Some silly arguments against the universal DH

Designated Hitters

The DH is neither the end of the world nor restricted to the big bombers alone. (Left to right: Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, Travis Hafner, Hall of Famer David Ortiz, Hal McRae, Nelson Cruz, Don Baylor.)

It’s not that I expected universal acclaim over the coming of the universal designated hitter.  But some of the arguments you see against it continue to jam traffic across the bridge from the merely ridiculous to the patent nonsense. Presented for your consideration, this jewel, from social media: “been coaching baseball for 35+ years the DH has created prima donna pitchers who have no clue how to hit and change the strategy of the game since pitchers don’t have to bat [sic] they have no issue throwing a McRib!”

Translated from the gobbledegook: The writer (I use the term very liberally) thinks pitchers became clueless about hitting only with the original advent of the American League’s designated hitter. He thinks further that only in the DH era have pitchers thought nothing of knocking down or hitting batters. The second is almost not worth the effort or the ink, when you remember that pitchers prior to the DH’s advent thought nothing of knocking down or hitting batters, either. I did say almost.

Suppose I told you there was a decade in which there were 7,923 hit batsmen, an average  792 per season, across the majors? That decade would be 1901-1910. Since the Show then included a mere sixteen teams, it means each team averaged 495 men hit by pitches over the decade and about 50 plunked per season. Let’s look now at the past ten seasons, shall we?

For that decade, there were 16,537 hit batsmen. Seems like a drilling epidemic at first glance, right? But remember that the Show has had thirty teams since just before the turn of the century. Now it looks different. It means an average 264 men per team hit by pitches over the decade and an average 26 a team plunked per season. That tells me that, for assorted reasons, not the least of which might be formal, official crackdowns on throwing at batters, pitchers in our century have a lot more issues against throwing McRibs, Sledge-o-Matic sliders, Conehead curve balls, and faceplant fastballs than pitchers in the pre-designated hitter era did.

As a matter of fact, during Season One B.D.H. (Before Designated Hitter) the American League’s pitchers hit only seven fewer batters than in Season One A.D.H. (Arrival of Designated Hitter.) I’m not entirely convinced you can make a case for that badly heightened a headhunting spree off that. “As the [twentieth] century wore on,” wrote Peter Morris in A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, which should be considered half of the game’s Bible (the other half is Baseball Reference, silly), “beanballs became increasingly unacceptable.”

This trend is often attributed to the fatal beaning of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920, and yet this conclusion is difficult to justify. Bill James has noted that hit batsmen declined steadily during the first two decades of the twentieth century, then actually increased briefly after the Chapman tragedy. Totals of hit batsmen again dropped steadily from the mid-1920s until the mid-1940s, then increased dramatically over the next two decades, before beginning to drop in 1968.

The causes of these tendencies are more difficult to determine, because no single reason predominated. Instead, a number of factors contributed, including changing interpretations of the strike zone, new approaches by batters, and the introduction of the batting helmet.

In 1968. Known as well for our purpose here as 4 B.D.H. The 1973 American League averaged 33 hit batsmen per team—seventeen fewer than the eight-team AL average in 1901-1910, and only seven more than the 2012-2021 per team average.

The modern day record for hit batsmen by a pitcher in a single season is 32, held by Chick Fraser of the 1901 Philadelphia Athletics. On the career plunk list, Fraser (219) happens to be numero duo behind Gus Weyhing (277). Only three of the top ten all-time pitched after the dead-ball era, and only one of those (Hall of Famer Randy Johnson) was a power pitcher. The other two (Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough) were knuckleball pitchers who usually got their plunks without malice aforethought, since the knuckleball isn’t exactly renowned for being simple to command or control.

As for the DH creating prima donna pitchers who have no clue how to hit, well, I hoped I wouldn’t have to repeat that from the end of the dead-ball era’s final decade through the end of last season, pitchers as a class have hit a glandular .162. As a class, pitchers never. could. hit. Unless you think a lineup full of .162 hitters is going to put a lot of runs on the scoreboard, that is. (They might if facing a defense of nine Dick [Dr. Strangeglove] Stuarts only.) Those who could were (and remain) outliers.

But our gobbledegookworm goes further:

Managing with a DH most any idiot can do this put your best [eight] out in the field your best nine up to bat and get your bullpen ready I don’t have to burn players I don’t have to SacBunt, I don’t actually have to play baseball.

Do I really need to say a smart manager doesn’t burn his players? Do I really need to say a smart manager doesn’t waste the most precious resource his team has at the plate, outs to work with? Do I really need to say a smart manager—who does most of his “managing” before the game begins and always has—knows going in that a sacrifice bunt wastes one-third of his outs to work with while leaving him a 50-50 chance or better of a run scoring after a sac bunt in only one out of six known situations in which he might deploy it?

