From the AL Looking In

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By accident of fandom, I root for the American League in baseball.  I didn’t choose to be pro-designated hitter; I was born into my mother’s family and there it is.  Since I became a sentient baseball watcher, my team has had a DH, so, when a National League fan pontificates about the purity and superiority of the game as played without the DH, I’m left to wonder at their vague generalizations about strategy and the propriety of pitchers batting.  In an effort to pin down what is so wonderfully different, I decided to engage in a little analysis of my own.  I sat down with the data from last year’s World Series to discover what NL-style ball presents to an AL fan.

First, some facts: the only two games where neither team used pinch hitters or runners were games 6 & 7, which were played under AL rules (with a DH) at Kansas City.  In game 6, the managers for both teams made substitutions for position players, however, and the Giants used more men overall than the Royals.  In game 7, the teams left their starting lineups in for the entirety.  The other two games played under American League rules were games 1 & 2, and both teams used PH’s – subbing for or in addition to their DH’s.  The Royals never used more than ten players in any of these games; the Giants used up to thirteen men.

The games played under NL rules were somewhat different.  In those games, the least amount of men played was thirteen (by the Royals in game 3); the most was eighteen (by the Giants in game 4).  By crafty timing, the Royals used no PH in game 3, and the Giants used none in game 5 because their starting pitcher threw a complete game (batting for himself throughout).  The Royals used two and one PH respectively in the other NL-style games.  The Giants used seven and four.  These substitutions were made almost exclusively to replace pitchers at bat.

The unavoidable conclusion here is that games played under NL rules require more men simply to keep the pitcher off of offense.  Although managers also used PH’s in AL-rules games during the Series, (to replace position players and DH’s not performing well at the plate) they made fewer of these substitutions. With a limited roster, using multiple PH’s for pitchers leaves less room to make offensive substitutions for other players.  Logically, that should limit offensive strategy more in the NL, although in reality, teams don’t make many changes to the lineup when using a DH.  Of course, when replacing a position player, the substitution is likely to be a lesser option, which is why the replacement wasn’t a starter in the first place.  In order to make equivalent substitutions for position players, the team’s roster would have to include starter-quality players on the bench – something teams largely can’t afford and which is practically impossible to effect in reality.  On the other hand, almost every player on a team bats better than a pitcher, so anyone on the bench is a pinch-hitting option.

How bad are those pitchers at batting? In game 5, Madison Bumgarner pitched a complete game, and he had no hits or walks in his four at bats.  That means he was responsible for more than an inning of outs for his team by himself.  Of course, it was worth it in that he was good for almost three innings of outs just in strikes outs against the other team alone.  The Giants definitely came out ahead by leaving him in.  That was not so much the case with the other starting pitchers and relievers.  In game 3, Jeremy Guthrie gave up four hits and two runs, while doing nothing in his two turns at the plate.  Tim Hudson did better, as he struck out two – in addition to giving up four hits and three runs – and only accounting for one out in his lone at bat.  Jason Vargas’ two outs at the plate hurt his team less than the three strike outs he delivered in game 4, but Ryan Vogelsong struck out two without also costing his team a wasted at bat before being pulled early for giving up four runs.

Which brings us to the open secret about pitchers batting in the NL – like Vogelsong there, they mostly don’t. Nineteen pitchers appeared in the World Series, but only seven of them batted.  That’s significantly less than half.  Essentially, only the starting pitchers hit and this is consistent with the pattern in the National League.  Of the Giants’ pitching staff, Bumgarner had the most at bats in 2014, but he only averaged about two per game.  None of the pitchers for NL teams in the playoffs had more than 72 at bats the whole season.  Most of their starting pitchers ranged from 46-60 turns at the plate last year.  Relief pitchers largely didn’t bat at all – or did so once or twice all season.

Of course, this is an effect of the use of PH’s in the NL.  The motive for pinch hitting is obvious: pitchers stink at hitting.  Zack Greinke of the Dodgers is considered one of the best batting pitchers in the game.  His batting average for 2014 was .200.  By comparison, the Dodgers were trying to trade Andre Ethier because of his lack of offensive pop, and his average was .249 last year.  As bad as pitchers hit, teams need to minimize their time at the plate.  This is doable with relievers, as you can sub in a PH for them and then replace them on the mound with a different pitcher the next time the team takes the field.  The one pitcher you can’t pinch hit for is a starter who is performing well – because then you’d have to take him out of the game and lose his superior pitching.

