Spreads in Pitcher Hitting and DH Hitting

In 1973, the owners of the American League adopted Major League Baseball rule 6.10, which allows any league the option to use the Designated Hitter rule. Ever since, fans of each league have argued the superiority of said league’s rules. National League fans prefer the more strategic, small ball style that stems from the pitcher batting, and AL fans prefer the offense that results from batting nine major league caliber hitters instead of eight.

One question that arises with this difference in rules is how much spread in batting production we see between the two leagues. The natural assumption is that pitcher hitting is relatively even between teams, as most pitchers are generally equally poor at hitting. With DHs, we would assume that we can see the wide variation that we see with all other positions.

Is this true, though? Let’s look at some data. PBWRAA is “pitcher batting weighted runs above average,” given that the average pitcher wOBA in 2009 was .164.


First, with NL pitchers, we see a roughly 20 run difference between the Pirates and the Cubs. This is a significant difference on a team level. Having Carlos Zambrano (.305 wOBA) and Sean Marshall (.242 wOBA) over players like Charlie Morton (.115 wOBA) and Ross Ohlendorf (.071 wOBA) can be a two win swing just with the bat. This is what makes Zambrano so much more valuable in the NL – his 3.95 career FIP isn’t ace quality, but with a .305 in 65 PAs as a pitcher, he contributed eight runs with the bat, nearly a win worth of production.

Similarly, Milwaukee Brewers fans likely will not soon forget how terrible Ben Sheets handled the bat during his tenure with the club. With his .096 wOBA, over that same 65 PA sample with Zambrano, he would have accrued four runs below average, for a difference of nearly 1.2 wins. That essentially offsets the roughly 10 run difference between 180 innings of Sheets (3.56 FIP) and Zambrano (3.95).

Now, let’s take a look at the spread in DH hitting.


Here we see a spread of 45 runs. However, the spread in wOBA is only 80 points vs. 63 points for the pitchers. This is because the DHs see nearly twice as many plate appearances as the pitchers over the course of the season. Taking this into account, the spread between leagues is much lower. We shouldn’t expect the inclusion or exclusion of the DH to result in any more or less parity. In other words, the difference between Hideki Matsui and Jose Guillen is similar to the difference between Cubs pitchers and Pirates pitchers at the plate. It’s also worth noting that only one team this year was below average in their league-specific category and made the playoffs – the Red Sox at -2.23 DHwRAA.

Draw your own conclusions from this data. This is not meant to endorse either rule system as better than the other, but instead to provide a comparison of the two rule systems.

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25 Responses to “Spreads in Pitcher Hitting and DH Hitting”

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  1. Lyons says:

    What you didn’t point out was the difference between a typical AL DH at home against an NL opponent that has to start an otherwise bench hitter at DH. This is the key injustice in the rules disparity – at the expense of NL teams – and happens every world series and every interleague game at an AL Park.

    I could be wrong, but I greatly doubt that it’s made up for by the disparity in quality hitting from the batting experience of NL pitchers over AL pitchers.

    Why not just have a universal 8 man lineup?

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    • Sky Kalkman says:

      AL teams tie up resources in developing/signing their DHs. Where do NL teams put those resources they don’t have to put towards a DH? Shouldn’t they be contributing in games without a DH to give them a leg up on DH teams (and in DH games to lessen the disadvantage of not having a true DH a bit)?

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      • Lyons says:

        There are 30 bidders on elite pitchers and elite batters who can also field. There are only 14 bidders on elite hitters who cannot field. The demand will necessarily be lower for DHs when we play under two sets of rules.

        So, where the NL teams can put resources they need not put toward a DH, they must still bid against AL teams. AL teams do not have the same problem when bidding for DHs, since they literally have that market cornered.

        You’re saying that a cornered market for the AL is a fair makeup for the NL needing one fewer regular starter. The odds that they’re equal is overwhelmingly unlikely. Isn’t the fairest resolution just a common set of rules both leagues share?

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      • walkoffblast says:

        They may still have to bid against AL teams with those resources but the AL teams are at a theoretical disadvantage since they already had to spend money on something the NL does not.

