What is the "designated hitter" rule in baseball?

September 5, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Could you please explain how the designated hitter rule works in the American League? I understand that the designated hitter bats for a pitcher, but that's about it. I have seen games where the designated hitter suddenly plays defense. Once this happens, the pitcher suddenly has to bat! The whole process is so confusing, only you can make us understand.

The DH rule! Ah, the perfect topic for an end-of-summer meta-answer, in which I convey timeless wisdom without ever having to get out of the hammock. In fact, I'm not even sure I want to ruffle the dendrites coming up with original thoughts--better just to cite the baseball sachems. (Conservative columnist and uberfan George Will and statistics guru Bill James have both written extensively on the DH, and three distinguished economists have published a scholarly paper on the subject.) First, however, to address the question you actually asked.

Although the basic concept of the DH is pretty simple--he bats for the pitcher, like you said--Major League Baseball's rule 6.10 provides, as is only right and proper, for certain confusing subtleties. To wit: "The Designated Hitter may be used defensively, continuing to bat in the same position in the batting order, but the pitcher must then bat in the place of the substituted defensive player, unless more than one substitution is made, and the manager then must designate their spots in the batting order." Moreover, "once a pinch hitter bats for any player in the batting order and then enters the game to pitch, this move shall terminate the Designated Hitter role for the remainder of the game. Once the game pitcher bats for the Designated Hitter this move shall terminate the Designated Hitter role for the remainder of the game."

You may ask: Why on earth would the game pitcher pinch-hit for the DH? The whole point of the DH is to avoid making the pitcher bat. Answer: Obviously the rule makers were trying to cover all the bases, you should pardon the expression, by anticipating every potential (if unlikely) managerial move.

What folks really want to know, I'm sure, is whether the DH--introduced to regular-season play on April 6, 1973, when Ron Blomberg of the Yankees stepped up to face Luis Tiant of the Red Sox--has undermined the republic, as many feared. Working hypothesis: No, because I began writing this column that same year, thereby helping to shore things up. The aforementioned sachems, I'm pleased to note, by and large agree:

  • George Will. As befits a guy who probably showers in a coat and bow tie, Will initially opposed the DH, loftily harrumphing in the early 1980s that the rule was "America's worst mistake since electing President Buchanan" and "partly to blame for the federal deficit." (I quote from Will's 1998 collection of baseball essays, Bunts.) By 1986, however, he'd changed his tune. Noting that "fidelity to conservative philosophy occasionally requires minor course corrections," Will conceded that "perhaps the DH serves conservative values," one of which apparently is that "only serious batters shall bat." (That pretty much leaves out pitchers as a class.) Lest one wonder if Will was about to admit that socialism has its points too, the columnist also declared that the whole business was giving him a migraine.
  • Bill James. Bill James has done for baseball what Aquinas did for God: applied some science to the subject. In The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (1986), he addressed the question of whether the DH rule diminishes baseball by obviating the need for certain applications of strategy, "strategy" being defined in the minds of purists as (a) having the pitcher bunt with a man on and (b) pinch-hitting for the pitcher late in the game. Making use of the concept of standard deviation, which admittedly is not that complicated but in my experience seldom comes up in tavern arguments, James mathematically demonstrated that the DH rule actually increased the use of strategy, provided it was defined more sensibly not as the rote application of traditional moves in traditional situations but rather as the thoughtful consideration of options. The argument is a bit dense to retail here, but trust me, it's a nice piece of work.
  • Brian Goff, William Shughart, and Robert Tollison. I know you never heard of these guys. I never heard of them either, but anybody who writes an article in the journal Economic Inquiry entitled "Batter Up! Moral Hazard and the Effects of the Designated Hitter Rule on Hit Batsmen" (July 1997) is someone you want to pay attention to. Goff et al's argument: Because nonbatting pitchers can bean batters without fear of getting beaned themselves, the DH rule inadvertently acts to increase the number of hit batsmen. This contention provoked heated replies from other economists--it's not every day you see the terms "plunk" and "first-order autocorrelation coefficient" in the same article. If you're looking for me to decide the issue, though, forget it. In the past year I've ventured opinions on everything from Martin Heidegger to the war in Iraq, but even I know when to shut my yap.
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