Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Laziest Post I Could Possibly Write

There isn’t any baseball topic that is more of a cop-out, more of an admission that the author is flat out of ideas, then penning an article about one’s opinions on the Designated Hitter rule. I’ve managed to write roughly three posts a month for eight years without going there, so you’ll have to excuse me this one time.

Allow me to put my bias on the table upfront: I support the DH rule. I don’t think it is a perfect rule, but I think that baseball is a better game when the rules recognize that the defensive primacy of the pitcher has resulted in a systematic offensive deficiency. I do not demand that the DH rule be expanded to the National League, but I would certainly not oppose it and would strongly oppose any effort to eliminate the DH from the American League.

I’m not arrogant or na├»ve enough to believe that I have unearthed some new angle on this topic that you haven’t read before. The DH debate is relatively common, usually picking up extra momentum during interleague play and the World Series, and a large proportion of baseball fans have a strong opinion about it one way or the other. It now has entered the zeitgeist thanks to perpetual interleague play and the notion that universal adoption of the DH is inevitable.

There are two common pitfalls of those discussions that I think are unfortunate, and I’d like to address them before I make my points on the DH rule itself. This post doesn’t have any natural flow, so I’ve gone ahead and used topic headings:

Two Silly Arguments

The first is that participants in a DH debate sometimes accusingly point out that DH proponents tend to be fans of AL teams (or, from the other side, that proponents of pitchers batting tend to be fans of NL teams). It is undoubtedly true that this is the case…but so what? Whenever subjective preferences are on the table for human beings, there’s a good chance that one’s formative experiences or familiar experience will be reflected. To the extent that something is a matter of subjective preference without the insertion of any logical process, does where the preference arises from really matter? And if facts and logic are introduced into a discussion, does the background of the person presenting them matter? Facts are either true or not, and logic is either sound or faulty.

The second is the use of the "real baseball" card...namely, that baseball is somehow not baseball if pitchers are not allowed to bat. I’m not sure there’s a pro-DH counterpart to this argument; there certainly are specious arguments made in favor of the DH, but DH supporters generally don’t try to say that it’s not really baseball if pitchers bat. Arguments of this type are a convenient way to avoid making any sort of logical defense of one’s position.

One of the worst arguments put forth by DH supporters is that "Everyone uses the DH except the National League and the Central League". It’s true, more or less, but it’s still an appeal to the majority. The fact that the DH is widely adopted is evidence that many decision makers felt that it was a good idea, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so. This argument is the pro-DH answer to the "tradition" argument of the anti-DH diehards.

The Historical Trend of Pitcher Hitting

Of course, I’m not above snark and derision myself, and while I’ll try to avoid that for the rest of the post, I can’t pass this one up. You will occasionally see the claim that the DH rule exacerbated the decline of pitcher’s offensive production, and that pitchers did not or were not on a path to become the offensive zeroes they are in modern MLB until the DH rule was implemented. To this I say: nonsense. There are only two things constant throughout the history of major league baseball: the National League tries to position itself as morally superior to its rivals, and pitchers hit worse with each subsequent generation.

By 1972, pitcher hitting (in terms of RC/G relative to the league average, which I call ARG but his conceptually similar to OPS+ or wRC+) had already declined to levels near where it is today; for 1963-1972, the yearly averages were 10, 8, 7, 13, 7, 4, 11, 13, 14, 12. This was a continuation of a trend--pitcher ARG had never dipped below 20 prior to 1952, below 30 prior to 1934, below 40 prior to 1903--with each generation, a new low was being reached, and the race to the bottom was accelerating. (See this post for a more detailed look at positional offense in the twentieth century).

Pitcher ARG has declined further on average since the DH was introduced, but none of the observed figures would look particularly out of place in the 1963-72 figures. I suppose one must acknowledge that it is possible that the post-DH decline is understated due to the possibility that good hitting pitchers are more valuable to NL teams and thus get a greater share of pitcher plate appearances, but any such effect would have to be quite small unless the other forces at work were reversed or strongly diminished.

Radical Change to the Rulebook

A more popular argument against the DH is that it represents a fundamental change to the rules of baseball, a radical and unnecessary departure from the game as it was played for a century. (This is the refined, non-inflammatory version of the “real baseball” argument). Sometimes special attention is given to the first rule in the book, 1.01, which starts "Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each". Since the DH is a tenth player, this rule is violated, and it is the first rule and thus the DH is completely antithetical to baseball itself.

It’s piling on to spend any time arguing against an argument that most people will immediately recognize as specious, but indulge me:

1. The baseball rulebook is not the Constitution. If you somehow demonstrate that the DH violates rule 1.01, then rule 1.01 can be revised just as easily as the DH can be added.