Allow me to share with you the table Keith Law (in his 2017 book Smart Baseball) drew to demonstrate. He examined the six situations: man on first, nobody out; man on first, one out; man on second, nobody out; man on second, one out; first and second, nobody out; and, first and second, one out. Then, he noted the run-scoring likelihood from each situation before the bunt and the run-scoring likelihood from each situation after the bunt.

 

Situation

Pre-Bunt Probability

(1 run or more)

Post-Bunt Probability

(1 run or more)

 

Better/Worse Off

On 1st, 0 out 0.499 0.447 Worse
On 1st, 1 out 0.362 0.255 Worse
On 2nd, 0 out 0.656 0.666 Push
On 2nd, 1 out 0.447 0.271 Worse
1st & 2nd, 0 out 0.649 0.695 Better
1st & 2nd, 1 out 0.447 0.264 Worse

Think about that. In four out of six bunt situations you’re worse off for a shot at scoring a run afterward than you would be letting your batter hit away. In only one of them are you better off for scoring a run afterward; in only one of them do you have an even chance of scoring afterward.

Pay attention, class. The foregoing does not mean I want to see the bunt go entirely to the extinction for which we should pray go cancer, COVID, the federal debt, and the ballpoint pen. In fact, if I were a baseball manager, I’d deploy the bunt in the following situations:

If I have the next Brett Butler on my team. That comparatively pint-sized center fielder loved to bunt and hated to waste outs. (George F. Will once called Butler the Human Bunt, in fact.) Butler dropped 337 bunts in his long major league career, and only fifteen percent of them involved sacrifices. You read right: 85 percent of Butler’s bunts were dropped to become base hits. (In 1992, Butler had 171 hits, 42 of which were bunts.)

If I see an infield playing far enough back or chock full of stone hands, and I need a baserunner like two minutes ago with less than a power hitter at the plate. Of course, if I see an infield I know to be chock full of stone hands, I’d wonder whether their general manager was kidnapped and replaced by Mr. Magoo.

If I see the opposition infield positioned in one of those overweighted-to-one-side defensive shifts. And I wouldn’t even care if the other guys’ pitcher has a no-hitter in the making, either. (Let the other guys explain why they thought it was smart to protect their man’s no-hit bid by handing my batter free territory.) Show me all that delicious free real estate to work with on one side of the infield, I’m going to show you my man on first base on the house. I’m even going to blow him to a filet mignon dinner with all the trimmings, if he waits for a pitch on the outside and just bunts or taps it onto that frontier. Because my man’s playing smarter baseball than you, and he won’t be wasting one-third of my inning’s resources playing it.

Just the way my DH won’t be the big bomber alone. The slot can do wonders for bombers who can still bomb but from whom age is robbing their fielding mobility. But I can also use the DH slot to give my regulars a little breather from their defensive toil often enough to have them fresh for a stretch drive. I can use the slot to give valuable plate appearances to those on my bench who aren’t quite yet ready to be regulars but who can swing the bat with authority, anyway.

I can even use the slot to decide whether I’d like the number nine lineup berth to be filled by a second cleanup-type hitter or a second leadoff-type hitter.

But I’ll no longer have to agonise over watching the other guys pitch around my good-enough number eight batter so he can strike my pool noodle-swinging pitcher out ending my inning with a duck or three stranded on the pond. I won’t have to agonise over whether to lift my effective pitcher for a pinch-hitter when he might give me another couple of innings so I don’t have to open my bullpen too soon. And I won’t feel robbed of opportunities for “strategy,” either. I repeat: the smart managers—from John McGraw to Casey Stengel, from Whitey Herzog to Bruce Bochy—deployed about 95 percent of “strategy” before the game actually began.

Baseball’s problems are many enough. Making the DH universal at last, and sending the sacrifice bunt further toward oblivion, won’t be two of them.

No bunts about it

Joey Gallo

This is the way to bunt—not wasting an out to move runners who aren’t as likely to score from there as you think,  but for a base hit . . . especially when you’re handed enough free real estate to build the Ponderosa upon. Pushing a man on third home? Gravy.

If it isn’t in the textbooks yet, it should be. And it was executed by a man considered far and wide enough as maybe the single most classic avatar of the big bomb/big strikeout/ big nothing-much-else hitter seen, often incorrectly, as the typical major league hitter of today.

With the Rays putting a now-classic defensive overshift to the right side, and Giancarlo Stanton on third with one out in the ninth, lefthanded Yankee bombardier-or-bust Joey Gallo faced Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge. The split second Kittredge began to throw the ball, Gallo dropped out of his power stance and showed bunt.

