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To DH or Not To DH

It seems like I too often put caveats ahead of quickly little posts like this one … but I’m going to again because I know that what follows is a VERY small sample size. It’s only 131 games total. But it’s still fun, and there’s a fascinating twist, one that I never could have seen coming. So I would say to enjoy this but not attach any meaning to it.

Since 1976, the designated hitter has played a role in the World Series. For a little while there — from 1976-84 — the World Series would used the DH every other year. That went as follows:

1976: Yes DH (NL Reds won)

1977: No DH (AL Yankees won)

1978: Yes DH (AL Yankees won)

1979: No DH (NL Pirates won)

1980: Yes DH (NL Phillies won)

1981: No DH (NL Dodgers won)

1982: Yes DH (NL Cardinals won)

1983: No DH (AL Orioles won)

1983: Yes DH (AL Tigers won)

1985: No DH (AL Royals won)

So over those 10 years, the American League went 2-3 when the DH was used. And the National League went 2-3 when the DH wasn’t used. I think that pretty plainly shows that, in the big picture at least, the DH was not a decisive advantage or disadvantage for either side. The DH DID play a role, no question, but it seems like, as often as not, it played a positive role for the cross-league team. St. Louis’ Dane Iorg was Whitey Herzog’s DH in 1982, and he got eight hits in the 1982 World Series. Mike Boddicker’s sacrifice fly gave the Orioles a 3-1 lead in the all-important Game 2 of the 1983 World Series.

Since 1986, the DH World Series rule has been tied to home park. When the game is in an American League park, they use the DH. When it is in a National League park, pitchers hit for themselves.

Brilliant Tweeter CashMoneyMark asked an interesting question: From what we can see in the limited number of games which league has had the advantage? Obviously, there’s already a homefield advantage … but CMM’s question was wondering which team was hurt more by playing against type.

There is no definitive answer to this, I think, because of the small sample size mentioned above. But it seems to me — and this is surprising to me — that it plays any role at all, it actually hurts the National League more to play WITH a DH, than it hurts that American League to play WITHOUT one.

First: Start with the World Series records since 1986:

American League home record: 44-21 (.677 winning percentage)

National League home record: 37-29 (.561 winning percentage)

Well, there’s at least a small difference there — the American League has been better at home. Obviously that difference doesn’t have to involve the DH at all. It could be a million other factors, and I suspect it probably IS a million other factors. Still, it is true that American League teams been really good at home in the World Series when using the DH. Twice, the Minnesota Twins won the World Series by sweeping four games at home.* Only six times since the DH rule have American League teams had a losing record at home in the World Series, and five of those teams lost the Series. The only AL team to win the World Series by winning three games in a National League park was the 1996 Yankees.

*The Arizona Diamondbacks pulled that trick off for the NL in 2001.

But here’s the interesting part, at least to me. American League teams have unquestionably been better offensively with the DH. On the road, with the pitcher hitting for himself, AL teams have averaged about 3.77 runs a game. With the DH, they average about a half run more per game. I think that fits in with what you would expect. Hey, you have Hideki Matsui hitting instead of Roger Clemens, you should score more runs. If anything I’d expect the run-differential to be a little higher — after all, even during the season, when the DH is in use every day, teams tend to score more at home than they do on the road.

The National League, though, offers the shocker. At home, with pitchers hitting, they average 4.15 runs per game, which is pretty close to what American League teams score at home. But on the road, using the DH, National League teams have scored only 3.4 runs per game, meaning they score seven-tenths of a run LESS per game with the DH than they do with pitcher’s hitting.

I’m trying to wrap my head around that one. Obviously, teams play better at home, so it doesn’t really surprise me that the National League teams would score more at home, DH or not. And National League teams don’t use the DH and so generally don’t have players on the bench who can step into the DH role and be great hitters.

