Embracing Inefficiency: When We Like Pitchers Hitting

Zack Greinke, and other pitchers, may not be able to show off their offensive prowess if the DH comes to the NL. (via jnashboulden)

We are talking about the designated hitter again, because it’s the offseason—and because we’re never that far from talking about the DH anyway. This time, the impetus was a discussion between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, in which the players suggested MLB bring the DH to the National League at last. And while this isn’t happening in 2019, the shift is beginning to feel more and more imminent.

Pitchers hitting in 2019 makes sense only in a theoretical way and an emotional way—that is to say, in none of the modes of thinking that now dominate major league baseball. I am not here to argue against statistical analysis and fact-based evaluation; far from it. I believe deeply in seeking all the information available before making a decision, especially one as a result of which somebody will be paid millions of dollars. But I am—call it human error—attached to the sight, and the meaning of the sight, of Francisco Liriano at bat. In a major professional sport, one increasingly specialized and streamlined, there is still this sight of a strong, talented, world-class athlete attempting to do this thing he often doesn’t do much better than the average college baseball player might.

The improbability is what makes it great when a pitcher does succeed at bat, of course; I’ve derived more entertainment from the scattering of pitcher home runs and RBI doubles over the last decade than I have from any DH’s exploits. Everyone loves a good Bartolo Colon dinger, and if DH proponents had their way a decade ago, we would never have known the joys of the Santiago Casilla Instructional Hitting Video. But the failure itself also matters. The failure is a reminder of the limits of what we can know, of what we can optimize.

In the era when quantitative analysis is no longer a disruption but the norm, it can feel at times that baseball has become a sleek, ruthless machine, for both better and worse (and many have read the fates of this year’s free-agent class in this light, as teams with a more rational handle on player value hesitate to go for broke, even for young superstars like Bryce Harper). As the results and limits of this approach reveal themselves—in baseball and otherwise—there is an absurd comfort in a sport that maintains different sets of rules for its two leagues, mostly just because a lot of people like it that way.

Maybe I am generalizing from my own experience: Years ago, I wrote to Effectively Wild, then the Baseball Prospectus podcast, with my pet theory that there was much to gain for a team that focused on making its pitchers better hitters. It was 2013, and my home team, the Pirates, had just burst forth from two decades of losing thanks in part to low-cost rehab projects like Liriano and A.J. Burnett. They also were focusing on things like catcher framing before much of the rest of the league caught on.

It seemed, in this moment, there was nothing a team couldn’t solve, or at least improve, through careful, rational analysis—and in my view, pitcher batting was just one more inefficiency to tackle. (I had, admittedly, overlooked the fact that minor-league pitchers don’t hit at all below Double-A, and that some don’t hit in the upper minors, either. Even if a team wanted to do this, the fix would not be as simple as more time in the cages for big-league starters.)

Of course, not only has this idea not caught on, but the Pirates’ run of data-driven success proved short-lived (for many reasons, including the fact that once every team gets smarter, the balance of power shifts once again to the teams with money). But they were heady times, the days when it seemed (at least to me) that one should be able to innovate one’s way to permanent stability and success. Baseball could feel—perhaps more in talking about it than in watching or playing it—like a series of predictable, almost inevitable outcomes.

This has never been true, of course, but it feels true in many situations: an overperforming first-half All-Star would come back to earth by the end of the season; a superstar struggling through April would look like himself again by July. Even innovations, as they spread, could come to feel like foregone conclusions: a pitcher following the advice of a lauded pitching coach would transform from a fringe guy into an efficient groundball machine.

While you understood, as a fan, these transformations took work, that work and its success seemed like a given once the team had the right information and the right tools. This idea certainly isn’t limited to baseball. Think of the notion of “life hacks,” small changes that promise you a neater house, easier meal prep, better nights of sleep. Life hacks operate on the same basic principle as, say, valuing on-base percentage correctly; they are obviously good, useful ideas that address flaws or faulty thinking.