2. Read literally, nine players doesn’t leave room for substitutes of any kind. OK, you say, what it’s trying to impart is that there are nine players in the lineup for any one team at any time. If that can be read into the rule, then why can’t you just read it as nine players in any particular half-inning? After all, the DH does nothing to change the fact that there are nine players in the field and nine players in the batting order; it simply allows two players to alternate between an offensive and defensive role while sharing one lineup spot. The rules prevent these two players from ever being active simultaneously (viewed from a half-inning perspective).

Getting back to the more general issue of the DH being a radical rule change, I’m not going to try to argue that it’s more or less of a change to the rulebook than other changes that have occurred over the years. I am going to argue, however, that there have been many other changes to the game that have done much more to alter the way baseball is played than has the DH rule. Certainly the dawn of the “live ball era” changed the game much more than the DH, despite not being directly traceable to any rule change. (There are rule changes that certainly contributed, like banning the spitball and requiring clean balls in play, but there is also the composition of the ball and the approach of batters, both things that are not decreed by a line in the rulebook but can change the way the game is played).

The offensive outage of the 1960s that served as the catalyst for the DH rule is another example, and one which it could be argued was more of a direct result of a rule change (the expansion of the strike zone). Many would argue that changing the definition of the strike zone is not as radical of a change as introducing the DH, because it was simply a tweak to a pre-existing element of the game. My contention is that the amount of actual change to the game caused by a rule change is not necessarily proportional to the perceived radicalness of said change. The ultimate example of this is the way that the usage of pitchers as pitchers (not as hitters as in the case of the DH) has constantly changed throughout the game’s history.

Tradition

I’m not opposed to tradition. If something has been done a certain way for a long time, and the end result has been favorable, I have no problem accepting tradition as a point in its favor. But it’s just that--a point, not a game, set, or match. Tradition is also a very dangerous argument to make at this stage in the game if you hate the DH, since nearly forty years of the DH is in the American League has to make the tradition argument close to ripe for those who’d like to keep it around.

I have more to say on tradition, but it ties into the ultimate reason why I support the DH, so I’ll hold off for a second.

Strategy

Proponents of the DH like to claim that it introduces more strategy to the game; opponents sometimes argue the opposite, often citing Bill James’ article in the Historical Baseball Abstract that pointed out the higher standard deviation of sacrifice attempts in the American League. I’m not eager to take a position on which side (or either) is right. I’d grant that it’s probably true that the pitcher being forced to hit introduces more choices for a manager; but some of those choices have obvious answers. If you like strategy, is it more important to have many points at which a choice must be made, or more variation in the choices that are actually made (assuming for the moment that the DH actually does that)?

However, the debate about strategy takes for granted more fundamental questions: what is the optimal amount of strategy in a baseball game, and what exactly constitutes strategy? One could posit that there are three basic types of strategy, which I’ll label by the people responsible for making the choices.

1) Player-level strategy: Decisions about how to pitch to a batter, whether to dive for a ball or not...all of the choices that a player must make while taking the game state into condition

2) Manager-level strategy: Pinch-hit, pinch-run, change pitchers, bunt...the level of strategy that is most relevant to this discussion

3) GM-level strategy: How to evaluate players, which free agents to target, draft strategy...

I suppose Bill James would want us to consider a fourth level, Commissioner-level, which would be relevant to a discussion of the DH, but I’ll ignore that because it’s not particularly relevant to the game on the field.

Sabermetricians have spent most of their time, historically, on GM-level strategy, with Manager-level strategy second. Investigations into player-level strategy have increased in recent years, particularly with the flowering of Pitchf/x data, but still lags behind the other two.

The digression was probably unnecessary, except to set up my opinion--GM strategy fascinates me, player strategy is beyond me, and managerial strategy is interesting but there can be too much of it. Giving the manager more strategic options only interests me if those options allow baseball players to demonstrate their excellence.

Even then, it can be too much. While managers sometimes go overboard in their attempt to utilize their relievers in an attempt to gain the platoon advantage, in theory it’s a good idea. That doesn’t mean it makes for compelling baseball as a spectator. At least in that case, players are being used in a manner that most efficiently converts their ability to value, and the players are better than their peers at the task they’ve been assigned. While the former might be true when strategic choices are made with respect to pitcher hitting, the latter is not. Pitchers are not world-class hitters, and even the lowliest defensive specialist position player would be a standout hitter for a pitcher.

From where I sit, even if I accept that forcing pitchers to hit adds manager-level strategy, I don’t see that as a good thing. I’d rather see players asked to do things they excel at than watch a manager try to make the best out of a player who has no real talent at the task he is forced to engage in.

Conclusion

I don’t begrudge those baseball fans who think that pitchers hitting should be a part of the game at its highest level. While I would prefer not to ever have to watch a pitcher hit, I’m fine with the status quo.