But I’m still stunned that NL teams would score that many fewer runs replacing the pitcher with a hitter. Since 1986, with the DH, the National League has been held to two or fewer runs 26 times. Without the DH, they’ve scored two or less only 16 times.

And, conversely, NL teams have scored nine or more runs eight times at home with the pitcher hitting. On the road, with the DH, they’ve scored nine or more just four times.

What this probably says is that the DH is not that big a factor one way or another … certainly not as big a factor as home field advantage. But I would love it if Tony La Russa, citing this history of NL teams score more with the pitcher hitting, just had his pitcher hit in the American League park. He’s the only guy who would try something like that, and I have to say it could be his crowning tactical moment, beating hitting the pitcher eighth, beating the triple switch, beating everything. If he had his pitcher hit in Texas, and the Cardinals won the Series, Tony L would become even more of a folk hero than he already is.

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33 Responses to To DH or Not To DH

  1. wouldn’t 15 years worth of interleague games where the DH is used in AL parks and not in NL parks offer a much larger sample size for an essentially analogous experiment?

  2. p.s. circle me edgar martinez

  3. The American League is a much, much superior league and it has been for a long time. This isnt opinion, its fact. That is bound to skew any comparisons you try to make. Watching pitchers hit is the most mismatched aspect of any sport since the retirement of Saul Mamby. Its embarrassing. Nobody wants to see that.

  4. Kwaz says:

    Should we take into account the fact that non-walkoff home wins only involve the home team batting 8 teams instead of 9?

  5. Richard says:

    “The American League is a much, much superior league and it has been for a long time. This isnt opinion, its fact.”

    No, it’s not. It’s interpretation, based on a variety of facts.

  6. Mike says:

    This is just anecdotal, but I think Senior League managers use the DH more to get a defensive liability off the field than put another bat on it. I know Bobby Cox used to drive me to distraction with the DH, usually using it on Chipper Jones and putting his fifth infielder in the game, rather than putting another bat in.

  7. Kit says:

    I’d like to see a straight-up World Series comparison of AL DH vs NL DH, and AL pitcher hitting vs NL.

  8. David says:

    Tony LaRussa is a folk hero? Boy, talk about a cultural disconnect with the rest of us.

  9. NMark W says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. TJMac says:

    David – I think Tony L. as “folk hero” was said with tounge planted in cheek.

  11. Dinky says:

    Many issues apply and a couple have been mentioned, but one big one hasn’t been mentioned yet. Good DH types are far more likely to end up on AL teams, meaning NL teams are less likely to have a strong DH on the bench. A pinch hitter/part time DH (for the interleague games) on the NL team will get perhaps 120 plate appearances a season as DH/PH (not counting the occasional starts to rest a regular, just as primary purpose of DH/PH). On the AL team, the DH/PH will get well upwards of 500 PA, and possibly more than 600 PA (some interleague games not having the DH reducing the total PA).

    So if you have a pure DH type (Greg Luzinski, Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi) an NL will be looking at 600 PA with perhaps 1,000 innings of defensive liability, or 120 PA with no defensive liability, and thus won’t offer nearly as much to free agent DHs. While the MannyBManny types may go to the NL for a while, in general they’ll get paid more in the AL because they are worth 4-5 times more at bats.

  12. Mark Daniel says:

    NL teams probably don’t let their pitchers bat much more than 2 times per game. They always bring in pinch hitters, so maybe pinch hitters are really performing well in the World Series for NL teams.
    As an example, Kirk Gibson hit his famous walk-off in the 1988 WS as a pinch hitter for Alejandro Pena.

  13. y42k says:

    Brilliant setup for the LaRussa comment!

  14. y42k says:

    …and then SI ruins it by leading the article with a LaRussa photo with a spoiler caption.

  15. Harrison says:

    Perhaps NL teams score more at home without the DH because American league pitchers don’t pitch as well when they have to bat.

  16. @Harrison: I think you might be on to something, sir.