In the aggregate, this approach to life seems so reasonable. It can lull you into a sense that if you check enough of these boxes, you will Fix Your Life; you will free yourself from stress, or you’ll feel more like a real adult, or whatever it is you want. (As I scrolled through this list of 100 “life hacks”—some of which do seem quite useful—I received first an ad in the sidebar, then a full-screen pop-up ad, urging me to check out LifeHack’s free “worksheet”: “Too Late to Change Your Life’s Path? FREE Worksheet to help you start a new Golden Age.” The options below read, “YES, send me my FREE worksheet,” and “No thanks, I’m good with my life.” The latter option is smaller and shaded in gray. You can almost feel LifeHack smirking at you, rolling its eyes at the tragic site visitor who would choose not to start a worksheet-driven Golden Age.)

Which brings us back to pitchers at the plate. In short, their presence makes little to no sense. They constitute an obvious inferiority on the part of a National League lineup when compared to an American League one. A game that truly prioritized having the best player possible at every position, at every moment, would not have Ivan Nova hit. And in all the realms that really matter—medicine, for instance—I very much want the most qualified people possible for each job. But in baseball, somewhat to my own surprise, I find comfort in the pitcher at-bat: a regularly occurring, physical embodiment of our inability to optimize the world (whether through an organizational focus on pitchers hitting at every level—something I still would love to see a team try—or through eliminating the problem altogether with the universal DH). A grounding-out-to-short reminder that knowing better isn’t always enough.

Perhaps this does not seem to you like a good thing; perhaps you read the news, and are therefore reminded constantly of chaos and illogic. I empathize with this position. I submit that perhaps the pitcher at-bat can be an antidote, however small, when he succeeds: a reminder that sometimes, we do something that makes no sense at all—something the odds would advise us strongly against—and something beautiful, or at least entertaining, happens as a result.

Most proponents of the National League model tend to make one, or both, of two arguments: tradition and strategy. Those attached to tradition contend that baseball means nine players in the lineup, playing nine positions, each taking a turn at bat. They still regard the DH as a late-20th-century interloper, a graft onto a grand old game. Those who argue strategy enjoy watching NL managers decide whether it’s worth it to pull a starter throwing well in the late innings of a tight game, weighing the advantages of getting a real hitter in there instead.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I am not particularly attached to either of these arguments. While it’s nice to ponder the continuity between the game Mookie Betts is playing and that which the Brooklyn Dodgers once played, the sport has changed in so many other ways that this, on its own, seems an insufficient defense. And the strategic concerns have dwindled as conventions around starting-pitcher usage have changed, with starters lasting into the eighth or ninth the exception rather than the norm. Some fans may genuinely look forward to the moment of a double switch, but it doesn’t rank among the top 10 attractions of a ballgame for me. (That said, I enthusiastically support everyone’s right to enjoy whatever weird, picayune aspects of a ballgame they want.)

I am, improbably, here for the spectacle itself: the things we learn about each member of the rotation as he takes his turn at bat, and the things they show us about baseball and the limits of human achievement. I suspect if I were a national baseball writer, responsible for watching many teams play many games, I might feel differently. It is often easier to see from the 10,000-foot view what makes the most sense. For me, no longer a professional sportswriter, fandom is a balancing act between what makes the most sense and what one actually wants. These are often the same thing, but not always.

Baseball has come a long way toward being a more efficient operation. We—and the front offices of the teams we cheer for—are much, much better informed about so many things than we once were. We can project so much, from standings to prospects’ futures, and sometimes those projections are even right. And yet this weird anachronism remains at the bottom of the order, killing rallies, producing the odd Madison Bumgarner, and providing decades of reliable fodder for columnists.

In June 2018, Ben Lindbergh made a comprehensive, compelling case at The Ringer for the universal DH. It’s inarguable that—as supported thoroughly and delightfully by Lindbergh’s research into past commentary on the topic—pitchers have been relative disasters at the plate for at least a century, and it’s only getting worse. In fact, the overall soundness of this case—and the resistance to it, both my own and that of many of my fellow National League lifers—highlights the reality that we are not really having a debate over the facts when we talk about the DH.

