Questions Regarding the Designated Hitter

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Let’s start by revisiting my previous blog on this subject from last season, when I talked about how the National League style of play isn’t all that fun anymore:

The pitcher DOES NOT HIT in most key situations after the fifth or sixth inning because the manager, the pitchers themselves, most of the fans and even the broadcasters will openly state that it’s an extremely bad idea.  Multiple times this season, key situations where runs were likely to have scored fizzled out because Jon Lester was at bat, and as you know, Jon Lester has yet to record a single hit in his career (he did walk once!).  If you look at other pitcher at-bats, like this one from Santiago Casilla, THEY DON’T WANT TO BE THERE. (Incidentally, in a later at-bat, Casilla hurt himself running to first base.)

Jon Lester actually has a few hits now, which is cool.  At least one of those hits was actually well-struck, and he got his first “hit” on a squibbler to now-teammate John Lackey.  But the point stands, and is corroborated by Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer in a radio interview:

I don’t like the fact that if you start a rally with a number five hitter that often times it just fizzles because you can pitch around the eighth hitter, you strikeout the pitcher and the next thing you know you have two outs even though the pitcher hasn’t even pitched that well. For me there’s definitely kind of a push and pull at those two elements. I think the strategy part is great but no one, no one, with the exception of five or six pitchers in the National League, like no one pays any money to go watch a guy get a bunt down poorly or to strikeout.

I imagine from some of the conversations we’ve had on Twitter and on our Facebook page that Hoyer is exaggerating when he says “no one” pays to see the pitcher hit.  If you look at Anno’s Twitter poll, it is almost evenly split:

I admit I find it gratifying when a pitcher miraculously does something on offense (viva Bartolo Colon), but as with the Jon Lester example, we see many an opportunity flushed down the drain because of where in the batting order the rally is taking place.  As for the offense in general?

I think in baseball I think if velocity and pitching continues to be that dominant at some point you’re probably going to have to make some decisions in order to get the offense a little bit of help and get the run scoring a little back inline. I think that’s a challenge we’re all going to have to face and maybe it’s putting the DH in the National League or maybe it’s making some other adjustments. I do think that run scoring is only going to get more challenging and I think we are going to have to make some adjustments accordingly.

One way to do this, as others have suggested and as I alluded to in the previous blog, is to enforce the textbook strike zone, which has gotten too low in recent years and is likely to be readjusted when umpires are evaluated this offseason and perhaps next.  But even if the zone is tightened, you’re still asking otherwise outstanding hitters have to battle high-90s to low-100s while attempting to gauge whether they will be deceived by a pitcher pulling the string with some off-speed or breaking stuff.  Now let’s ask an already terrible hitter (i.e. the pitcher) try to break through against that?  Especially when even the National League clubs don’t emphasize hitting in the minors?  That’s a tall task, and that represents dozens of lost runs over the course of a season, runs that could have been the difference between victory and defeat.  It’s also a self-serving lobby for the Cubs to get use of the DH, because of how many options that presents for a loaded roster (h/t Cubs Den).

There are some questions that should be answered, and I’m not entirely sure if anyone’s asked them yet (disclaimer: I didn’t bother Googling all that much), so I’ll ask them here and hope folks more dedicated than myself will answer them eventually…

Does the DH increase game time to obnoxious levels?

I scanned some times from various American League teams, including the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals (both of whom use regular DHs in Alex Rodriguez and Kendrys Morales, respectively), and while there were some crazy game times (mostly against the Boston Red Sox and in marathon extra-inning affairs), most game times hovered around the three-hour mark.  The Cubs themselves mostly stayed below the three-hour mark.  I think it may be fallacious to blame game times on the DH alone, given how specialized bullpens have become and the propensity for managers not named Joe Maddon to rely on strict roles and innings for their guys.  As an aggregate, the average game length for 2015 went down relative to the previous season:

According to the Associated Press, the new pace of play measures shaved six minutes off the average time of game in 2015. The average game lasted two hours and 56 minutes this season, though it was two hours and 53 minutes in the first half and an even three hours in the second half. Extra pitching changes with September call-ups surely contributed to that.

