A Visual Case for the DH

Watching pitchers hit is so boring.

It’s time to rule out the rule requiring pitchers to hit major league pitching, except as an exception for the exceptional hitters.

There is one undeniable fact in the DH-or-no-DH debate that everyone can agree on: Pitchers, for the most part, can’t hit major league pitching. I am of the opinion that not only are pitchers not capable of hitting major league pitching, they are also essentially a waste of an at-bat, so much so that a pitcher trying to hit doesn’t even look remotely like a major league at-bat, further, they also have a disproportional impact on the hitter that directly precedes them . Let’s use some Statcast data and take a look at the visual evidence, which will help to quantify this position.

Pitchers vs. Position Players Avg Launch Angle and Avg Exit Velocity


Here we have the classic outlier graph where we see pitchers, as a group, with orders of magnitude less exit velocity and launch angles. The exit velocity on its own isn’t all that extreme, as we’ll see in a bit. However, the ability to make solid contact, as measured by average launch angle, is atrocious. The above data exclude bunts; if we included them, the data would be even more extreme.

This chart exemplifies the core argument about instituting the DH in the National League: Pitchers, as a group, are orders of magnitude lesser hitters than any other position and do not even remotely resemble major league hitters.

I’m Lying to You with this Chart

Here we have a classic misleading chart, where I’ve intentionally chopped off the y-axis just below the average pitcher exit velocity to make the magnitude of the difference appear much larger than it really is. I feel really guilty about this, so here’s a bonus version of the same chart, this one portraying it as delta from the average exit velocity of all non-bunt batted balls.

+/- Launch Speed from MLB Average (Excluding Bunts)

This chart accurately reflects the big drop-off compared to the next closest position and should depict the difficulty pitchers have hitting the ball with authority as compared to other position players. Exit velocity, on it’s own, doesn’t tell much of a story, nor does it really tell the whole story here. The more salient data are launch angles, depicted in two charts again.

Average Launch Angle by Primary Position

There is no mendacious attempt with this chart as the default in Tableau is to start at zero, though one could argue where the y-axis should begin, since zero isn’t the lowest theoretical angle at which one could launch a baseball. To that end, let’s look at these data from the perspective of deviation from the mean.

+/- Average Launch Angle by Primary Position

Here we have the meat of the story: Pitchers essentially are hitting weak ground balls, which will rarely result in anything useful, especially considering most pitchers don’t run very hard.

Who Are the Exceptions?

Every rule has an exception, and in baseball, the exceptional rule. Let’s take a closer look at the above dynamics and split it out at the individual level to see if the thesis is muted or enhanced, as well as identify any outlier pitchers. We’ll take a look at three charts that use different batted-ball authority metrics, in my favorite chart form, scatter plots.

Small Sample Size Syndergaard (SSSS)

The data above are filtered to players with a minimum of 25 balls in play (excluding bunts), with exit velocity mapped to xwOBA as calculated by Statcast. If there is one take-away from this chart, it’s that Noah Syndergaard should stop pitching and immediately become a full-time hitter. The other, more pertinent, observation is the large cluster of pitchers and sub-replacement level hitters who neither hit the ball hard nor at a launch angle and exit velocity combination that would do any damage.

The other blue pitcher dots in the upper right quadrant are Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner and SSS Michael Lorenzen and Tyson Ross. These data suggest that the vast majority of pitchers will be about as entertaining to watch hit a baseball as Juan Graterol or Hanser Alberto. The above chart shows expected wOBA, which may or may not work well for pitchers, so let’s take a look at exit velocity + actual wOBA:

Pitcher vs. Hitter Exit Velocity and Avg wOBA


We see largely the same story as the xwOBA graph, with Arrieta, Bumgarner and Syndergaard being the exceptions to the rule and a whole bunch of pitchers who would be by far and away the worst hitters in the league.

Pitcher vs. Hitter Exit Velocity and Avg Launch Angle


We see a continuation of the above theme, where there are a host of pitchers who are not capable of averaging a launch angle above zero. These pitchers are joined by offensive luminaries including, but not limited to, Tomas Telis, Hernan Iribarren and Bryce Bentz. Exactly. Interestingly, in the StatCast era, Tim Hudson appears to have had quite the ability to hit the ball in the air, albeit with an extremely low exit velocity.