        Personally I think the data in this article suggests the advantage/disadvantage of DH vs pitcher batting in a series played in both ballparks would be a lot less than you seem to think, which gels with what I would guess (obviously not scientific).

        I think where you lose me is that you seem to think that when a AL team has to take one of its better hitters out of the lineup it is not a disadvantage.

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      • Good point about that.

        However, that brings up the question of how even the revenues for AL teams is relative to NL teams. If the AL team is generating more revenues per team (and I would drop NYY from calculations), that could explain the difference in resources you note (not saying they will, just noting that another layer of analysis needs to be done to test your point properly).

        All I know is that comparing an average AL DH hitter with the average replacement level hitter most NL teams have on their bench, that helps to explain some of the disparity between the AL and the NL in the past.

        And the AL teams do benefit from the NL teams forced to release or give up (for less value) on players who might be good hitters but not good fielders, they might end not paying very much for their DH.

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      • I believe that there is a much greater advantage for AL teams relative to NL teams in terms of their DH compared with the NL team’s best hitter off the bench against their pitcher against the NL pitcher. I would bet that the spread is much greater between the DH and bench player, than the NL pitcher over the AL pitcher.

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      • Nats Fan says:

        Lyons… there are more than 14 teams that bid for great hiotters that field poorly. Adam Dunn is the worst fielder than anyoin in the game and he is playiong in the NL. He fields worse than Kubel, Ortiz, Cust or any DH in the AL. Look it up it is true.

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    • Xeifrank says:

      Isn’t the advantage an NL team has hosting an AL team greater than the advantage an AL team has hosting an NL team? The AL team either loses one of their best hitters (DH) in an NL park or has to trot out a poor fielder while possibly sitting a secondary level fielder in his place. Of course, this varies on a team by team basis.
      vr, Xei

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      • Lyons says:

        @ Walkoffblast: You’re right, I don’t believe there is a long-term disadvantage to the AL team in an NL park, short of standard home field advantage.

        @obsessivegiantscompulsive: I would go a step further. I would hypothesize that the existence of the DH in part creates greater disparity in the AL. The standard deviation in winning percentages in the AL has been, on the whole, larger than the stdev in winning percentages in the NL since the creation of the DH. I admit I haven’t done a significance test here, and it is just a hypothesis, but intuitively it makes sense…

        @Xeifrank: You forget that in an AL park, the NL team is giving a lineup spot to what was previously a bench hitter. Sometimes it doesn’t matter (2008: Chris Coste/Greg Dobbs v. Willy Aybar/Cliff Floyd). Often times it does (2007: Ryan Spilborghs v. David Ortiz).

        I’d reiterate the same point to each of the three of you: yes, maybe what imbalances that exist are equal, but common rules are the surest way to truly equalize imbalances.

        The NBA COULD, if in their infinite wisdom they chose to, stipulate that 3 pointers only count in games hosted by Western Conference teams. Maybe that the West then has to divert resources to 3 point shooters while the East spends more money on interior defense balances itself out. Why try it though? Just keep the rules the same.

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      • walkoffblast says:

        I think you have a few contradictory opinions. Yes, Ortiz is better than spilborgs but he is also paid a lot more and in a NL park the red sox must bench a 3.8 WAR guy in Youk to downgrade Ortiz’s value by playing him in the field. That seems pretty unlikely to be irrelevant over time to me.

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      • Lyons says:

        Walkoffblast: Yes, they must bench Ortiz or Youk, you’re right. And when they do, they have 8 hitters: just like the NL team. The Red Sox lineup in an NL park is worse compared to prior Red Sox lineups, not compared to NL lineups.

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      • walkoffblast says:

        Who said all lineups are supposed to be equal? The fact that the red sox lineup is worse compared to what it usually would be seems to be an obvious disadvantage to me. In an NL park that team has full use of its resources as intended that they paid for while the AL team is at a disadvantage. Their DH is relegated to that first bat off the bench (a role the NL fills much cheaper) then you go to an AL park and you swap the disadvantage of the two positions.

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    • AInquisition says:

      “Why not just have a universal 8 man lineup?”

