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The DH Rule: It’s Time to Bring It to the National League

Orel Hershiser in 1993 when he posted a .356 batting average.

Orel Hershiser in 1993 when he posted a .356 batting average.

“Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball.”

The above quote sounds very much like a statement in the current discussion about the National League using the designated hitter rule for 2020’s abbreviated season. The quote, though, is from an 1891 article in Sporting Life.

The hitting ability of pitchers, or the lack thereof, has been the subject of discussion almost as long as baseball has been around. The 1891 article proposed having only the eight position players bat (the proposal nearly passed, being defeated by a 7-5 vote).

The Steady Move Toward a DH

The idea of a designated hitter for the pitcher was first discussed prior to the 1906 season and continued to be a hot topic of discussion for the next decade. Babe Ruth, while still pitching for the Red Sox, lamented the fact that most other pitchers didn’t hit well because of their mindset that they couldn’t hit.

Offense became a more important part of the game in the 1920s and prior to the 1929 season, National League President John Heydler proposed using a DH for the pitcher. While there was some support for it, the motion was tabled and not revived. In 1941 a semi-pro league experimented with using a designated hitter.

Following the dismal hitting of the 1960s, culminating in the stunning lack of offense during the 1968 season, the leagues lowered the pitching mound in 1969 and allowed the AAA International League to experiment with the DH.

Finally, after decades of discussion, the DH came to the American League in 1973 as a three-year experiment. The original deal was that after those three years, both leagues would then employ the DH or it would be eliminated. Obviously, that deal was amended so that ever since the AL has used the DH while the NL has used it only in the All-Star game, and home games in interleague play and the World Series.

Pitchers' Top Hitting Seasons Since 1972

PlayerYearBAPAABHHRRBI

Orel Hershiser, LAD

1993

.356

83

73

26

0

6

Carlos Zambrano, ChC

2008

.337

85

83

28

4

14

Rick Rhoden, Pit

1984

.333

92

84

28

0

4

Mike Hampton, Hou

1999

.311

88

74

23

0

10

Ken Brett, Pit

1974

.310

95

87

27

2

15

Jason Marquis, StL

2005

.310

91

87

27

1

10

Bob Forsch, StL

1975

.308

88

78

24

1

5

Jim Rooker, Pit

1974

.305

106

95

29

0

8

Fernando Valenzuela, LAD

1990

.304

78

69

21

1

11

Carlos Zambrano, ChC

2005

.300

84

80

24

1

6

The DH Comes to the NL

Many National League fans are in anguish over the decision this year to allow the DH. They decry the loss of purity in the game and some have cited great hitting feats by pitchers in the past, often from a single game decades ago.

The truth is that the National League has been using a revolving DH for years in the form of pinch-hitters. Starting pitchers rarely get four at bats in a game – last season it happened only 47 times. Jacob deGrom was the only pitcher with five plate appearances in a game. It’s common for a pitcher to get only two at bats in a game, happening more than 1,350 times in 2019. Some starting pitchers get to the plate only once. Few relievers ever make it to the plate unless it is an exceedingly long extra inning game.

Carlos Zambrano belted 24 homers in his career.

Carlos Zambrano belted 24 homers in his career.

Best Hitting Pitchers, Career, Since 1972

PlayerYearsBAPAABHHRRBI

Ken Brett

1973-79

.260

257

242

63

7

37

Mike Hampton

1993-2010

.246

845

725

178

16

79

Dontrelle Willis

2003-11

.244

447

389

95

9

39

Omar Olivares

1990-2001

.240

263

242

58

5

29

Dan Schatzeder

1977-90

.240

271

242

58

5

29

Carlos Zambrano

2001-12

.238

744

693

165

24

71

Rick Rhoden

1974-89

.238

830

761

181

9

75

Tim Lollar

1981-86

.234

255

231

54

8

38

Don Robinson

1978-92

.231

665

631

146

13

69

Brian Bohanon

1991-2001

.229

265

231

53

3

30

Zack Greinke

2004-19

.225

598

519

117

9

34

Most Pitchers are Still Poor Hitters

Since the start of the Designated Hitter era there have been 784 times when a pitcher had 75 or more plate appearances in a season; of those, 180 times a pitcher hit .200 or better (by 109 different players). The most consistent was Livan Hernandez, who topped .200 seven times and .230 five times. Tom Glavine and Steve Carlton both hit over .200 six times.