Herein lies the perplexity for an AL fan: essentially, NL-style ball penalizes good pitchers.  The better they are, the more they have to go to the plate and undermine team offense.  Lesser pitchers don’t have to do the same.  It seems the opposite of a meritocracy.  You’d think you’d want to reward good pitching, instead of making pitchers do more of the thing they are terrible at the better they are at their position.  How is baseball better by impairing the offense because the defense is great?

Meanwhile, NL managers make all kinds of moves in order to keep relievers from batting.  On the one hand, it makes sense that since they aren’t delivering as many outs, you don’t want them to make more too, but they are no more of a liability at the plate than the starter.  Plus, it’s more work for managers to figure out when to put guys in and take them out, and no one goes to a game to root for administrative maneuvers – especially routine hitting substitutions.  You never hear people taking their seats say, “I really hope they put X in to hit for Y in the 8th,” or “Oooh, I hope we get three double switches today!”

Really, people come to see the best pitching and defense a team has face the best batting of their opponent (and the reverse).  The simple way to achieve that is the DH.  In the NL, you are basically aiming for similar results with PH’s anyway (actually, lesser results as you’re still stuck with a starting pitcher batting).  It seems a bit like inventing epicycles to account for the movement of the sun.  Wouldn’t it be simpler to relieve all pitchers of having to bat?  The DH is an efficiency measure.  Watching teams rotate through so many PH’s and plan for wasted at bats just seems counter-productive.

The first five or six innings of an NL game are pretty similar in regard to manager moves as an AL game anyway.  The big difference is simply making up for pitchers batting later in the game, which is supposed to add to the pressure and excitement.  Does that mean watching starting pitchers isn’t exciting?  Why would we root for no-hitters and shutouts then?  If watching starters throw and bat is exciting on its own, why doesn’t that hold for relievers?  Why do you have to manufacture drama in the late innings with roster changes if you didn’t need to earlier in the game?

What’s more, it’s inconsistent:  if the DH defiles the game by preventing pitchers from hitting, the PH does as well.  NL-style ball isn’t really so pure then after all. The majority of pitchers in the NL aren’t hitting – each of them has an offensive reliever of his own or a well-timed exit planned to assure they don’t.  Except in regard to their starters, the NL is already as corrupted as the AL.

Now, if you just want roster changes to admire, managers can still do switches and substitutions (and call for bunts) with a DH in the game; nothing prevents managers from moving players around or altering the roster during an AL game.  In fact, during the World Series, the managers did precisely that in three games under AL rules.  They just didn’t have to do it to compensate for a particular bad batter every time.

In the end, AL-rules games in the World Series required fewer men to play and relied more on player performance than managerial intrigue for offensive results.  Madison Bumgarner’s fantastic relief work was no less fabulous in game 7 – and the outcome no less thrilling – because Michael Morse (Michael Morse!) was his DH.  The triple threat of Herrera-Davis-Holland wasn’t more impressive in game 4 because Nori Aoki and Jayson Nix relieved them at the plate.  As an AL fan, it’s hard to look at the Series games in San Francisco and not see them as inefficient means producing no better pitching performances or thrilling offense.  From the outside, it looks like complication for the sake of complication, which is decidedly not the sixth tool in baseball.

48 thoughts on “From the AL Looking In

  1. Here’s what we need to do:

    Embrace the DH across the board.
    Normalize the schedule so that AL and NL teams and non-divisional teams all play each other in a balanced manner (you can still emphasize divisional/local rivalries with this type of schedule).
    Start basing the playoff seeds exclusively on overall record, regardless of league or division.
    Make WC round a 5 game set and all other rounds are 7 game sets.
    To accommodate no. 4, shorten season back to 150-156 games (or alternatively speed up global warming and start season in March).
    Set home-field advantage to also be exclusively based upon best regular season record.

