Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Free Preview: "The DH"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. V, No. 32
April 5, 2013

In the early days of proto-baseball, pitchers were just that. Their role was similar to that of the pitcher in your local co-ed softball league: to instigate play by pitching the ball to the batsman, whose actions would start the game itself. Peter Morris, in his book A Game of Inches, describes the style as "pitching a horseshoe." Even before the Civil War, however, pitchers had come to realize that by starting the action with the ball in their hands, they could exercise significant control over the action once it left their hands. Despite rules that limited their movements -- such as requiring both feet to be on the ground and the arm to be perpendicular to the ground at release -- pitchers rapidly developed methods for deceiving hitters so as to induce weak contact or no contact at all.

When baseball was codified, pitchers were just like every other player on the diamond. By the time the Civil War ended and professionalism was nigh, they were already in class by themselves. The idea that pitchers in professional baseball were ever just like every other player on the diamond was dead by the time the National League came into being in 1876. That season, 13 pitchers threw at least 100 innings. Nine were below-average hitters. Bobby Mathews started 56 of the New York Mutuals' 57 games while hitting .183/.195/.211. Candy Cummings hit .162/.162/.190 (for a 13 OPS+) but only lost his job as Hartford's main hurler because Tommy Bond out-pitched him. From the earliest time for which we have records, a pitcher's role while on the mound was considered so important that his batting skill was a non-factor in evaluating his contributions to the team.

The development of pitching skill would fight a battle with those determined to restrict pitchers' impact on the game for the next generation, until the rule makers pulled out the big guns and pushed the pitchers back from 50 feet from the plate to 60 feet and six inches. (As a practical matter, the move was shorter than this, and I recommend Morris's book for the details.) By this time, pitchers had asserted themselves as the most important players on the field, controlling the game with speed and spin, and who cares what they hit. By this time, most of the NL's 12 teams were employing multiple starting pitchers, although the innings totals of the league's starters reached into the 300s as a matter of course and above 400 for the league leaders. As you can see by looking at the top-ten in innings pitched for 1892, what these guys hit wasn't keeping them from being handed the ball:


                  AVG/OBP/SLG  OPS+
Hutchinson, CHC   217/245/304   70
Rusie, NYG        215/224/285   54
Weyhing, PHI      136/178/159    2
Killen, WAS       199/310/328   95
Nichols, BOS      203/263/284   59
Young, CLE        158/191/199   16
Baldwin, PIT      101/162/129  -12
Stivetts, BOS     296/369/408  125
King, NYG         209/283/307   79
Chamberlain, CIN, 225/257/294   67


Sure, it was nice if you had a Frank Killen or a Jack Stivetts, but whether you could hit or not wasn't going to determine your job status as a pitcher. In 1892, pitcher batting was already a recessive gene, even a vestigial one. 

No one alive has ever seen a time when pitchers' batting was anything but an afterthought. Very few people alive have ever heard stories from their elders about such a time. The evolution of pitchers' hitting was set in motion when, some time during the Pierce Administration, an enterprising young man decided that if he was going to stand 45 feet away from a guy with a stick, he was going to defend himself with more than just his wits. He was going to try and make the batter's job a little bit harder. Once he did that, he separated his job from that of everyone else on the field. It didn't take until 1973 for that to be clear. It didn't even take until 1873.

The 1945 season is the earliest for which we have splits data at baseball-reference.com. In 1945, pitchers hit .176/.217/.221, for an OPS+ of 28. As a point of comparison, shortstops -- players who are selected in no small part for their defensive ability -- hit .247/.309/.318, for an 84 OPS+. No one reading this can remember a time when pitchers were anything but the worst hitters in baseball, and not by a little bit. Very few of you, maybe no one, has ever had a discussion with anyone who remembers a time when pitchers were anything but the worst hitters in baseball. "OMG, Wes Ferrell" is not a rebuttal, any more than "OMG, Ray Oyler" is an argument for not letting shortstops bat or "OMG, Mitch Williams" is an argument for not letting humans communicate with words.

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of baseball's attempt to adjust to its own evolution. The designated hitter didn't come about for these reasons so much as it did for a desperate attempt to raise run scoring, and with it attendance, during a fallow period for both. For a while, the DH was worth about a half a run a game to the American League, but even that has been tamped down over the years as teams have come to treat the DH less as a free spot for a hitter and more as a way to use the rest of the roster efficiently. Whatever its origin story or development, the designated hitter was and is the necessary adaptation to the selection process that gave us a class of players that, in the final year before the DH came into being, hit .146/.184/.184, for an OPS+ of 11.

Humans don't have tails any longer because we don't swing from tree branches any longer. We moved to the ground when the monkeys did not, we learned to walk upright and, over time, our tails went away. For pitchers, bats are tails. They learned a skill set that separated them from the other monkeys on the field, and the skills they did not need went away. The "nine players" argument that underpins the anti-DH position is, because of this, invalid. Pitchers are fundamentally a different class of player from the other eight on the diamond. Different rules apply to them. They're compensated differently. They're handled, within games and on rosters, differently. And they cannot, as a class, hit well enough to be asked to do so in a major-league setting. Their attempts to do so are an embarrassing anachronism not as of 2013, not as of 1973, but as of your great-great-great-grandparents' baseball.

The DH isn't an abomination, it's a necessary adaptation to evolution. I join my friend Christina Kahrl in calling for the National League to adopt the DH so that we can watch the best brand of baseball possible.