By Daniel Bohm
“Chicks dig the long ball.”
That’s what Greg Maddux jokingly stated in a late 90s Nike commercial, but the sentiment holds true for more than just women: fans love offense.
The designated hitter (DH), no doubt, ensures year in and year out that Major League Baseball’s American League is the more offensive of the two leagues. In fact, last year American League (AL) teams averaged nearly a half run (4.82 to 4.43) more a game than National League (NL) teams, despite having arguably better pitchers (going off interleague statistics).
Pitching is entertaining, and good pitching is beautiful, so the sheer fact that there is more offense with the existence of the designated hitter is not enough of a reason to validate it. There are, however, countless other reasons why the DH makes baseball better.
The existence of the DH allows players to have longer careers and it allows pitchers to focus on their primary job — pitching.
Many baseball greats have ended their careers as DHs. Would Ken Griffey, Jr. or Jim Thome still be playing today without the DH? Probably not, yet we all relish watching them hit. Would baseball fans have ever enjoyed the likes of Paul Molitor or Edgar Martinez if there was a DH? Again, probably not.
So DHs only have to do half of the game, you might say. But really, even in the National League where pitchers hit, those pitchers still focus almost all of their attention on pitching, not hitting, and watching them hit can often times be quite embarrassing. Having the DH allows pitchers to do what they do best, and hitters to do what they do best.
Furthermore, the DH helps prevent pitchers from getting hurt. Take Chien-Ming Wang for example. While pitching for the New York Yankees in 2008, Wang was injured running the bases in an interleague game at Houston. His once promising career has never been the same since.
Enemies of the DH often say that the American League doesn’t play real baseball. The trouble with that argument is that most every baseball league in the world thinks the DH is a good idea. High school baseball has a DH, as do college baseball and basically all other amateur leagues, and almost every international baseball league and baseball tournament uses the DH. The only league in the world outside of the National League that has not adopted the DH is the Japanese Central League, one of Japan’s two leagues, and much like the NL, there is a DH used in interleague games played at Japanese Pacific League stadiums.
Another argument made about the DH is that it was contrived and was not part of what baseball originally was. That is a ridiculous claim because, like all sports, baseball’s rules have evolved over the years.
Baseball’s evolution has continually been in favor of the batter. In 1920, doctoring of the baseball was banned to help hitters. Later on, the height of the mound was lowered and the DH was added. Nobody complains about the first two, much as basketball enthusiasts rarely lament about the addition of the three-point line and football fans don’t whine much about the forward pass being added. Why is the DH any different? It is simply part of the evolution of baseball.
The DH was introduced in 1973 by the AL as a result of pitching dominating baseball and attendance being down. As planned, offense increased in the AL, and subsequently so did attendance and revenue. As a strictly business decision, the DH is a no brainer.
None of this is to say that the NL should adopt the DH too. In fact, there is something nice about the slight difference between the game in the AL and NL, and it makes interleague play and the World Series even more exciting. That said, it would be foolish to say that the DH is bad for baseball, and even more foolish for the AL to get rid of it.
Contact Dan Bohm at bohmd “at” stanford.edu.