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Is it time for the National League DH?

As offense continues to decline, has the time arrived to introduce the DH into the National League?

Could his NL equivalent be a reality soon?
Could his NL equivalent be a reality soon?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

1972 was a rough year for baseball. After a decade-long decrease in offense during the 1960s when pitching reigned supreme, changes were made after 1968 to spur it--the strike zone was altered, a uniform pitching mound kept teams like the Dodgers from pitching from the top of a mountain, four expansion teams briefly diluted pitching talent to add more offense, and several new, more hitter-friendly (if aesthetically unpleasing) stadiums went up in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Philadelphia. Runs per game increased from 3.42 to 4.34 per game from 1968 to 1970, a stunning 27 percent increase, but went backward again beginning in 1971, reaching 3.69 runs in 1972, almost right back where they had been before the changes. Take a look at the runs per game over time in the Tableau data viz below in the Runs Game tab.

It was the 1970s, so drastic solutions were taken for what were perceived to be drastic problems. Beginning with the 1973 season, the American League introduced the designated hitter, whereas the older, more traditional National League continued to make pitchers bat. Without getting into the old, tired arguments for or against the introduction of the DH, by 2015 the DH is in place in just about every level of the game. As offense continues a similar decline as seen in the 1960s, the question becomes whether it's time for the National League to finally adopt the DH and be like everyone else.

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This Tableau data viz has three different tabs. The League tab shows the batting average for pitchers over time. Every league and every year since 1871 is included, but what is shown are data for the AL and NL from 1901 to 2014. The few plate appearances pitchers made between 1973 and 1996 in the AL are not shown, and data pops up again in 1997 with the introduction of interleague play.

For the purposes of this discussion, I have no interest in the AL pitchers hitting, since I expect players who bat in at most two games a year to not be very good at it. For NL pitchers, it appears hitting is declining as well. What had been a steady .150-.160 batting average is now down to .125, or anywhere from around 100-150 fewer hits per year, which is not as drastic as it sounds since these are spread out over 2,430 games.

The second tab, Pitcher, is included just for fun and shows the better hitting pitchers in baseball history. Use the sliders to view pitchers of more recent vintage, and it's still pretty clear that recent pitchers do not hit as well as pitchers of old. The last tab, DH, tells the true story of what the DH could mean for the National League. Even though hitting by DHs is down almost 20 points even since 2011, DHs still batted .248 in 2014, almost double the average for pitchers. In addition, and this is the most important part, DHs had almost twice as many at-bats as pitchers, because they're far less likely to be replaced in the middle of a game with a pinch hitter, for obvious reasons. Combine these factors, and the difference is shown in this table:

Position AB BA Hits
Pitcher 4500 .125 563
DH 9000 .250 2250

Easy math--double the at-bats, double the average, and four times as many hits can be reasonably expected, and even if these numbers are on the high side (and they won't be by much), they're still indicative of what the DH could mean for the National League.

There would be ramifications, of course, and not all necessarily bad. It's already becoming a common trend to not use dedicated DHs any more like David Ortiz and Billy Butler (Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez notwithstanding--they're recent moves to DH vs. a player who came up as one like Butler did). So were the NL to adopt the DH, it would likely be the DH-by-committee approach many AL teams are employing. With 12-man pitching staffs, there are only five slots available for reserves and DHs, and players will have to be able to fill multiple roles, and absent extreme examples like David Ortiz, a player who serves only as a DH will be a luxury.

Bunting will decrease, but I doubt people cry over the lack of sacrifices--indeed, as the understanding that the price of an out is often greater than the value of an added base gains acceptance, sacrifice bunts are already on the decline. This chart shows it clearly:

Sac Hits

Baseball "purists" may decry the decrease in sacrifice bunting, but apparently NL managers don't.

One potential result could be NL starting pitchers staying in games longer as they wouldn't need to be replaced with pinch hitters in the middle innings as is the case today. This is not guaranteed, as the notion of times through the order is beginning to gain traction and managers are recognizing the damage hitters can do when seeing a pitcher for the third time in a game. Change in one direction won't necessarily lead directly to a given result when there are so many confounding variables that can enter the discussion.

Baseball is an odd sport in that one league has different rules than the other, although many of those differences have lessened over time. I don't have strong thoughts for or against the DH in general or its use in the National League--when it was initially conceived, one of the benefits was that aging sluggers like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Harmon Killebrew or players with nagging injuries like Tony Oliva could still have a place in the game. As the DH matured, the idea of grooming one has certainly diminished, and coupled with the trend of players playing fewer games, it serves more as an opportunity to spread days off around.

Certain things are inevitable--the Wild Card round will expand to three games, game length will shorten somehow, the Cubs will win a World Series (I never defined the time frame of inevitability), and the DH will enter the National League. Since I don't really see anything stopping it, now seems as good a time as any to introduce it.

Data from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Any mistakes in gathering and processing it are the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.