Pitchers and Useless Swings

There exists a trade-off in baseball between swinging hard and swinging for contact. Unfortunately, no such trade-off exists with pitchers, who swing and miss a whole bunch, but as exhibited above, don’t hit the ball very hard at all. Let’s depict this in a few of different ways, first, we’ll take a look at swing-and-miss by position, then we’ll map it to results.

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Swinging Strike% by Position

Pitchers swing and miss 40 percent more than DHs and almost double what middle infielders do. No need to artificially change the y-axis to demonstrate the visual.

Whiff% by Position

SwStr% and avg Exit Velocity by Position


This visual definitively depicts the utter futility of most pitcher at-bats. When we look at position players, we see a clear correlation between SwStr% and average exit velocity, with the bigger, stronger players swinging harder and missing more, the smaller more defense-focused hitters swinging and missing less but hitting the ball with less authority. Pitchers are the clear outlier here, swinging and missing a whole bunch and barely doing anything with it when they make contact.

Predictable Bunts Are Boring

If you aren’t yet convinced that pitchers, as a whole, don’t even remotely resemble major league hitters, let’s take a look at the most boring, predictable play on the planet: the pitcher sacrifice bunt attempt. Unfortunately, I could not find any data to support my claim that the pitcher sacrifice bunt is inherently somnambulant. However, let’s accept that premise and take a look at just how often a pitcher at-bat results in a bunt attempt, specifically the percentage of balls in play as a result of a bunt.

Bunts as Percent of Balls in Play


Nearly 22 percent of all balls put in play by pitchers are bunts! These aren’t the Billy Hamilton bunt-for-a-base-hit variety, which are exciting to watch. These are basic, bunt-because-I-can’t-hit types of bunts for the dubious advantage of trading an out for a base, which makes sense if the batter is very likely to make an out (or potentially two) anyway.

The Effect on No. 8 Hitters

Guys who hit out of the No. 8 spot in the lineup aren’t usually mashers who command respect from pitchers and earn intentional walks. The most egregious aspect of allowing pitchers to hit isn’t that they can’t, it’s the effect they have on distorting the at-bats of the hitter who precedes them.

I don’t have perfect data on whether or not a pitcher has already been pulled, or if he’s hitting out of the No. 8 spot himself, so I filtered it to innings one through six in NL parks only and cut the data by the batter’s order in the lineup. Despite these limitations, the data speak for themselves.

Intentional Walks as a Percent of At-Bats by Batter Lineup Order


The best hitters on the team, traditionally in the No. 3/4 slots, get intentionally walked about 0.6 percent of the time. The weakest hitter, usually hitting out of the No. 8 spot, gets intentionally walked nearly four times as much. Pitchers have a disproportionate impact on any inning they participate in, to the effect that they make the No. 8 hitter into Barry Bonds. I suspect the No. 7 hitter in this chart is reflective of situations when the pitcher hits eighth, but I don’t have a clean way of testing that. Here’s the same view, filtered to when there are one or two batters on base.

Intentional Walks as a Percent of At-Bats by Batter Lineup Order (One or Two Runners on Base)


Nearly six percent of at-bats result in an intentional walk when the pitcher is on deck. Teams are more than four times as likely to intentionally walk the weakest hitter on the team when the pitcher is on deck as they are to walk the team’s most dangerous hitter.

Conclusion

It’s no secret that, as a group, pitchers are extremely poor hitters. What is perhaps less evident is just how little they resemble even replacement-level talent and the disproportionate impact they have on the batters who precede them. Baseball is about the best hitters in the world trying to hit the best pitchers in the world, not pitchers lobbing meatballs down the middle and hoping their counterpart doesn’t execute a sacrifice bunt. It’s time to bring on the inevitable and start using the DH in the National League. Or should we? Tomorrow, I’ll present the opposite argument.


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Eli Ben-Porat is a Senior Manager of Reporting & Analytics for Rogers Communications. The views and opinions expressed herein are his own. He builds data visualizations in Tableau, and preps data in Alteryx. Follow him on Twitter @EliBenPorat.

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28 Comments on "A Visual Case for the DH"

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Guest

Nice presentation about the failure of pitchers trying to hit.

Your headline says it is a case for the DH, but I don’t see any argument for the DH (the article focuses only on pitchers).

If you don’t want pitchers to hit, why not have an eight man lineup?

Ben Markham
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Ben Markham

An 8-man lineup is way more abhorrent to me, as it would ruin the symmetry of the game.

