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.