If you weren’t already a “ban the DH” stalwart, I doubt I have changed your mind. That’s okay. Most fan polls show a roughly even split on the question, and anecdotally, the determining factor seems to be simply whether you spend more of your time watching the AL or NL (though there are some crowds—like those who would vote in a FanGraphs poll, for instance—who may be more inclined to prefer the DH on analytical grounds, regardless of their home team).

And so we continue to have this argument less to convince anyone and more to explain something about ourselves: I am a rational person who recognizes professional baseball is entertainment, and that pitchers popping out on sac bunt attempts is not entertaining. Or: I am the kind of person who believes in the virtue of baseball’s bygone days, who finds meaning in something like a double switch. Or: I am the kind of person who once balked at the DH, but now, presented with the overwhelming evidence of its superiority, I have seen the light.

I don’t know what kind of person my position makes me, besides a stubborn and mildly philosophical one. It hints that I was raised near Pittsburgh, rather than a few hours away near Cleveland or Baltimore. It suggests that, if MLB does implement the universal DH someday soon, I will have become one of those old-timers, yelling at clouds about the offensive feats of Zack Greinke. But whether sports are supposed to be a place where we can experience that which is inaccessible to us in real life or are meant instead to reflect something about life’s realities, the pitcher hitting is an honest, strange, occasionally transcendent part of both. I know its days are numbered, but I will miss it when it meets its logical end.

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Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

There is only one word to describe the average fan’s attitude towards the DH: visceral. There are probably at least a million people in this country who believe that the day Ron Blomberg stepped to the plate in 1973 was the beginning of the end of Western Civilization. This emotion dates back to the early 20th Century when the American League came into being. Simply put, the AL was an inferior product, an interloper if you will that diluted what was the equivalent of a perfect martini. I remember listening to Red Sox games on the radio in the 1960’s on WEAN in Providence and Ken Coleman would sometimes refer to the AL as the “junior league” as if her were stating something as obvious as gravity. Go figure.

5 years ago

The best hitting pitcher (currently active) is Zack Greinke with a wRC+ of 53. We like it when position players pitch and somehow manage to get a strikeout, but that doesn’t mean we should require they pitch at least 1 inning per game. End the DH

5 years ago
Reply to  HamelinROY

Your concluding sentence does not make sense with the rest of the paragraph, as far as I can tell.

5 years ago

Swell article. I follow an NL team, so that’s what I’m used to. Watching pitchers hit is boring, but I kind of like that we make them try. I think you’ve described very well my reasons for thinking this way.

(It occurs to me that I’m a fan of imperfection: I don’t care for how replay is done, largely because I think “getting the calls right” is vastly overrated. Make the call right enough, and let’s all move on.)

5 years ago

I grew up a Cardinal fan and hated the DH. But I just hate having different rules in different leagues so much, and I hate seeing managers attacked for “overmanaging” constantly anyway. NEARLY every double switch ends with a crucified manager the next day, it seems. Plus, I honestly don’t need to see pitchers hacking for no reason. Bring the DH to the NL.

5 years ago

I have little interest in watching the pitcher try to hit, but believe you shouldn’t get a regular turn at bat unless you play the field. A good compromise, which I recently read in the comments section of another site, is to have a DH that can only hit for the starting pitcher. Once the starting pitcher is removed, the DH is also out of the game and then relief pitchers/pinch hitters take over the rest of the way. For the fans and Bumgarners who hate “the opener,” this would also reduce the appeal of that strategy. I know this will probably never happen, but I’d like to see a third option beyond Yes DH/No DH.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bolton

SP are lousy hitters, RP are much worse, why would would you want RP hit ?

5 years ago

I like the 2 different ways it is done now, and helps keep what little remains of each league’s identity.

However, would prefer watching an all-DH MLB baseball than no MLB baseball at all. Suspect this issue will be a pawn given back to the union in exchange for avoiding a strike at the conclusion of the current CBA.

5 years ago

Annie, you sound like someone I’d want to watch a ballgame with, just like that other (fictional) Annie.

I’m glad that I have reached the 3/4-century mark with pitchers still hitting, at least in one league, and I am reconciled to the fact that the devil will soon bring the DH to the NL. It was good while it lasted.