MarylandBill
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MarylandBill

How does the DH not ruin the symmetry. In fact, now you have eight players who play both offense and defense… but two players only play one. That is not symmetry.

Jay
Guest

EliBenPorat,

Excellent article, with great charts and humor too. Looking forward to part two.
Jay

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Bartolo Colon makes it all worthwhile.

Mike J
Guest
Mike J
I expect tomorrow’s article will say all the things I want to say about players who can only DH don’t deserve to be in the league anymore and the position keeps them around artificially. If you’re such a old, fat, fragile liability that you can’t play the field in any meaningful way, your career should be over. If the DH was constantly rotated between position players getting a day off, I’d have much less of a problem with it (but I probably still wouldn’t like it; the few pitchers who are not-terrible with the bat get gigantic benefits from it,… Read more »
Brian Cartwright
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Brian Cartwright

Pitchers might hit somewhat better if they were given a chance to practice it. Nine guys play the field, nine guys bat. That’s the essence of the game.

Dubslow
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Dubslow

How on earth does “the NL should adopt the DH” logically follow from “pitchers are terrible hitters”? This article pounds the latter part into the ground, and no one’s ever really disputed it, but what on earth does that have to do with the former? Any argument that the former should happen must talk about many other things than “pitchers suck at hitting”, which is really a no brainer.

Ben Markham
Guest
Ben Markham

Most of us watch MLB to see the best in the world ply their craft. Watching pitchers hit is clearly not that.

Alice Cooper
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Alice Cooper

Why not just DH for all bad hitters? and DF for all bad fielders?? And DR for all bad runners???

#perfectbaseball

Deacon Drake
Guest

Came to say this… make baseball more like football, with offensive and defensive specialists. And considering most moves are made around platoon advantages, allow those guys to remain available to continue to play, instead of just burning after one batter or at bat.

Ben Markham
Guest
Ben Markham
Did you even look at the article? As pretty much all of the graphics provided above indicate, no position has production at the plate even remotely resembling pitchers. Position players are in a completely different league (literally, most pitcher’s hitting skills wouldn’t allow them to reach the upper minors). DH’ing for any other position is a completely different conversation. For the record though, I think DH’ing multiple positions would be cool. There’s probably a lot of defensively amazing shortstops and speed demon centerfielders out there that can’t hit anything. Would the game be more entertaining if those players played the… Read more »
nocaBall
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nocaBall
With the prevalence of shifting a case could be made, and maybe should have been made in 1973, of having the DH play the field. He would be like the short-fielder in softball, moving around the field depending on the batter. What, you don’t like the idea? Then how can you like an “… old, fat, fragile liability that you can’t play the field in any meaningful way?” Back in the day there were good hitting pitchers because they played Baseball when learning the game. They played in the field, and took their at bats, so learned how to hit.… Read more »
Scott
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Scott

The only reason we’re even having this debate is because the Phillies owner hadn’t been reachable in 1980.

crew87
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crew87
The numbers in the article are pretty interesting, and certainly make the case that pitchers are terrible hitters. But as some others have mentioned, I don’t think this necessarily is a convincing argument of why the DH should exist. Yes, pitchers are terrible hitters. The most ardent no-DH supporter would agree to that. But imagine a spectrum with 9 defensive players and 9 offensive players on one end, and on the other everybody bats for themselves. I think it’s a matter of preference where you land on the spectrum. We could show data that demonstrates that first basemen are terrible… Read more »
Mike
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Mike

Cross Link for JUSTICE

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=32616

If Designated Hitters aren’t any better than middle infielders anyway these days, the downgrade to a pitcher isn’t nearly as big as when they were David Ortiz.

