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The baseball term designated hitter has been adopted into American lexicon, to describe developments off the field. Like a person with a very special skill who gets asked to serve a work team temporarily. Or a wealthy (and generous) friend to bring along for a night on the town.
But just for baseball, exactly what is a designated hitter? A designated hitter, often called the DH, is a hitter who replaces a position player in the batting lineup, but does not replace that player on defense. The designated only bats, and does not field.
In Major League Baseball, it is a rule (5.11) that lets teams use a different rostered player to hit in the pitcher’s place in the order. The rule changes nothing on defense, as the pitcher remains in the game and the DH only hits. Note that in the MLB, only pitchers can be DH’d for.
In lower levels of baseball, any defensive player can have a DH replace him in the batting order. A player can be allowed to play defense, but not bat, in favor of a better hitter. However, most frequently at these levels, managers have a DH bat for the pitcher.
The crux of the designated hitter matter is this: very few pitchers hit well. And, almost always, at least 9 other players are on the team who hit better.
Not all, mind you ~ Shohtei Ohtani[LINK https://baseballscouter.com/why-is-shohei-ohtani-so-popular/ ] breaks the mold; and Babe Ruth was a very good pitcher for the Boston Red Sox before slugging to immortality with the New York Yankees.
But by and large, for reasons noted below, pitchers typically are inferior hitters to the position players. Hence, the invention of the DH.
Designated Hitter Origins
While it’s impossible to pinpoint when the designated hitter concept was born and by whom, it was most notably spotlighted for Major League Baseball by Hall of Fame manager and club owner Connie Mack, in 1906.
While Mack got a tepid response, the concept continued to be considered, as baseball insiders and fans alike watched pitchers strike out repeatedly, or be ordered to bunt.
In spring training 1929, National League owners seriously considered a consistent push by then-president John Heydler to add a 10th-man DH. While ultimately it failed, the concept never died ~ and caught fire once pitchers started severely dominating hitters in the 1960s.
Before 1969, the pitcher’s mound was 5 inches taller, and the strike zone was larger, and a slew of big-time pitchers like Bob Gibson (who had a 1.12 earned run average in 1968), Sandy Koufax (3 no-hitters), Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, and several others kept ballgame scores very low.
That year, 1968, was the pinnacle for pitchers. Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title by hitting just .301; and Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain won 31 games. Both of these feats are hard to fathom in today’s MLB.
All the while, MLB attendance suffered. Their games couldn’t have gone on a low-scoring trend at a worse time, as the widespread availability of the television propelled the exciting (and high-scoring) National Football League to the forefront of millions of Americans.
The MLB had to compete, making rule changes to help the batter (like lowering the mound and shrinking the strike zone), which bumped scoring up a little starting in 1969. But it was not enough.
That year, several minor leagues began experimenting with a DH in their contests. The American League allowed it in spring training of 1971.
Finally, at the start of 1973, with a major push from Oakland A’s owner Charlie O. Finley, American League owners voted 8-4 to allow the DH for a trial run (of 3 years). The 1st DH, as most knowledgeable baseball fans know, was Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees. (He worked a 5-pitch base on balls from Luis Tiant).
It worked: the American League topped the National League in overall batting average that season ~ and has for every season thereafter. American sports fans love scoring.
In the 1970s and 1980s the DH was adopted by most school leagues, both for high school and college play. In fact, by the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the MLB’s National League was among the few high-level professional baseball leagues in the world still making pitchers hit. (Of interest is the fact that the Central League of Nippon Professional Baseball, inJapan, still does not allow the designated hitter).
The DH and the National League
National League owners, who almost voted to approve the DH in 1980 after several years of falling behind in attendance to the junior circuit, held out until the coronavirus of 2020, when they used it as an experiment in the shortened 60-game season.
It proved popular and was made permanent by the N.L., finally, for the 2022 season. Remember, that season was delayed by an owners-players dispute, and the resultant collective bargaining agreement between the parties included what is called the universal DH.