  17. Michael says:

    These numbers are exactly what Vin Scully had in mind when he said that too many of us use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination. In other words, the statistics demonstrate that the DH doesn’t seem to change a lot, but both sides will use the numbers to claim they are right, when the explanation is actually quite simple. We owe it all to Red Smith–Joe, if you are reading this, you just stood and salaamed, I trust–who began an anti-DH column by saying, “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Ten that day.”

  18. Gary says:

    A number of years ago I read an essay by Bill James in which he showed that using the DH increases strategy, and it’s true. Much of the “strategy” used in NL games is simply knee-jerk reaction that involves little thought: With a runner on base and less than two outs, the pitcher almost always bunts. With two outs, the no. 8 hitter will be walked to face the pitcher. If the no. 7 hitter reaches base, you can’t have him run because the other team will walk the no. 8 hitter to get to the pitcher. If the no. 8 hitter reaches, he is limited to what he can do because the pitcher is hitting behind him. If somehow the pitcher reaches base, the hitters behind him are limited because pitchers are usually poor baserunners and besides, you don’t want to wear them out on the bases.

    With the DH, you don’t have those limitations. Some teams, like the Yankees, use the no. 9 position as a second lead-off position, greatly expanding the strategic moves a manager can make. About 10 years ago I did a study of sacrifice bunting in the two leagues. Taking out the pitchers’ sac bunts, AL teams were more likely to use the bunt with position players than NL teams were.

    In addition, in the NL pitching moves are often made based on where the pitcher’s spot is in the order. Double switches are made, sometimes taking out a superior fielder or hitter, to avoid having the pitcher hit. With the DH, managers can make pitching decisions based on the pitcher’s pitching abilities, and pinch-hitting decisions based on the strategic value of the situation, not merely because the pitcher is due up.

    The common wisdom is that it is harder for the AL manager to adjust to managing without the DH, but in reality, it is harder for the NL manager to adjust to the DH because most of his paint-by-number moves are taken away and he is required to think originally. I’m sure most NL managers are capable of this, but they aren’t as used to it as the AL managers.

  19. Gary –

    Sac-bunts are almost always a negative run producing event, so what you say isn’t a good thing for the AL.

  20. Gadfly says:

    Disagree with Gary. There’s plenty of non knee-jerk strategy in the NL. And, the stuff you mention requires an NL manager to roll the dice more than an AL one. I’d like both leagues to dump the DH, but in exchange for one additional roster spot.

  21. blovy8 says:

    The DH is more likely to take over than go away. The pitcher is pretty much a designated out, and who does that help? It’s too late to complain about how pitchers aren’t complete players, it’s already true. Pitch counts, relief specialization, and bigger bullpens have rendered a lot of the old school strategy moot, so there’s a lot less downside to pulling a starter early if the situation calls for it. You’re not going to worry about burning a pitcher or having to double switch (unless you’re LaRussa) by bringing him in the game when you have six more guys available. A good reliever with the proper matchup is going to have an ERA lower than the average starter, and probably not much worse than an ace after 70 or 80 pitches. And, of course, then you have someone who’s a hitter up in their place the rest of the game. The extra NL strategy seems to come down to choosing which way you’re going to weaken your team when it comes to the pitcher’s spot. Are you going to get rid of a starting position player with a double switch? Are you going to let the pitcher make another out? Are you bringing in a cold hitter who isn’t good enough to start and will likely hit worse than any position player in the situation? AL strategy is left with the decisions about improving your possibilities. Is the pitcher still effective? Is there an advantage by putting in a different hitter, a defensive replacement, or better runner at a particular point?

