Two arguments favoring the designated hitter popped up around the internet Wednesday, first from Anna Hiatt of The Week (published at Yahoo!) and then from Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk. Naturally, the posts galvanized debate in all the typical corners — comments sections and particularly Twitter — as to which style of baseball is morally superior.
Personally, my general position is ambivalence — baseball is baseball no matter who takes the ninth spot on the lineup card. A more interesting question, from the perspective of how teams compete and win win, is what National League teams do with their pitchers at the plate (and on the bases). Are certain teams consistently good at getting their pitchers to hit? Are some consistently bad?
To put it bluntly, is there any indication pitcher hitting is a team-level skill at all?
As Sam Miller presented at Baseball Prospectus, individual players are certainly able to differentiate themselves from their peers. Miller found a spread of nearly two wins from the best to the worst. And pitchers are also somewhat able to repeat their secondary skill performances — Miller found a .35 year-to-year correlation for non-pitching WARP among pitchers. This is naturally lower than the correlation for pitching skill — pitchers get few attempts at the plate, on the bases and in the field relative to position players — but not insignificant.
Looking at the last five years, a few teams stand out from the pack.
The Brewers have gotten 3.8 WAR* out of their pitchers, largely from the contributions of Yovani Gallardo (2.3 WAR, .200/.234/.343). The Diamondbacks featured both Dan Haren (2.1 WAR, .261/.281/.374) and Micah Owings (1.8 WAR, .262/.294/.428 split between Arizona and Cincinnati) and come in second at just under two WAR. The Cardinals and Padres round out the top quarter, with Pittsburgh bringing up the rear thanks to the likes of Paul Maholm (-1.4 WAR, .090/.138/.115) and Charlie Morton (-1.2 in, impressively, just 160 PA of .073/.079/.102 work).
*FanGraphs pitcher WAR includes park-adjusted hitting, a position adjustment, and UBR for baserunning
By and large, though, there isn’t much differentiation between pitchers. Only six of 220 pitchers to bat at least 20 times from 2008 through 2012 accrued more than plus-1.0 WAR and just nine were worse than minus-1.0 WAR. As we’d expect with seasons stretching across just 60 plate appearances (and loads of sacrifice bunts), many pitchers will run into a few hits one year and go through nearly season-long hitless streaks the next. Unsurprisingly, there is just a tiny year-to-year correlation for both WAR and wOBA among team pitching staffs:
Not a single team exhibited a statistically significant relationship (p < 0.05) between season and WAR nor wOBA for the five-year sample either. Not even the runaway Brewers, who owe much of their standout total to a composite .207/.249/.280 (2.2 WAR) season out of their rotation in 2010 (a season in which Gallardo clubbed four home runs).
I don't think this should be a shocking result. National League teams don't have the luxury of denying a Ben Sheets (513 PA of .076/.113/.082, -3.0 WAR), an Aaron Harang (607 PA of .091/.099/.109, -3.6 WAR) or a Brandon Webb (457 PA of .113/.134/.136, -1.9 WAR) rotation spots because they can’t hit. It’s not a factor in their development as they rise through the majors. The DH is used in all rookie-level and Low-A games. Even in the high minors, the designated hitter only comes into place when both teams are National League affiliates, and in the Pacific Coast League, both clubs must agree to have the pitcher bat before the game as well. Additionally, National League teams can’t select or even truly know the bat skills of most American League free agent pitchers.
The argument against the DH and for the pitcher batting isn’t one about competition. It may disguise itself as one, perhaps centering around the nebulous aspects of strategy and perhaps the skill of a team’s pinch-hitters (subject to its own small sample vagaries), but at its core the argument for the pitcher batting is an aesthetic one. As a fan in a National League media market who was largely watched National League baseball for the last decade and a half, I can appreciate this argument.
But approaching the problem from a competitive standpoint, pitchers batting essentially comes down to throwing 250 to 350 at-bats per season to a component of the game teams barely develop outside of spring training and some BP sessions. It’s an aspect teams don’t — can’t, really — select for when building a team. Bunts and double switches and those wacky pitchers running the bases in jackets in cold weather are all fun, and I will gladly watch them in the National League this season and beyond. But if we really want to see which NL teams can best assemble major league talent, it’s best to trade the “1” on the lineup card for the “DH.”