Benefits of Using a Designated Hitter
Besides eliminating hitting for pitchers and boosting scoring, the DH rule offers many options and advantages to teams and managers, including:
- Managers could rotate position players each into the DH spot in the batting order, thus giving regular players days off to rest, and keeping bench players “fresh” with extra at-bats. (Very few MLB players get over 400 at-bats per season serving as DH; it is a batting order slot quite often juggled).
- They also could use the DH slot strategically depending on the pitcher, such as starting a left-handed batter as DH when a right-hander was throwing.
- The DH spot in the batting order is a way to re-introduce players who had been out with injuries back into play, while limiting the potential for re-injury playing out in the field.
- Using a DH speeds up games by reducing delays for pinch-hitters to replace pitchers who were behind late in contests. Pitchers being pinch-hit for in the latter innings bothers many fans.
Troubles with Implementing the DH in MLB Play
Instituting the DH, both just in a single league, and after 2022 with the universal DH, proved a challenge for Major League Baseball. Eventually, teams from both leagues had to square off in the All-Star Game or World Series. Rules had to be changed and adjusted. A summary:
- During interleague play from its inception in 1997 through 2021, the DH rule was applied in games according to the rules of the home team’s league. Games played in an American League park allowed use of the designated hitter; pitchers had to hit in National League parks for many years.
- In the World Series, only N.L. rules were used through 1975, meaning no DH.
- In 1976, it was changed so the DH rule applied to every World Series game regardless of venue ~ but only in even-numbered years! (Dan Driessen of the Cincinnati Reds became the 1st National League player to serve as a DH.
- Starting in 1986, the DH rule was used in games played in stadiums of the American League representative in the World Series. (It immediately had an impact, too: hard-hitting Don Baylor did not play in the 4 games played in New York, hindering the Boston Red Sox offense in what ended with the Mets barely winning the Series).
- The DH did not arrive at the All-Star Game until 1989, and even then only when the game was played in an A.L. park.
- The designated hitter has been used by both teams in the All-Star Game since 2010.
Why Pitchers are Poor Hitters in Baseball
As stated above, not all pitchers are poor hitters. But a great majority of pitchers at the highest levels of play are just not nearly as good as position players. And some pitchers just flat-out suck at hitting.
The main reason is that there is a finite amount of time for all the position players to get batting practice regularly.
Few teams sacrificed that time to let pitchers get in practice hacks. It developed into an issue of priority, with the hitters getting cage time. Some pitchers didn’t even complain, as they were ordered to bunt so much pre-DH. It allowed them to solely focus on throwing.
Additionally, starting pitchers were slotted last in the batting lineup, giving them few game at-bats to improve their skills.
Relief pitchers had it the worst: when they were entered into a game, the manager would slot him in the batting order for a player who just batted the inning prior ~ to push that at bat back an inning or 2, time in which the manager could decide on using a pinch hitter or enter a new pitcher.
However, the biggest reason high-level pitchers can’t hit well is that clubs who pay their salary want them to focus on what they do best ~ and what most helps win games ~ and that is pitching. Clubs also don’t want to chance their high-salaried pitchers getting injured in the batter’s box or while running bases.
Pitchers’ ability to throw strikes and make the ball move fast or strangely is hugely of value for MLB teams. As is the ability of catchers on defense to handle pitches. After pitchers, catchers as a group are the next-lightest-hitting position on the field. It’s because they too are valued more for defensive prowess, so they spend more time practicing that element of their game.
A lot of players before being drafted by an MLB team excelled at both pitching and hitting, either in high school, or in college. Almost always, the player is drafted as one or the other ~ a pitcher, or a position player. It’s just too hard for clubs to develop top-level quality as it is, let alone doubling the work.
Some pitchers fail on the mound and then turn to playing the field and hitting instead, with Rick Ankiel being a prime example, jumping into the outfield and eventually hitting decently well at the plate after failing as a pitcher.
Who Wanted to Get Rid of the DH?