Three hours seems pretty standard and reasonable for an outing at the park, and those long matchups that are often blamed on the Yankees and Red Sox were actually pretty rare compared to the aggregate of MLB contests.  I’d like to know if there was a noticeable split between NL-only games, AL-only games, and interleague games with and without the DH, so if anyone could point me towards that data, that would be great.

Is the DH just some guy who rides the bench all season?

I got help from Christopher Kamka on this one since he gets Play Index and I don’t.  I’ll assume that link won’t expire, but there were only seven regular DHs in the AL last season:

There’s a sharp dropoff after that, as Edwin Encarnacion only DH’d in 85 games and Jimmy Paredes DH’d in 81 games.  The rest of the field were listed as DH is fewer than half of the 162 game slate.  It appeared that even if they could just sign a guy to do nothing but hit, more than half of the AL decided to go with DH-by-committee.  And obviously, the NL just used whichever guy they had off the bench, or gave one of their regulars a day off on defense.  It seems that even with the attraction of having an extra job for a full-time hitter, most teams just would rather have a rotation.

Is the DH even that good of a hitter?

If we look at the seven DHs with the most games played at the “position,” we note that Gattis, Butler, and Martinez were pretty bad, although as a comparison, they were only slightly worse than Madison Bumgarner, clearly the best hitting pitcher last season in a group of VERY BAD hitting pitchers.  Looking at the list, most of the hitters who were listed at DH for 20 or more games were comparable to, if not better than, Bumgarner’s line.

Considering how BAD the rest of the pitchers were at hitting, you can see the appeal of the DH spot, unless you have an irrational hate of the DH that clouds your objectivity.  Then again, I now have an irrational hate of anything that generates too many outs, so…

Is there a detriment to being a DH?

This stemmed from a conversation a few days ago that I can’t really dig up now because I tweet too much (my wife says that and it’s true and I’m ashamed) so you can hunt through my conversations with Stan and Tommy if you want.  But I recall from Tango’s “The Book” that there was some quantifiable “penalty” for pinch-hitting, and DHs received a portion of that penalty.  So I dug out my book and re-read the section:

Against right-handed relief pitchers, batters posted an average OBP of .337 and wOBA of .334 from 2000-2004 when starting, numbers that plummeted to .313 and .300 when pinch-hitting, after accounting for quality of opposing pitching.

Our best explanation for this phenomenon is that a player coming off the bench simply isn’t as prepared (mentally or physically) to hit as one who has been playing the entire game.

We also find that players are less effective when used as designated hitters, suffering about hlf the performance penalty incurred when pinch hitting.

There is less variance in Tango’s data with pinch-hitters than with DHs, but this supported the notion in our Twitter conversation that some players might be better suited to being ready to hit on a dime while others needed to remain in the flow of the game.  However, Tango and his co-authors conceded that the data was insufficient to draw too many conclusions from.  When I myself tried to look at Chris Kamka’s list and the Fangraphs leaderboards to try to glean a difference between players who both DH’d and started in the field, it was very difficult because Fangraphs unfortunately doesn’t separate plate appearances by position, but I could at least observe a slight uptick for some and a decline in production for others with a cursory glance.  I hope others can expand on the aborted analysis from “The Book” later on, because I lack the analytical skillset to do so, but I can say with some confidence that even with a DH “penalty,” most of the players still hit better than Madison Bumgarner.  And then you might say, “Well, duh, that’s their job.”  And I would agree with you, but it also supports the point that most pitchers shouldn’t be allowed to hold a bat.

This is also interesting in that no matter if the team uses a full-time DH or chooses a DH-by-committee, they can at least keep the guys fresh and maintain a better production than most pitchers not named Madison Bumgarner.  And perhaps the extra rest (which Joe Maddon is now famous for with the Cubs and their young players) is worth whatever DH “penalty” they incur.

 

I hope someone at Baseball Prospectus does some analysis to address these questions.  I’d totally read it.  Wink wink nudge nudge.

 

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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

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