He put the bat on the ball. It shot hopping up the third base line, onto and through that entire unoccupied expanse of yummy free real estate, pushing Stanton home and threatening to leave the American League East-champion Rays with an omelette on their faces en route a potential last-minute loss.

Gallo’s sneak attack cut a Yankee deficit exactly in half, to 4-2. Gio Urshela singled to right almost at once, Brett Gardner singled Gallo home, and it looked for the moment like the Yankees would hang on a little more firmly in the wild card race if they could push just two more in.

Not quite. Kittredge ironed up and struck out Gary Sanchez and Rougned Odor (that little stinker) back to back for the side and for the hard-secured 4-3 Rays win. With the Red Sox holding on to beat the Nationals in Washington, 4-2, the Yankee advantage for the first American League wild card fell back to one over the Red Sox.

But Gallo struck a blow on behalf of every baseball watcher and analyst who’s fed up to the proverbial teeth with the yammering from the Old Fart Contingency demanding what just about amounts to a return to dead-ball baseball. The contingency that forgets, assuming it ever really understood in the first place, that under customary circumstances sacrifice. bunts. waste. outs.

Especially when you’re up against the number one scoring team in the league.

You’d only think that the out-wasting sac bunt would do your team a big favour by pushing a runner or two forward and making it easier to score. But you really have to watch the game more closely to see the actuality. Keith Law (in Smart Baseball) saw it, tabled it, and probably ran a few temperatures up the scale.

There are six common scenarios in which you’d see a sac bunt. Here they are, with the actual result and value, the probability or scoring at least one run or more before the bunt, and the probability of scoring at least one run or more after that bunt. (I’ve indicated it with RP.) Law’s tabulation comes from the 2015 season, but it’s generally applicable—give or take a percentage of a percentage point—in just about any season:

Bunt Situation Pre-bunt RP Post-bunt RP Better/Worse Off?
Man on first, 0 out 0.50 0.45 Worse
Man on first, 1 out 0.36 0.26 Worse
Man on second, 0 out 0.66 0.67 Push
Man on second, 1 out 0.45 0.27 Worse
Men on first and second, 0 out 0.65 0.70 Better
Men on first and second, 1 out 0.45 0.26 Worse

Think about that. Six possible sacrifice bunt situations and four of the six leave a team worse off, one leaves them better off, and one is pick ’em at best. With the best case scenario being a sac bunt with first and second and nobody out.

Gallo wasn’t batting in any of those situations Friday night. He had a man on third with one out—and absolutely no Rays infielder on the left side of second base. The third base ump or the Yankee third base coach each had a better chance of fielding Gallo’s sneaky squirt than any Ray did. The Cartwright boys could have built the Ponderosa with room to spare.

One showing of video from the play says, and I quote, “Joey Gallo singles on a bunt ground ball to third baseman Yandy Diaz. Giancarlo Stanton scores.” It would be accurate if Diaz was actually playing third base proper in the moment.

Diaz was in a fourth-outfielder array for the shift. Second baseman Joey Wendle came running over from about half a mile beyond second base, unable to do anything more than watch the ball pass the infield grass and the infield dirt on the third base side, before he finally caught up to it on the extremely short left field grass. The Feds had an easier time nailing Al Capone than Diaz would have had nailing Gallo at first.

It would have been sweet justice if the Yankees had followed up properly and done right by their too-often-shortfalling import bombardier. (They acquired Gallo from the Rangers at the trade deadline.) And it’s not as though Gallo is exactly virginal with such a play.

He’s done it before. A few times. One was a near-equal to the beauty he nudged Friday night: on 25 April, leading off the bottom of the second, against the Athletics. This time it was Kendall Graveman on the mound and Gallo facing the first pitch of the inning.

Again, Gallo dropped out of his normal stance the moment Graveman actually began to throw. Again, he pushed a bunt the other way, even slower and closer to the third base line. Graveman scampered to get the ball sliding almost onto the line but couldn’t throw Gallo out in time. (The Rangers didn’t score in the inning but went on to win, 4-2.)

Now, Gallo could have tried swinging for the Grand Concourse against Kittredge. He’s only faced him once and made an out; it’s not as though Kittredge owned a particularly fat file against him. But he saw Stanton on third, the entire left side about as crowded as a desert, and a chance to sneak shrink the Yankee deficit by half in a game the Yankees absolutely had to win.

It wasn’t Gallo’s fault the Yankees got only one run to follow his ploy RBI. But it should open the eyes of every batter and manager despairing of reducing the overshifts to periodic elements rather than semi-permanent table options.

The only thing wrong with Gallo’s kind of bunt is that more of those batters and managers don’t think of it more often. But, boy, they’ll still think about wasting outs with those mostly futile sacrifice bunts now and then. You tell me what’s wrong with that picture.