    Pretending the 2015 season was already normalized and DH was embraced league-wide, here is the playoff structure under that scenario:

    Cards (1)
    Pirates (2)
    Royals (3)
    Cubs (4)
    Dodgers (5)
    Blue Jays (6)
    WC1: Mets (7)
    WC2: Yankees (8)
    WC3: Astros (9)
    WC4: Rangers (10)

    WC Round – Best of Five:

    Mets (7) v. Rangers (10)
    Yankees (8) v. Astros (9)

    “Divisional” Round – Best of Seven (assuming high seed won)

    Cards (1) v. Yankees (8)
    Pirates (2) v. Mets (7)
    Royals (3) v. Blue Jays (6)
    Cubs (4) v. Dodgers (5)

    Championship Round – Best of Seven (assuming high seed won)

    Cards (1) v. Cubs (4)
    Pirates (2) v. Royals (3)

    World Series
    Cubs (4) v. Pirates (2)

    Cubs win in seven.

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      1. Alternatively, do what NBA is doing and keep the AL/NL differentiation, but seed based upon above rules except within each league to ensure a NL v AL World Series matchup.

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    1. The DH is going to invade the NL, and probably sooner rather than later. I’ve come to accept the inevitability of this….but that’s not the same as embracing it. That said, Kyle Schwarber would make one hell of a DH.

      But I can’t ever see the season being shortened. It’s just a matter of people loving money too much, and the significant quantities of revenue that would be lost by having fewer games.

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      1. I don’t think you can expand the playoffs any more without shortening the regular season. There just aren’t enough warm months in the year. That’s the only reason, otherwise make baseball year round.

        I never loved the DH, but have come around on the fact that it is inevitable and it really does make a lot of sense in this modern specialized game of baseball. Pitchers pitch. Hitters hit. Kinda logical.

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  2. Just wanted to pop my head in real quick and let you all know I’m not going to be around for a while today. I’m doing a lot of moving of furniture around the house and running new internet cable and stuff and it’ll take a while. I have a bunch of emails to catch up on and will work on a new theme later tonight. I’m Ali attending the Os flames in Friday and Saturday so I’ll be busy with that as well. Just so you don’t think I’ve abandoned you all. :). Keep up the great work and thanks everyone!

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    1. Holy crap you guys/gals have been busy! I’m very impressed! Can’t wait to see what you all have cooked up for tomorrow! Gonna work on the theme a little more today and make sure we can go back and see a all the old articles now that we actually have more articles. Also have a lot of emails to catch up on.

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  3. Great job, historio. Well done.
    As lefty stated, the DH in both leagues is probably inevitable, due to many factors. I personally won’t like it, but that’s beyond my control. Part of my enjoyment of baseball is the sheer unpredictability of it. Pitchers getting hits. Poor fielders making improbable plays. Gus Triandos hitting a triple! I know, logically, that the DH make sense baseball-wise, statistic-wise, and all the other -wises, but I have always enjoyed the game merely for what it is. I’ve never been too hung up on the statistics of the game, but have simply enjoyed the game in and of itself.
    Now that more and more teams are going to a rotating system of DH’s who can usually play at least average defense too, It has become more palatable, because I -again, me personally- don’t care much for one-dimension players. you can tell me that pitchers are one-dimensional, but in addition to pitching, they also have to field their position. In the past the DH wasn’t even useful defensively. That has changed somewhat with the re-definition of their usage, so as I said it has become more acceptable for me. I’m probably too old to have my mind changed completely.

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    1. I actually like the split between the leagues and hope it stays. It gives us something to throw popcorn at each other over. Frankly, having lost manager meltdowns to the replay set up, we need to keep the passion somewhere.

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      1. As long as you’re not throwing salmon. Or spruceberries., But, seriously, yeah, it does make for some fun discussions. I’m not quite as obstinate about it as OG is, but I like the NL rules lots better. If they would do away with the ridiculous challenge system, and focus on getting the calls right, replay would be much better than currently constructed. But I do miss the epic managerial meltdowns of old!!!!

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      2. I hate all the manager arguments. Yawn. If we’d just get rid of the silly tradition of humans trying to call balls and strikes there would be barely any except for maybe bean balls and balks. Save the passion for the game.

