring at me as they read this. But times have changed. Tickets cost too much to have to watch a woefully skilled batter being sent up to the plate. Times have also changed in college and in the minor leagues. Pitchers had a chance at the plate sixty years ago. They do not now. It is time to make things universal instead of the two leagues playing with different rules.


Anonymous said...

I get a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, I'm an AL fan, I grew up with the DH, and I like it. I would probably be more interested in NL games if they used the DH. But I think the NL purists have a point when they talk about the strategies that come into play when the pitcher bats. Even if pinch hitters are only marginally better batters than pitchers, it's a tiny edge that managers have to chase to maximise their chances. Bringing in pinch hitters with an eye to a double switch is an interesting wrinkle, too. And the effect on the eighth batter is interesting, too: fewer pitches to hit, but more walks.

Personally I prefer the roster flexibility that the DH creates, where a team can afford to have a poor defender on the team, or can make use of its overdepth at one position, or extend the career of an aging slugger, or use a rotating DH to rest the fielders (although I'm pretty skeptical about the benefits of that one). It seems like the DH allows for positive strategy (which lineup gives us the best combination of batting, defence, and rest), while the NL game forces a negative strategy (how do we minimise the pitcher's at-bats).

In the end it's not enough to show how poorly pitchers bat - the NL purists have an aesthetic preference for that sort of game. And like any subjective preference, it's not amenable to objective arguments.

William J. Tasker said...

Great comments. I especially liked your negative strategy premise. I understand how NL fans feel. I just don't think it's best for baseball. And don't get me wrong, I know what you are saying, but the strategies that are employed to negate the pitching spot are somewhat trite and predictable at this point. You know what is going to happen after all these years.

forged said...

Thanks for the food for thought, William. If I could change the way DH works, I would do the following for both leagues:

The DH is part of the lineup as long as the starter is in the game. As soon as the starter is yanked for a reliever, the reliever also replaces the DH position in the lineup and from that point going forward the pitcher bats.

(I am not sure what you do if you decided to PH/PR the DH during the game while the starter. Does that mean you should have to yank your starting pitcher for a reliever at the start of the next half-inning? It probably should.)

My thinking is reduce the chance of a starting pitcher hurting themselves while batting, and yet keep the strategy chess game alive in the ballgame because how you handle relievers and the lack of a DH at that point.

Failing getting that idea implemented (which seems likely given that I'm the only one talking about it), I do think it is time that both leagues do the same thing rules-wise given all the interleague play.

forged said...

Oops. Editing fail. The sentence reading "(I am not sure" should read:

(I am not sure what you do if you decided to PH/PR the DH during the game while the starter is still pitching in the game.

Anonymous said...

Neat idea, Forged!