Should the National League Finally Adopt the Designated Hitter?
I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan for more than 30 years, and as a National League fan, I’ve always had pretty much a knee-jerk reaction against the Senior Circuit abandoning tradition and adopting the designated hitter rule. I’m sure you are aware of the all the arguments for and against the DH, so I won’t bother to recount them here.
However, as I have gotten older, I’ve begun to wonder whether having pitchers hit for themselves continues to make as much sense as it seemed to when I first became a fan in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Particularly, for the last few years years I’ve been writing annual posts on the best hitting pitchers in the National League, and it’s really driven home just how bad pitchers are as major league hitters. It seems like pitchers as a group are now worse than they’ve ever been and even the best hitting pitchers aren’t very good as hitters.
Further, with the DH now used in half of all minor league games and in college, and with professional starting pitchers throwing fewer and fewer innings, and thus getting fewer opportunities to hit, major league pitchers get very little game practice to improve their hitting skills. Is it time, or at least approaching the time, to scrap pitchers batting for themselves altogether?
I guess the answer depends on whether or not this generation’s pitchers are really worse as hitters than those of previous generations. I have little doubt that pitchers as a group and also the best-hitting pitchers don’t hit as well today as they did before the Second World War. Instead, the real question is whether this generation’s pitchers (those pitching since 1990) are really any worse than those of the previous two post-war generations (1946-1989).
I decided to make a list of the best-hitting pitchers by decade starting with the 1950’s and compare them with the best hitting pitchers since 1990. My research wasn’t particularly exhaustive (please tell me if I missed anyone I obviously should have included), but I think I got the vast majority of the best-hitting pitchers of each decade (players are listed based on the decade in which they got the most hits during their careers).
1950’s: Don Newcombe .271 BA, .705 OPS (988 career plate appearances); Bob Lemon .232, .674 (1,326); Mickey McDermott .252, .661 (682); Don Larsen .242, .662 (652); Carl Scheib .250, .621 (494); Jack Harshman .179, .638 (521); Willard Nixon .242, .601 (515); Johnny Sain .245, .574 (856); Ned Garver .218, .566 (961); Early Wynn .214, .559 (1,904); Harvey Haddix .212, .551 (870); Billy Hoeft .202, .551 (629); Joe Nuxhall .198, .532 (861); and Warren Spahn .194, .520 (2,056).
1960’s: Earl Wilson .195 BA, .634 OPS (837 plate appearances); Gary Peters .222, .601 (875); Vern Law .216, .563 (1,002); Bob Gibson .206, .545 (1,489); Blue Moon Odom .195, .551 (447); Rick Wise .195, .537 (741); Jim Maloney .201, .521 (695); Don Drysdale .183, .523 (1,169); Camilo Pascual .205, .506 (1.072); and Juan Pizarro .202, .509 (727).
1970’s: Ken Brett .262 BA, .698 OPS (373 plate appearances); Terry Forster .397, .887 (86) [Forster doesn’t really have enough plate appearances to qualify, but I just don’t feel a piece on great hitting pitchers of the 1970’s should fail to mention Forster’s singular record]; Catfish Hunter .226, .521 (710); Steve Renko .215, .536 (580); Randy Lerch .206, .560 (300); Jim Rooker .201, .507 (668); and Steve Carlton .201, .482 (1,881).
1980’s: Dan Schatzeder .242 BA, .642 OPS (271 plate appearances); Rick Rhoden .238, .576 (830); Don Robinson .231, .582 (665); Bob Forsch .213, .557 (1,041); and Fernando Valenzuela .200, .467 (1,044).
Since 1990: Micah Owings, .283 BA, .813 OPS (219 plate appearances); Mike Hampton .246, .650 (845); Dontrelle Willis .244, .665 (447); Carlos Zambrano .238, .638 (744); Mike Leake .251, .604 (264); Livan Hernandez .231, .526 (1,113); Yovani Gallardo .207, .592 (408); Dan Haren .215, .552 (353); Adam Wainwright .205, .534 (492); and Tom Glavine .186, .454 (1,645) [Glavine probably shouldn’t be listed based on his career numbers, but he received four Silver Slugger Awards as baseball’s best hitting pitcher and he walked a lot of a pitcher; however, his career batting average and OPS aren’t much different from those of Jim Kaat and Tony Cloninger, among others, who didn’t make my list for earlier decades when there was less hitting.]
Looking at these lists, it certainly seems like there were more and better hitting pitchers in the 1950’s and 1960’s, particularly when you take into account the differing amount of offense in each decade, even taking into account that more pitchers got to hit before the AL adopted the DH in 1973.
It seems like there might be slightly fewer good-hitting pitchers since 1990 than there were in the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, it’s fairly close, and the fact that a number of the best hitting pitchers of the current generation are no longer in the majors (Hampton, Owings, Willis, Zambrano and Hernandez) has perhaps created the false perception that major league pitchers suddenly got a lot worse as hitters.
My research does suggest that a smaller percentage of pitchers are at least “O.K.” hitters (batting averages above .150 and OPS numbers above .350) now than during the 1950’s and 1960’s, although I didn’t study this question in any kind of systematic way. One thing I did notice, however, that at least since the 1960’s, except for the top two or three best-hitting pitchers in each decade, even the best-hitting pitchers don’t hit as well as the lightest hitting, glove-tree catchers and middle infielders.
At the end of the day, the best contemporary hitting pitchers are still probably good enough that the argument for letting pitchers continue to hit in the NL isn’t significantly worse than it was 30 or 40 years ago, at least in terms of there being a range of hitting abilities that gives the best hitting pitchers and their teams a minor advantage. In my gut, however, I kind of think that it’s only a matter of time (2030 or perhaps 2040 at the latest) before the DH is adopted in the National League, since pitchers as a group really are pretty terrible as hitters, certainly aren’t going to get any better, and the DH is now the rule in college.
One other seemingly counter-intuitive thing I noticed in compiled my list is that none of the single best-hitting pitchers in each decade had as many as 1,000 plate appearances. This may simply be a result of the fact that a pitcher’s ability to stick around long enough to get 1,000 major league plate appearances is conditioned solely on his ability to remain an effective major league pitcher for many years and not at all on his ability to hit.
Another possibility, however, is that the advantage of getting more opportunities to hit is outweighed by the fact that once the league’s pitchers realize their doppelganger is a good hitter, they pitch to him like any other position player: they figure out the batter’s weakness through experience, pitch to that weakness and stop throwing as many get-it-in-there strikes.
As a final note, one factor may be keeping the best hitting pitchers in baseball at a relatively high level: more major league pitchers play three years of college ball now, during which time the best hitters play at other positions or DH when they weren’t pitching, than pitchers did in past generations when more pitchers signed professional contracts out of high school. A lot of college plate appearances for certain future major league pitchers mean more success later as major league hitters.
If you would like to read a more sophisticated analysis of pitchers as hitters since 1945, you can find it here.