Josh Utterback
Guest
Josh Utterback
One of the biggest reasons I support having pitchers bat is exactly because they are such bad hitters. The late game strategy when you have the pitcher’s spot coming up to bat is one of the more intriguing parts of baseball. Do you keep your still effective starter when their spot comes up in the 6th or 7th inning of a close game or do you pitch hit for them? Who do you put in to pitch hit? Do you perform a double switch when pulling the pitcher? If so, what is the impact of changing that fielder two or… Read more »
steve
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steve
If this is true, then there are similar reasons why bad fielders should not be required to field, slow runners to run, etcetcetc. Mario Mendoza was able to contribute to major league teams despite being a nearly dreadful hitter. The presence of bad hitters in a lineup contributes positively to in-game strategies; it affects opposing pitchers; it would affect the thought processes in throwing at opposing position players. Note also that the mere IDEA of a “major” sport having two leagues with different rules is absurd. Do you suppose that the NFC will go to having 5 downs required to… Read more »
Ralph C.
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Ralph C.
I’m all for the designated hitter and it’s time for the National League to adopt it. Pitchers can still hit– the best ones can DH if they are that good. Much of the strategy of pinch-hitting late in the game for a pitcher is rote. How many leagues still have the pitchers bat? Time to realize that pure stubbornness and some sort of “tradition” keep the designated hitter out of the National League. Tradition left town on the trolley a long, long time ago. So did the daytime World Series games. So did the lack of Wild Card playoff spots.… Read more »
nocaBall
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nocaBall
Please explain, “… I wish baseball was structured like it was from 1975 to 1989.” There were two separate leagues, one real Baseball as it was played as designed; another with “New Rules.” MLB can be broken down into Dirty Ball, when the game evolved to “Clean Ball,” which began in 1921; this lasted until the “War Years,” from 1942 until 1946. The came the “Everyone Plays” era from 1947 until 1960, when we have the Expansion Era, which lasted from 1961 until 1976. Then comes the Modern Era, the best, most consistent era in MLB, which lasted from 1977… Read more »
Ken Stegeman
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Ken Stegeman

Back in the day, MLB players were ATHLETES regardless of the position they played. That began way before they made it to the MLB level. If the DH rule reaches our youth (think Little League) do we just tell the kids that aren’t the best hitters to go have a seat? If that happens I will disassociate myself from the game that I have adored my entire life.

My echo and bunnymen
Guest
My echo and bunnymen

What’s the difference between that and kids with a pinch hitter spot? You’re telling them the same thing. So yes… you’re already doing that.

MarylandBill
Guest
MarylandBill
I think we miss the fact that having pitchers bat makes a big difference both to the strategy of a game and the strategy of how you build a team. Lets be honest, if your pitchers have to hit, you might decide to trade a little bit of ERA for another 20-30% on their batting average. I would also argue that while it is the central drama, we don’t just watch baseball to see the pitcher face off against the batter. Otherwise, what need would there be for the rest of the team? We go to see the whole show.
My echo and bunnymen
Guest
My echo and bunnymen

Well, somewhat true but… it’s clear it isn’t that valuable to teams or even that much considered based on contracts handed out since, as noted in the other article, the pitchers can just go to the AL and no one cares. Hitting for pitchers isn’t considered for the CY awards (or at least is frequently ignored in Kershaw’s 2014 case prior, I believe) and although that isn’t the front offices we rarely see NL teams even consider that as highly valuable (especially since it’s such a small sample regardless).

William Loeffler
Guest
William Loeffler
I don’t understand this fetish by DH supporters to try to force the NL to change its rules. I see lots of articles that predict the end of the DH because….well…because pitchers get hurt a lot. So, pitchers hitting is expensive, I guess the argument is. One thing that i want to say is 1925, Walter Johnson on a team that came just shy of winning a second series in a row, hit 433 with an OPS+ of 163. There are many other examples. For those who like to make the argument about pitchers not hitting in the minors, then… Read more »
nocaBall
Guest
nocaBall

Amen, brother. Right on, right on, RIGHT ON!

My echo and bunnymen
Guest
My echo and bunnymen
The fact that you have to go back to 1925 for a great example is quite damning. Even just looking at the past one hundred years, there are very few examples near the top (Carlos Zambrano in 2008 is up there) even close to the implementation of the DH (1973 I believe?) so it’s likely competition has increased drastically since then. It’s not solely that it’s expensive in terms of pitchers getting injured, which they do btw, it’s that it’s expensive AND weaker. Those two combined, especially when a “cheaper” option exists (DH) that allows additional rest for hitters, is… Read more »
Rich Moser
Guest
Rich Moser

Anybody remember playing “work-ups?” Everybody had to play EVERY position, rotating. That would make baseball even more team-related than any other sport, although perhaps it already is. But failing that, I am pro-DH because quite simply pitchers are specialists. If they were actually taught how to hit then that would be different, they could hit, but they don’t have that expertise. We don’t want the SS to pitch and so we shouldn’t want the P to hit.

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