      Because I watch pro sports to see greatness. If I want to see non professional hitters flail awkwardly at a ball, I’ll go to the local batting cages.

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  2. Alex says:

    Your tables are impossible to read. Why are you using what looks like Silkscreen? Also, the watermarks are unnecessary and distracting.

    Why doesn’t anyone ever turn off Office’s auto-underlining of typos? I don’t need to know that Word doesn’t recognize “Astros” or “Sox”.

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  3. Matt B. says:

    Everytime I watched Randy Johnson swing a bat I just had to question if this truly was the ‘purest’ form of baseball!

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  4. jake says:

    Does the pitcher data include pinch hitters for pitchers? I don’t know which way that would swing the data, but I would imagine it would decrease the spread in the NL (teams might get their poorest batting pitchers out for pinch hitters earlier in close games, while they are likely to leave in CarZam in the same situation?)

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  5. Sam says:

    “Taking this into account, the spread between leagues is much lower. We shouldn’t expect the inclusion or exclusion of the DH to result in any more or less parity. In other words, the difference between Hideki Matsui and Jose Guillen is similar to the difference between Cubs pitchers and Pirates pitchers at the plate. It’s also worth noting that only one team this year was below average in their league-specific category and made the playoffs – the Red Sox at -2.23 DHwRAA.”

    I am confused. Is this speaking about between-league parity or within-league parity? I.e., comparing Matsui to Guillen and Cubs pitchers and Pirates pitchers are talking about within league parity. I thought the bigger question was between league parity, i.e., between AL and NL. I.e., whether the specialization embedded in the DH makes AL a better league than NL, and whether the adoption of the same rule by both leagues will result in any less disparity between leagues as a whole.

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  6. Seideberg says:

    So if the Royals signed Zambrano to be their DH, they would actually be improving their lineup?

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  7. Bill says:

    Comparing the Cubs best two hitting pitchers to the Pirates worst two probably isn’t the best way to demonstrate the difference. Also, Marshall’s WOBA is based on a small even for pitchers sample of 15 plate appearances since he was rarely used as a starter. He didn’t actually make much of a difference in the hitting of Cubs pitchers. The difference maker is actually that the Cubs had a bunch of guys who were around average for pitchers to go along with Zambrano, and only Ted Lilly was bad. The Pirates had Zach Duke who was above average, and a whole bunch of awful.

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  8. LeeTro says:

    These stats can be used to give an estimate for the adjustment you have to make to compare an NL pitcher to an AL pitcher. I’m not sure how much better a 3.00 ERA is in the AL than it is in the NL.

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  9. MileHi_Legacy says:

    I love the AL has to put resources in a position argument. It has to be the biggest joke I have ever heard. That is an entire position the AL is able to use to see who should be making their team.

    For instance my beloved Rockies are a perfect example. They have 5 solid outfielders. They would have a much better opportunity to see who they should be building their team around if they had a DH to play to utilize them!!!!!!!!! This is an argument that no one seems to point out or comprehend. Every spot on a team is valuable and being able to use a player every day to test their professional ability is an unbelievable edge the AL has. For instance, Seth Smith could have been hitting 4th all 2009 for the Rockies if they had had a DH spot to use someone with in 2008.

    In NL interleague games, pitchers get on base less than 20% of the time anyways. When they do get a hit, it is basically always a single/slop hit. Yes, there are some great pitchers at hitting, but those are few and far between. Whoever the AL rests from their lineup is immediately the best pinch hitter strictly b/c he has been seeing pitches every day.

    In AL interleague games, when a DH does damage, its damage is much greater than a pitcher damage. The biggest problem the NL has is that they have to insert into the lineup someone who has not been seeing the ball on a daily basis. They also have to deal with a much worse K zone as umpires tend to give calls to everyday players/prominent players who have earned respect. Just take a look at David Ortiz K zone in the 2007 WS against Ryan Spillbourghs.

    The money AL teams spend on their extra hitter does indeed help the AL teams with deep pockets. It does not hurt their pockets vs NL teams. Just take a look at how expensive relievers and utility players are. That argument is an absolute joke.

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  10. Babita says:

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