I believe that the DH rule is a correction to a fundamental flaw in the initial design of baseball (to the extent that baseball was "designed"). Initially, the pitcher was a facilitator of action, more like a beer-league softball pitcher than a Greg Maddux. Of course, this lasted for about five seconds--competitiveness ensured that the rules constraining the pitcher would be constantly assaulted until the latter part of the nineteenth century when the rulemakers finally raised the white flag.

I contend that the balance between offense and defense that supporters of pitcher hitting sometimes cite has never existed in baseball and was never possible in a game in which one player’s defensive responsibility so dwarfs that of his teammates. A shortstop certainly has more defensive responsibility than a first baseman, but the difference is not so great as to make the shortstop’s offense a trivial matter when evaluating him as a player. The difference is not even so great as to ensure that when selected in practice, individual shortstops always hit worse than individual first baseman.

With respect to the pitcher, though, the value placed on hitting has been in decline from the beginning of professional baseball. Beyond the importance of selecting pitchers who can retire opposing batters, the relatively unabated trend of pitcher workloads declining with time has reduced the number of plate appearances an individual pitcher gets. At first pitchers were everyday players, more or less, and then there were two-man rotations and three-man rotations, and then the pitchers stopped completing all of their games, and there were four-man rotations...well, you know the story.

Natural selection (I’m sure my use of this term leaves a lot to be desired if you happen to be an evolutionary biologist) dictates that when one trait is so important, it will dominate, and pitching dominates in the selection of pitchers. It dominates to an extent that makes the fact that pitchers are lousy hitters a fait accompli, and it means that the notion of balance between offense and defense for a pitcher is folly.

The DH is admittedly an inelegant solution to this problem. It creates another position for which there is no offense/defense balance (although I don’t hold the ideal of offense/defense balance in particularly high regard). It is a solution that would have been unlikely to have been adopted in the early days of baseball had what I call the fundamental flaw been recognized as such.

I could have included this in the "Silly Arguments" section, but thematically it fit better here--DH opponents sometimes use a slippery slope argument that the DH is a harbinger of two-platoon baseball. Even by the standards of slippery slope arguments, this one strikes me as awfully specious. The DH has been in existence for forty years; there have been no serious proposals to expand the DH beyond the pitcher. There are no other positions that exhibit an inexorable historical trend of declining production with each generation. Given the nature of the game, it is difficult to imagine that such a situation could ever occur. No defensive position is even comparable to the pitcher in terms of its influence on run prevention.

I am all for continuing discussion about ways to tweak the DH; I’ve floated at least one of my own before. One option that is a non-starter as far as I’m concerned, though, is the notion of an eight-man lineup. While proponents like that it would remove the one-platoon DHs, it would fundamentally change the balance between offensive and defensive value for players of every position. It would instantly increase the incentive to carry defensive liabilities and make offensive production a more important factor in selecting players.

The eight-man lineup would cause far more fundamental change to the game than the DH has. Instead of having one offensive position (DH) and one defensive position (pitcher) in which there is no tradeoff between offense and defense, it would tip the scales at the other eight positions more towards offense. Traditionalists would be aghast at the impact of all the extra plate appearances on the record book; that consequence wouldn’t bother me, but perhaps we could shift to eight innings to balance things back out.

That last line is not meant as a joke. In the early 1880s, Henry Chadwick was convinced that baseball would soon be adopting a tenth fielder--a second shortstop of sorts, who’d play on the right side of the diamond and a tenth inning to go along with it.

That never happened, of course, but it’s worth remembering that a number of things that we take for granted in baseball were once anathema to whatever version of "purists" were around at the time they were introduced. The defensive dominance of the pitcher, which was decried well into the 1880s by some people who were upset that fielding just wasn’t as valued as it once was, is one example. What was radical a generation ago is accepted now is tradition a generation from now. Feel free to argue against the DH, but you’ll have to do better than the tradition or real baseball cards, because they could have been played against you in the past, and will be in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised that there aren't comments here - an excellent blog, thank you.

    Your pro-DH argument seems to be that players should be allowed to display their excellence (for the spectators), pitchers cannot hit, therefore a player who is more skilled at hitting should hit for the pitcher.

    I'm not sure that I would agree that providing entertainment per se - and you know that the main pro-DH argument is that a pitcher at-bat is "boring" or "an automatic out" - is exactly a prescription for quality overall. Does an overall greater level of offense necessarily equal a better game? That seems to center on OPS (say) as the end-all and be-all.

    You make many good points and lay out the arguments quite well. However, leaning back on the reactionary viewpoint that anti-DH proponents are themselves being reactionary is not generally accurate (IMHO). There always have been, and always will be, rules changes. No student of the game views 1910 baseball as more than relatively comparable to 2013 baseball. In my view at least, the pitcher batting makes for a more interesting and involving game overall.

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