5 years ago

Why must we resign ourselves to the ‘inevitability’ of DH in the National League? Perhaps it’s time that we NL fans stand up and let it be known that we love the NL game and how its rhythms include the pitcher’s spot in the order.

5 years ago

IMO you should have to play the field to hit. There should not be a place for anyone who provides no defensive value. If you want Nelson Cruz contributing to your offense, then suffer with his glove. A decision must be made to determine if his offensive production justifies the butchering that will occur. Why don’t we DH for catchers? They suck and a lot of MI aren’t very good either. If you want offense we can have a hitter for anyone with an OPS under 800 and if they are too slow no worries we’ll have a fast guy stand by the plate who starts running when the ball is hit. If you’re going to alter the rules of the game to cover for deficiencies it is no longer sport.

The Stranger
5 years ago

That’s my take on it as well. I just like the idea that the same nine guys who play the field are the ones who hit. Pitchers may generally hit poorly, but they’re still baseball players.

I was halfway through an analogy to kickers in football trying to make a tackle, but then I had a tangential thought. What if you had offensive and defensive players like football but kept the 25-man roster? So you could basically DH for anybody or everybody in the field, at the cost of your bench getting even shorter. I wouldn’t actually want to see that in MLB, but I’d like to peek in on a parallel universe where that was the rule. One-dimensional hitters and slick fielders who couldn’t sniff the Mendoza line would have a place in the game, and maybe you’d actually see teams carry fewer relievers.

5 years ago

Pitchers provide no offensive value, why should they stand there & watch pitches ?

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

I really don’t have much of an opinion on the DH, but I enjoyed reading this essay.

I guess to tell the truth what attachment I have to the DH is Edgar Martinez. And I guess I do kind of like having A Guy who is the DH. When the DH spot isn’t A Guy, it’s rotating through your outfielders and catchers taking a day half-off, then meh, I’d rather an eight-slot lineup.

Chris Walker
5 years ago

If pitchers have to hit, they are disincentivized from throwing at batters and therefore risk being thrown at as a result. With the DH, the stars inevitably get thrown at. This will become a problem that we didn’t have to have.

5 years ago
Reply to  Chris Walker

Is this actually true in practice? Do AL batters get thrown at notably more than NL batters?

5 years ago

Do you know what baseball needs? Offensive and defensive squads like football. What is more exciting than 9 David Ortiz’s hitting to a defense of 9 Ozzie Smiths? It would be one spectacular AB after another. Gimme some of that. Forgot to add the open pinch runner rule. Who wouldn’t want to see more Billy Hamilton’s flying around the bases. That would be awesome. Who wants to see Nelson Cruz lumber around clogging the bases. Talk about dull. The game is evolving.

5 years ago
Reply to  nchouinard

He he, this is an excellent sarcastic response against the argument of the DH providing more “excitement” in the game. The extra excitement isn’t worth it if you’re ruining the identity of the game in the process. We don’t mind seeing a pitcher flailing at the ball early in the game if it means we get to deeply analyze potential pinch-hitter and double-switch possibilities later in the game. Is it worth pinch-running with this guy now, or will it be better to save him to pinch-hit the next time the pitcher’s spot comes up. Those kinds of late-game decisions are where baseball truly shines.

It’s the same reason why MLB is going too far with their pace of play initiative when they come up with idiotic ideas like a three batter minimum for each pitcher.

5 years ago

The change in starter pitcher usage has only increased the strategy behind pitchers in the lineup, not decreased it! After all, it’s only after the starting pitcher is out of the game (or exactly when that happens as you pinch-hit for him) that the strategy changes come into effect in the first place. Having your weak pitchers hitting the first two or three times up is EASILY worth all the additional strategy that comes into play afterwards! That is and always will be why National League baseball is the superior game as long as they keep out the DH!

Besides, whenever you do have a rare good hitting pitcher like Greinke, Bumgarner, or Wainwright, it’s always extra fun to see him get an important hit.

5 years ago

I see the arguments for both sides and understand them. I am a Giants fan, so I’m partial to pitchers hitting, as you noted the divide appears to be.

