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Designated Hitter in the National League

Ending a history that stretches back to the 1880s, pitchers will no longer hit for themselves.

SFChronicleSPORTS Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

We all knew it was coming.

In the midst of the lockout, there was one thing both sides seemed to agree on: the introduction of the universal designated hitter (DH) into the National League, which has, since its inception, rejected the idea that a pitcher cannot hit for himself.

There is a certain kind of daring symmetry in the National League: nine men take the field, nine men bat, and it is the same nine men, every time. You prove yourself with both your defense (ability to get outs) and your offense (ability to create runs). The National League does not make excuses for poor performance. It does not save those who would have been better off never having a bat in their hands. It exploits that weakness and turns it into strategy. For some of us, who find the maneuvering behind the scenes to be one of the more wonderful parts of baseball, a late-inning double switch can quicken the heart rate just as much as a well-timed single. When the bench has run down and there’s nobody left but pitchers, and you can see the manager’s calculus of which pitcher seems to be the most likely to get the bat on the ball... when Santiago Casilla takes a four-pitch walk, attempting to transport himself to a parallel universe where the batter’s box is ten feet away from the plate... when Madison Bumgarner smokes a grand slam into the left field bleachers... all of this is made more wonderful by its rarity, by the fact all of those moments subvert expectations in a way Nelson Cruz hitting a towering home run does not.

I have nothing against Nelson Cruz hitting towering home runs. But those are going to come at the expense of the little moments: when a pitcher makes contact with the ball and it dribbles through the first-base hole for a base hit, and you see the vague elation on his face, coupled with surprise, as if he didn’t expect that to happen, as if he didn’t know the power of the bat in his hands until that very moment. As if he had spent his whole life trying to avoid the bat making contact with the ball, and now that it has, he’s unsure of what to do with it. Or when a pitcher makes real, solid contact, sends a ball over the fence, and his teammates, jubilant in their shock, treat it like a walk-off grand slam.

There is levity in those moments. They can be the bright lights in dismal seasons mired in consistent failure. They can break up the monotony of summer, rend humor from tedium, and in plain terms, they’re just really fun to watch.

But you knew this was coming. A century ago, pitchers took pride in their batting ability. One of the greatest batters of all-time was famously also a great pitcher (Babe Ruth). But it’s also no surprise that all the greatest seasons by pitcher wRC+ (i.e. runs created above average on offense by pitchers) occurred long before the modern era. It takes until the 60th-best season by pitcher wRC+ to get to 1960. Which is to say, since I set the first year to be 1900, that every single year pre-1960 was better for pitchers batting than the ones after.

This makes sense. Batting is dangerous. It is easy to get injured. The DH is present in almost all levels of the minor leagues—single A and rookie ball insist on using it, and there are rare exceptions with MiLB teams at the Double-A and Triple-A level. The result of this means that many pitchers can reach the majors having had little to no at-bats in the minor leagues, even on NL teams. Pitchers have no experience, and because the modern game doesn’t them to be good at batting, they have no incentive to improve.

It’s also probably no surprise that the top-three worst years for pitchers hitting occurred in the last five years (2017, 2018, 2021). The single worst year by OPS for pitchers was none other than 2021: perhaps a reflection of the universal DH being adopted in 2020, perhaps a comment on the pandemic—but either way, the dismal .108/.147/.137 slashline and .285 OPS in 2021 was simply unsustainable.

It’s not a secret that baseball does better commercially in times of high-powered offenses. Barry Bonds led the resurgence of baseball on the back of his stellar bat. There were great pitchers then too, but if you ask the average American to name a baseball player, they’re going to say batters first (minus Ruth)—Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, ARod, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, etc. There are great pitchers, too, whose names are known, but baseball has built its star power off its offense.

So it makes sense that this is the easiest change for the MLBPA and owners to agree on. The owners want it because it creates a better run-scoring environment (the AL consistently leads the NL in OPS, but it’s closer than you think), and the players want it because it creates an extra job for them. It’s especially good for older players, who may lack the requisite athleticism to play the field but can still hit.

That doesn’t mean we have to like it, though. There was something almost sneaky about the wonder of your pitcher being the cog of the offense in a game, something that felt subversive. It was an exclamation point to the other team—you’re so bad, my pitcher can hit home runs off you—and it was a fan favorite—you’re such a good player, you can pitch & you can hit. Mike Trout hitting a smooth home run is a joy to watch for its sheer technicality, the physical prowess of seeing a great hitter go to work... but it does not contain that level of wonder, of shock, of subversion, that all great moments in baseball possess. You love the moments you remember from the San Francisco Giants because you did not expect them to happen: the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, Matt Cain’s perfect game, Brian Wilson shutting the door in the ninth in Texas, Lincecum contorting himself into two Cys and then his no-hitters against the poor, hapless Padres in the twilight of his career... and of course, Madison Bumgarner’s two home runs on opening day, or the time he hit two home runs off Kershaw... these were magical because of how unexpected they were.

There will still be surprise and excitement in the game for years to come, but not of this kind. The DH has officially come to the NL.