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  4. After being anti-DH for 177 years (okay, maybe not that long), I am slowly starting to accept the idea. I still don’t see the day coming anytime soon when the owners agree to it, but I do think the game would benefit from it

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  5. If I don’t get the ability to post so that I can post about cake sucking and pie being awesome, I’m never coming back again! BAJKHGKLHASHRFLJALKJSKLJASKDJ!!!!!

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      1. Cake has always been, and will always be, superior to pie. There’s not even a reasonable debate to be had.

        People who say they prefer pie to cake might as well say the sun rises in the west or that the Earth is flat.

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      2. You know that Eddie Izzard routine, “Cake or Death?” It’s a legitimate question.

        (J/k, I like cake just fine. It’s just a distant second to pie).

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      3. Get out.

        Cake has frosting. Usually Crisco-based. Yuk. Pie has infinite variety, and awesomeness. Heat up your pie? Yes! Pie and ice cream? Yes! Cake and ice cream…I guess. Don’t you have any pie?

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  6. Too many AL people here and I don’t feel like doing a huge rebuttal. I will point out that the AL and NL have almost an identical number of pitching changes most seasons, implying that DH or no DH does not actually affect manager decisions by any appreciable amount. In my opinion, DH is simply a flavor and you either like it or you don’t. I don’t, but its not as bad as aspartame in my soda so I can live with it even though I’d prefer life without it.

    A large part of it is that I don’t really prefer a game designed to be purely offensive in nature, where weak hitting positions are replaced by one dimensional specialists. I won’t cry too much if it happens, but for me something will have been lost.

    That said, I have no desire to convert the AL either. Right now it is the best of both worlds, fans who like it can watch the AL, fans who prefer pitchers hitting can watch the NL.

    BTW, I could take Historio’s position far more seriously if it wasn’t for the fact that her car is manual, which is pretty much the NL of driving. After all, while people like to believe they are better at shifting than the computer the vast majority are not, it forces management moves unnecessarily and is an unnecessary holdover from a hundred years ago before someone created the automatic. A little consistency in life is always a good thing. 😉

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    1. Most automatic systems are actually horrible at shifting. With an automatic, you have far less control over your vehicle in wet, snowy, or icy situations

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      1. Its a common theory, and in the hands of a professional driver its likely true the majority of the time. But mass market vehicles are overwhelmingly sold to non-professional drivers, and the overwhelming majority of the time they have no idea how to use a manual to their advantage beyond what an automatic will do for them. Testing has demonstrated that despite EPA figures, a typical driver gets worse fuel economy, for instance, than the same driver in an automatic model of the same vehicle. Again, because a typical driver is not an expert even if they have driven manual for years.

        This is true in a lot of fields. I am a software engineer. In my hands an OS like Linux is far superior in terms of its capabilities and performance than Windows or OSX. But for virtually everyone else, its a terrible experience that will inconvenience them far more than help them. In fact, despite its power, I just use Windows because I’m not worried about tweaking at the margins for my day to day use of a PC.

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        1. Are those tests done on flat courses? I don’t get exposed to automatic transmissions too often, but do drive one around campus (of course, it’s a hybrid and i rarely get above 25 mph with it)….but back when I had to drive one more regularly, they kind of sucked at figuring out how to shift going up or down hills….and they were really horrible in snow, again, especially on hills.

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      2. I don’t have a handy link, I read it in a magazine likely around ten years ago, but it was prompted by investigating the difference between driver reported mileage and EPA reported mileage and was not originally about Automatic vs Manual. One of the discrepancies they noticed was that the EPA always lists higher fuel economy for manual transmissions, but this turned out to be likely a product of the EPA having very specific requirements for the testing that included effectively an ideal driver that did not represent the average at all. For instance, a typical driver actually shifts based on performance, not fuel economy, Another finding was that starting in the 90’s when onboard computers became standard and were reasonably sophisticated, automatic transmissions started making better decisions. This actually has improved dramatically since traction control became a requirement since it also means there are sensors for each tire which feeds back into the dataset available to making shifting decisions.