While at this point, with the National League adopting the DH, the debate over the rule seems destined to fade. Still, why did so many people want the MLB to get rid of the DH?
In a word, tradition. Of all the major team sports, baseball is immersed in its history and related traditions. Pitchers had been batting since the start of Major League Baseball in 1876 and the game grew and thrived. Why change it, the argument went.
Many argued for the strategic element for managers with the pitcher’s spot in the lineup, to set a batting order with players right before the pitcher who could get on base, for instance, or run fast to take advantage of bunting.
And believe it or not, there are diehard baseball fans who appreciate low-scoring affairs ~ like 1-0 pitchers’ duels, or the most common score of all in baseball, the 3-2 nail-biter. The additional offense provided by a DH is not enticing for these fans.
Notable Designated Hitters
Think about this: from 1976 through the end of the 2020 season, no American League team chose the option of not using the DH rule to hit for pitchers. That changed on April 4, 2021, when the Los Angeles Angels slotted starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani to bat 2nd in the batting lineup. With the talented stick of the game’s 2-way player, there was no need to find another hitter off the bench. (Another record, which has stood since 1903, was broken when Ohtani as a pitcher was placed that high up in the batting order).
More Details about Ohtani: Why is Shohei Ohtani so Popular?
Molitor was probably the player who most brought the DH to the “mainstream.” People forget that he was drafted as a shortstop, and spent time playing 2nd and 3rd base, and even played a little outfield in MLB games, before injuries made him primarily a DH. Still, for 3 games of the 1993 World Series, he played the field, at either 1st or 3rd base. Signed by a talented Toronto Blue Jays team in the early 1990s, he thrived in the postseason and claimed a world title in 1993. Attaining the magical 3,000-hit milestone (3,319 to be precise, good for 10th all-time as of 2023) solidified his election to the Hall of Fame.
While primarily a slugging 1st baseman, Thomas in 2014 became the 1st player elected to the Hall of Fame who played a majority of his games at the DH position.
By the late 1990s, Edgar Martinez quietly established himself as the pre-eminent professional hitter, slugging in a fearsome Seattle Mariners lineup that also featured Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Like Molitor, Martinez spent a considerable amount of time playing 3rd base before shifting to full-time hitter, but in the end played over 70% of games over his career as DH. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.
Baines actually played a lot of outfield in his earlier days. In fact, he played 1,187 games in a position not the designated hitter. It wasn’t until later in his career that he shifted mostly to hitting, a prime example of the DH helping to extend a player’s career. While a feared hitter in his prime, Baines’ election to the Hall of Fame remains controversial as some fans don’t believe his final career statistics are up to par, and even when he played the field he was not an outstanding defender. He also was elected to the Hall in 2019, along with Martinez.
Shunned by the Minnesota Twins, big 1st baseman-DH David Ortiz was snatched up by the Boston Red Sox ~ where he thrived as a postseason hero, a loveable fan favorite, 3-time World Series Champion, and Hall of Fame member (elected 2022). As with Molitor, in World Series games at National League teams’ cities, Ortiz played first base (even making a key double play throw in Game 3 of the 2004 World Series). As with Baines, there is a segment of fans who do not agree with Ortiz’s selection for the Hall. In the end, Ortiz became the first full-time DH (playing 88% of his games in the position) elected to the Hall.
Question: Are there any DH-only players in the MLB Hall of Fame.
Answer: No. To date, no “true DH” has been elected to the Hall of Fame ~ that is, a player who came up as a DH and only played that position over a career.
Q.: Do MLB teams have to use a DH?
A.: No. Use of a designated hitter is optional. Managers must declare intent to use the DH at the start of each game (by simply including one on the lineup card, which will also list the starting pitcher below the hitters).
Q.: Can a DH be moved to a fielding position?
A.: Yes, but … The DH can be moved to a position out in the field during a game. However, if so, his team forfeits use of a designated hitter for the remainder of the game. That means weak hitters (e.g. pitchers) could be forced to hit later in the contest.