  22. The best argument I’ve heard for the DH is this one – if baseball started with the DH, and after 50 years someone had said: “hey, I’ve got a great idea, lets have pitchers bat!” Everyone would respond, “who wants an automatic out?”
    While Gary’s point about bunting is rightly critiqued, another point for AL managers – their decisions about the pitcher are only about the pitcher. They can’t take a guy out, and say to him – “we had to bat for you there.” It is entirely a pitching decision, which can add stress to the manager’s relationship with pitchers.
    I’ve never been at an AL game and thought – “It sure would be awesome to see the pitcher bat right now!” And much of of the “strategy” around the pitcher batting, double switches and etc seems over . . . over somethinged

  23. marshall says:

    I would much prefer to see only position players bat, i.e, only bat 8 instead of 9.

  24. Dan Shea says:


  25. KHAZAD says:

    @ Gary-
    I completely agree, but you said it much better than I could have.

    Fans of the pitcher batting will wax philosophical about the intense strategy of a double switch, while I have always said that a trained monkey could do it. It is not only much harder to deal with your lineup in the AL, I think it is more difficult for pitching as well.

    I am traditional in many ways, but the DH should be everywhere.

  26. I am going to keep making this suggestion until someone tells me it’s stupid: Drop the AL-yes, NL-no thing– have the home team pick whether or not there will be a DH before each game.

    It’s good for sluggardly sluggers because they will have many more markets.
    It allows teams versatility without worrying about having a league-appropriate team.
    It ends the question of if one league has an inherent advantage in the world series.
    It creates fun strategy debates, game to game and roster to roster.
    It allows every manager to rest players more, take advantage of great hitting pitchers and strategize on another level (maybe the other team has a lefty slugger who can’t field, so you only put in the DH when you have a lefty starting).
    It gives Tony LaRussa more to do.
    It provides incredible blog fodder.

    Kablammo. What do people think?

    (whoa, the second as I wrote that k-word, there was a big earthquake here in the Bay Area)

  27. Paul Franz says:

    Personally, I find pitchers hitting extremely entertaining. No need to wax philosophical. I prefer the NL because it’s fun, and because sometimes someone like Jason Hammel hits a home run, not because it pulls at the heart strings or makes me misty eyed. The presumption that watching a DH hit is more interesting than watching the pitcher hit is built on the idea that better hitters are innately more interesting. This is not always true.

  28. Matt says:

    I guess I’ll be the first commenter to use that word: abomination. That’s how I view the DH.

    Who wants to see pitchers hit, you ask? Irrelevant. Last time I checked they’re baseball players, so if they’re in the lineup they should hit. I’m not excited about seeing Miguel Olivo get 500 plate appearances either, but I don’t see a clamor to keep catchers from hitting.

    By that argument, why not just field nine Ozzie Smiths and then choose nine Vlad Guerreros to bat? Who wouldn’t want to see that? Anyone who understands the true meaning of baseball, that’s who.

    Slippery slope, I tell ya. If you play, you hit.

  29. Yeah, there is nothing better than watching a pitcher walk the bases loaded with 2 outs to get to get to the pitcher so he can get out of the inning. guaranteed. Thats not flawed at all, thats just great, competitive baseball.

  30. Jared says:

    Tony LaRussa is crazy enough to do that. Classic over-manager.*

    *See Also: Games 2 of the World Series

  31. Broken Yogi says:

    Actually, the idea of having 9 offensive players, and nine different defensive players, seems pretty good. That’s how they do it in football now, though it didn’t start out that way. Sometimes it could be the same guy, but it would sure be more challenging. I love the idea of nine Ozzie Smiths out there. Also nine Frank Thomases. Willie Mays could still play both sides.

    Also, I like the idea of batting only eight players, and keeping the ninth out of the order. Doesn’t have to be the pitcher, if you have Babe Ruth on your pitching staff.

    What I don’t like is having rules that differ from league to league.

  32. Broken Yogi says:

    BTW, the 9/9 idea would really make the manager’s job more interesting, particularly if rosters weren’t larger. They’d have to double up a number of position players, and the whole substitution thing would be crazy complicated. Just right for Tony La Russa.

  33. Broken Yogi says:

    I meant to say “folk hero Tony La Russa”.

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