clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the designated hitter?

A short history of the designated hitter rule and why it's stupid (or maybe it isn't).

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It's a strange little practice, one that has only been around for a few decades, and one that is used by only half of Major League Baseball. I'm referring to the practice of doing "the wave" during a live baseball game, of course, but that's not really a topic I want to get into right now. I'd rather talk about the designated hitter rule. Where did it come from? Why? How is it that so many people have such strong opinions on this subject?

The answer to that last question is easy: beer. But the first two questions require a bit more digging, and that sounds suspiciously like it involves work, so nuts to that.

When baseball was first invented, the men who played it were manly. They had broad chests, they cut wood with their bare hands, they pounded steel, they wrestled wild animals, they used whisky to flavor the gasoline they drank, and they grew untamed forests of facial hair. In those days, they played baseball without gloves, without helmets, without protective cups or catcher's gear, and it was entirely legal to obtain an out by whipping the ball right at the runner. (Nope, not even kidding about that one.)

Pitchers had different standards back then. Even a mediocre pitcher would routinely throw 300 innings a week, and if his arm started throbbing or, in some cases, actually detaching from his body, he would simply rip it off and throw with his other hand, as in the case of Lefty Grove, who actually started his career as Righty Grove.

Granted, starting rotations had a shelf life of about four games, and the guys who ended their careers with thousands of innings pitched often suffered permanent injury to their arms (Warren Spahn, for example, hasn't been able to move his pitching arm for years), but the point remains, which is ... oh, right! Designated hitters!

Naturally, pitchers in those days would never be caught dead surrendering their place in the batting lineup to a non-athlete specially designated for the task. No sir! There was no concept back then of having to make a career choice between being a good pitcher or being a good hitter. The great Carl Mays, for example, posted a lifetime ERA of 2.92 over 3,000 innings pitched, but also posted a career slashline of .268/.313/.350/.663 with 73 home runs. Babe Ruth is mostly remembered for crushing dingers while consuming his body weight in hot dogs and vats of beer, but as a pitcher he also threw over 1,000 innings, with a lifetime ERA of 2.28 and - why not? - four saves.

And then, almost without warning, everything changed right around the time of, oh, what the hell, let's say the 1950's. What happened, and who was to blame? The Russians.

Russia was threatening to beat the United States in the space race, so schools all over America dropped their character-forming curricula, which consisted primarily of sustaining playground-related injuries, and started teaching non-manly subjects like math and science. This led directly to the discovery of John F. Kennedy, who paved the way for The Beatles, who invented the 60's and the "hippie culture," which eventually resulted in things like Elton John, paisley shirts, David Bowie, Jazzercise, and "Beliebers."

Before anyone knew what was happening, pitchers could no longer do anything at the plate but strike out and bunt, and in 1973, Charles Finley (who had already wussified the Oakland A's by making them wear green and gold uniforms) and seven other American League owners (who were no doubt wearing paisley shirts) voted to make the designated hitter rule a permanent fixture in their league. The National League scoffed, posted a few extremely snotty and passive-aggressive status updates on Facebook, and vowed to let their pitchers fail even harder, even going so far as to briefly consider the idea of putting extra pitchers in the lineup.

At this point, we have to ask ourselves: how did we as a nation ever let Miley Cyrus get this popular? And also, has the designated hitter rule really improved baseball? In some ways, it has. For instance, according to a recent Google search, the number of drunk driving incidents has gone down nearly 40 percent in the last ten years, as more people realize that having one person in your party group remain sober for the evening means that people can still have fun and arrive home safely. But enough about the designated driver. We were talking about something else.

There is an argument to be made in favor of the designated hitter, a very strong stats-based argument that emerges when you total up all of the batting averages, extra base hits, game-winning RBI's, slugging percentages, and ISO figures for all designated hitters since 1973, and compare them to all of the strikeouts, groundouts, reverse wOBA numbers, and anti-WAR stats for all batting pitchers since four days ago. And I would have gladly presented that evidence here, if I hadn't sprained my shoulder while opening Excel, which meant that I had to rip that arm off. I am, after all, a manly man.

The biggest argument against the designated hitter is David Ortiz. He basically ruined the 2013 ALCS with that eighth inning grand slam in Game 2, and he did so while purposefully, deliberately, and maliciously serving in the role of designated hitter. If you're a Tigers fan, then I really don't need to explain that, if not for Charles Finley and his love of Russian Elton John tribute bands, the Tigers would have a World Series trophy right now.

Case closed.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have Jazzercise class in ten minutes.