        Up till that point I generally believed manuals were superior in virtually every regard. The article shifted my thinking considerably, and I started paying attention to how people actually drive. At least anecdotally, aside from a few hyper milers, I don’t know anyone who actually shifts correctly, everyone guns it at least some of the time, everyone picks the wrong gear sometimes, etc. Basically humans who don’t drive for a living are not ideal, and the differences between manual and automatic in terms of efficiency requires an ‘ideal’ driver to demonstrate. The tech has basically caught up.

        That is not to say that in certain conditions a person can’t do better than an automatic. Only that on balance most people won’t the overwhelming majority of the time.

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        1. There are places on my drive to and from work, where I know how fast I need to be going to essentially coast up and down the hills for the next mile or so. On one part, I even slow to about 15 mph as I approach the stop sign….of course, that is a drive I do every day that has very little traffic.

          My main issue is one of control of the vehicle rather than mileage. I’ve never preferred manuals for mileage, but for the ability to control the vehicle in different conditions.

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      3. I am not arguing about your personal driving style. I’m not there to evaluate it, and I’m not qualified to do so even if I were. My point is that on balance, if the entire fleet of consumer class vehicles were automatic, average fuel economy nationally speaking would be higher, vehicle maintenance would be lower, and likely traffic accidents would go down as for some shifting is a distraction. For some select individuals the situation would be worse and even potentially detract from their driving and safety, but they are not representative or in high enough proportion to outweigh the benefits overall.

        That’s all I’m saying.

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  7. Apparently, I am expected to hate this post. But, of course, I’ve never made any of the arguments this post is trying to refute. I’ve only made conceptual arguments about what people want or act like baseball should be and noted that many “fielders” are as bad at fielding as pitcher are at hitting, but that doesn’t seem to bother people for some reason.

    If the NL adopted the DH tomorrow, that wouldn’t bother me a bit. At least then fewer people would have to do mental gymnastics to try to justify why watching pitchers hit is worse than watching Pedro Alvarez, Jose Bautista, Matt Kemp, or Ryan Braun try to play defense. The worst hitting pitcher this year has not been as bad with the bat as those guys (and others) have been with the glove.

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    1. I don’t know that I’d go that far, most of the worst fielders still make at least 2 plays in ten, unlike the worst pitchers who hit. But it is a completely valid point. If specialization is going to be a thing, why stop with the DH?

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      1. The difference is that the best hitters make outs 6 out of 10 times, so the negative value of a pitcher hitting has to be scaled to what an average hitter does, which is make an out 6.9 out of 10 times. There are a lot of guys that play the field that by comparison to actual capable fielders are worse than pitcher compared to capable hitters.

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      2. FWIW, I used runs (offensive and defensive) “produced” to make the above statement, realizing the sample sizes are small…but also that the listed fielders have sucked for a long time at fielding.

        The pitcher hitting sample sizes are also small (and also includes base running, which I’m sure is negative for most), but the issue is how bad are pitchers at hitting compared to average hitters versus how bad are poor defenders compared to average defenders….and the “defense” of lot of guys (yes, including Miggy, though I didn’t list him for obvious reasons) suffer horribly in that comparison.

        Hell, it was hard to realize just how bad it was to watch Holliday stumble around in LF until we got an actual capable LFer these last couple of months…man, what a difference…so many extra outs and so many fewer doubles because balls are cut off and got back in faster.

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      3. I would also add that I am often in the position of explaining baseball to foreigners, a lot of my colleagues are from China and India and baseball is something ‘american’ they can get into. The DH is very complicated to explain to a person who does not have a previous concept of the game to see it as a logical extension/evolution of the basic rules. Nine guys in the field, nine hitters, makes sense. Making one of them not hit, and one other guy who does not play the field hit is just weird and non-sensical. Its not a big deal to explain that other positions such as shortstop and catcher are valued for skills beyond their bat which is why they are tolerated at the plate, but then trying to make the jump to “oh, and the one guy in the middle also does not have to hit because he’s valued for his arm” inevitably leads to questions about substituting other positions and why not.

        Its not a natural thing at all, the DH really only makes much sense if you grew up with baseball and simply learned it as a variation on the original formula.

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