Ten pitchers since the advent of the DH have hit .300 or better, led by Orel Hershiser’s astounding .356 in 1993. The most hits by a pitcher was 29 by Jim Rooker in 1975 when he hit .305. The highest home run total was seven by Mike Hampton in 2001. Adam Wainwright had the highest RBI total, 18 in 2016.

That leaves 604 pitchers who came to the plate at least 75 times in a season who failed to reach .200. Of the 784 with 75 or more plate appearances, 350 struck out at least 25 times. Bruce Hurst in 1989 and Jake Arrieta in 2015 both struck out 54 percent of the time; Vida Blue in 1978 fanned at a 51 percent rate.

Majority of Pitchers Hit Less than .200

Since 1972, only one pitcher with 200 or more career plate appearances has managed a career average over .250 – Ken Brett, who batted .260. Ten others batted .225 or better. Twelve pitchers have hit 10 or more career home runs during that time, led by Carlos Zambrano’s 24. Madison Bumgarner is second with 19. Twenty-five pitchers have driven in 50 or more runs; Steve Carlton, with 107, is the only one to top 100 in his career.

During that same time period, there have been 365 pitchers with more than 200 career plate appearances who batted below .200. Of those, 130 batted .125 or below; 44 of them below .100. Brian Moehler has the distinction of being the worst of those, managing just nine hits in 232 trips to the plate for a .045 average. Among the best pitchers with the worst attempts at hitting were Bartolo Colon (.084), Al Leiter (.085), Pedro Martinez (.099) and Nolan Ryan (.100).

Worst Hitting Pitchers, Career, Since 1972

PlayerYearsBAPAABHHRRBI

Brian Moehler

1997-2010

.045

232

202

9

0

5

Don Carman

1983-91

.057

239

209

12

0

5

Mark Clark

1991-99

.058

280

242

14

1

9

Tommy Hanson

2009-12

.059

225

187

11

0

5

Mike Foltynewicz

2014-19

.070

225

199

14

0

9

Charlie Morton

2008-19

.075

308

266

20

0

6

Ben Sheets

2001-12

.076

513

449

34

0

12

Aaron Nola

2015-19

.077

255

222

17

0

8

Mike Bielecki

1984-97

.078

331

282

22

0

13

Matt Garza

2007-17

.080

314

274

22

0

4

Claudio Vargas

2003-10

.080

225

188

15

0

7

Still a Manager's Choice

Obviously, based on those stats, the majority of the time a pitcher comes to the plate he is, as the 1891 Sporting Life quote says, utterly worthless. Because they’re such poor hitters they’re often called on to bunt, but even those attempts are usually lackluster.

The interesting thing about the DH rule is that you don’t have to use it. NL managers can still pencil in the pitcher in the ninth spot in the order and go on as they always have. But that won’t happen, because if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to see a pitcher trying to bat, it’s an NL manager.

Comments

Dan W Miller from the beaches of Southern California now living in Phoenix since 2000 on July 09, 2020:

Bummer. But necessary. More strategy leaving the game.

I was many times pitcher, 1st base or SS even at 40 in baseball! So I was involved more than most position players.

1,031 sanctioned baseball games umpired in 18 years after 40. Arizona Umpires.

So I was involved or observing first hand, in many actual games, during which strategy was applied. Just less now without a bad to so-so pitcher batting. Except for Babe Ruth and a very few others.

We batted nine and a DH. More guys happy with ABs all the way back in the mid-1980s NABA Ventura County.

More pitchers could hit, too. But I always batted 5th or 6th anyway.

Softball we had 10 AND a

DH from 1980 on.

All Star game as a 15 year old hotshot 1st sacker in the early '70s, we started nine.

All Star game 23 years later in the starting lineup... as a DH. (I'll take it!) Also pitched an unearned run inning and played 1st all game. Santa Paula, CA.

It was tough to pitch against 10 real hitters at my advanced age then. But so much fun!

Read my Willie Mays hub!

thx,

DWM