Here’s my retort to DHers: if this bothers you so much, then why aren’t you advocating for an NFL system of offensive and defensive players? I get that pitchers aren’t good hitters, but have you seen the butchers on defense? I hate seeing that too, the statues in LF, the stiff lumbering players who can’t dive for a grounder right next to them. And a lot other hitters are bad too, particularly at SS, C, and CF. Heck, baseball even has had pinch-runners, maybe we can DH the running too, some of these runners look like molasses can outrun them.

Catchers are a good one to discuss. Like pitchers, they have a world of different things that they should be concentrating on, and many do, to the detriment to their hitting development, that it takes years for some to make the majors, the defense comes first, then the hitting. Yes, there are a lot more good hitting catchers, way more than hitting pitchers, but the same issues are there, and there are a lot of slogs out there.

So I see DH as a halfway measure: if you are going to make this argument, the bigger question is how do we get rid of the poor performances I see all around? Maybe change the rules of usage of players on the roster. Allow a pinch runner who can be re-used over and over again. Allow two-way players so that great hitting pitchers and catchers can still play both.

That’s one thing that bothers me most about the rationale with DH. Pitchers don’t hit well because teams generally don’t make them try. But I recall from my son’s PONY League teams, the pitcher were usually one of the better hitters on the team. So why the disconnect? Partly, I think it’s because of the universal usage of DH’s, coaches use it to keep a good hitter but poor fielder, playing, under the logic that pitchers don’t need to learn to hit. Self fulfilling prophesy.

I like Bumgarner as an object lesson of the art of the possible. Like most pitchers, he was not taught to hit as he progressed to the majors. And he was horrible, hitting .138/.185/.192/.377 over his first 4+ seasons in the majors. But, as he noted in an interview, he got tired of that, and worked to learn how to hit. Then, over his next four seasons, he hit .224/.272/.433/.706, which is better than the average catcher, and pretty close to the average 2B, SS, and CF. (I left out 2018, yes, bad, but he revealed that his grip was weakened by coming back too soon from his broken pinky finger, and that affected his pitching and hitting, he reported).

I did a thought exercise using Pythagorean to see the value of a hitting pitcher, one who can hit about as bad as the poor hitting SS the Giants had back then (Sorry Omar!), vs. what the average Giants pitcher was hitting. I first had an average pitcher (pitching complete games) and average offense, making it an 81-81 team. Then I used the lineup calculator to compute the increase in runs if instead of the average Giants pitcher batting line, they had the SS’s batting line (mid-to-high .600 OPS). Then I added that increase to the average team’s run production, to see what happens in his starts. With 32 starts, a 16-16 starting pitcher becomes a 17-15 pitcher, adding one win to his total.

FYI, Bumgarner’s bWAR was 3.5 over those four seasons, or roughly 1 win per season added, which roughly confirms. Not sure how to calc that using Fangraphs.

One win don’t seem like much, but an 81-81 team, training their SP to hit okay-ish, would then become an 86-76 team, on the outskirts of making the playoffs. So, to me, it’s an issue of how badly do you want to win? To the pitcher, to the teams that allow pitchers to give up on hitting. Bumgarner really wanted to win badly, pushed himself to learn how to hit, and helped his team out with his hitting.

So I see the DH more as an approval of generations of laziness and lack of competitiveness on the part of pitchers as well as teams. And of incomplete logic, there’s a lot of improvement in entertainment if that’s what’s really bothering you, in terms of baseball.

I learned to accept that pitchers are bad hitters, but have loved the good hitting pitchers, from Don The Caveman Robinson to Tim Hudson (college; I wonder if he could have been Ohtani had he been drafted by an NL team) to Madison Bumgarner. But if I don’t have to accept them, then I don’t see why you don’t go all in and make new rules governing player usage so that we can have offensive and defensive teams, and really be unique, have a pinch runner, add a 26th roster spot just for that, can you imagine Billy Hamilton pinch-running for a hitter, after he gets on base? Why put up with bad fielders too? And pitchers aren’t the only bad hitters, Mendoza Line anyone? Just put in rules to allow two-way players, none of these rules the AL has about DH usage related to pitcher usage. All or nothing, that’s logical.