Rule 6.10: Baseball’s Great DebateBy Andy Albertson
We all know the old saying, "Don't talk about politics or religion." Whoever came up with it must not have known any baseball fans, because surely she would have added "or the designated hitter rule."
Since 1973, Major League Baseball has seen its two leagues, the American League and the National League, play a slightly different form of the same game. The source of this discrepancy is the designated hitter rule. In the National League, the pitcher does his own batting. In the American League, a skilled hitter takes the place of the pitcher in the batting lineup.
To most people, this probably doesn't sound like a big deal. To a baseball fan, a calm, rational discussion of the designated hitter rule can escalate quickly into an argument, shouting, hurt feelings, fisticuffs, or worse. As a writer for Sports Illustrated once put it, "probably not since the Roman Catholic Church switched from Latin to English Masses has any break with tradition caused more vigorous argument in this country."
Any League may elect to use the Designated Hitter Rule.
- In the event of inter-league competition between clubs of Leagues using the Designated Hitter Rule and clubs of Leagues not using the Designated Hitter Rule, the rule will be as follows:
- In World Series or exhibition games, the rule will be used or not used as is the practice of the home team.
- In All-Star games, the rule will only be used if both teams and both Leagues so agree.
- The Rule provides as follows:
- A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers in any game without otherwise affecting the status of the pitcher(s) in the game.
- A Designated Hitter for the pitcher must be selected prior to the game and must be included in the lineup cards presented to the Umpire in Chief.
- The designated hitter named in the starting lineup must come to bat at least one time, unless the opposing club changes pitchers.
- It is not mandatory that a club designate a hitter for the pitcher, but failure to do so prior to the game precludes the use of a Designated Hitter for that game.
- Pinch hitters for a Designated Hitter may be used. Any substitute hitter for a Designated Hitter becomes the Designated Hitter. A replaced Designated Hitter shall not re-enter the game in any capacity.
- 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.
- A runner may be substituted for the Designated Hitter and the runner assumes the role of Designated Hitter. A Designated Hitter may not pinch run.
- A Designated Hitter is "locked" into the batting order. No multiple substitutions may be made that will alter the batting rotation of the Designated Hitter.
- Once the game pitcher is switched from the mound to a defensive position this move shall terminate the Designated Hitter role for the remainder of the game.
- 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. (The game pitcher may only pinch-hit for the Designated Hitter).•
- Once a Designated Hitter assumes a defensive position this move shall terminate the Designated Hitter role for the remainder of the game. A substitute for the Designated Hitter need not be announced until it is the Designated Hitter's turn to bat.
University of Arkansas law professor Dustin Buehler and University of Washington law professor Steve Calandrillo brave the waters and attempt to settle the debate once and for all in their article "Baseball's Moral Hazard: Law, Economics, and the Designated Hitter Rule," published in the Boston University Law Review. The article paints a detailed picture of the debate and then takes a law-and-economics approach to settling it.
So, how did Major League Baseball come to operate under two sets of rules? In the late '60s and early '70s, baseball was dominated by pitching. Runs were hard to come by, especially in the American League. Fans shied away, and in the 1972 season, the National League outdrew the American League by four million fans. Hoping to increase scoring and attendance, in 1973, the American League adopted the designated hitter rule on a three-year trial basis.
The new rule was so successful in bringing offense and fans back to the American League that the League voted to make the change permanent in the 1976 season. National League fans decried the rule as disrespectful to baseball tradition and claimed it took the strategy out of the game. American League fans flocked to the stadiums to watch the runs pile up.
Buehler and Calandrillo's article focuses on another aspect of the debate – does the designated hitter rule create a moral hazard? A moral hazard exists when a person behaves in a risky way because he doesn't fear retribution. One risky, often rewarding, thing a pitcher can do is throw inside (close to the batter) to open up more of the strike zone or to simply hit the batter with a pitch. Hitting a batter grants a walk but often saves a run. And, it can sometimes lead to injuries or even bench-clearing brawls. In addition, hitting a batter with a pitch often results in the other team's pitcher serving up retribution by hitting a player on the other team.
In the case of the designated hitter rule, it has been demonstrated that American League pitchers are more likely to hit batters with their pitches, in part because the pitchers do not have to worry about being hit with a pitch themselves since they won't be batting. On average, American League pitchers have been 10 to 15 percent more likely to hit batters, and by 2004, the National League has exceeded the hit-batter rate only four times in 31 seasons. This suggests that the designated hitter rule has created a moral hazard.
Though the discrepancy between hit batsmen in the National League and American League is shrinking due to factors such as league expansion and the "double warning" or "one free hit" rule, Buehler and Calandrillo conclude there is clearly a cost to the designated hitter rule, namely, the moral hazard it creates. To settle the debate, they use a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, do the benefits of the rule outweigh the moral hazard effect?
One of the most obvious benefits is increased offensive production. According to the article, "during the first four seasons after implementation of the rule, the American League averaged 1,640 more runs, 202 more home runs, and 19 more points in batting average, compared with the 1972 season. Indeed, the American League has led the National League in overall batting average every year since the adoption of the rule." The increased offense has in turn increased attendance dramatically in the American League.
Another benefit of the designated hitter rule is that it prolongs the careers of popular players, which also drives attendance and allows for gradual recovery from injury. All-time greats like Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey, Jr., were able to continue playing even after age and injury had taken their toll on their bodies, by moving into the designated hitter role. The rigors of fielding are taken out of the equation, which also helps players who are recovering from injury. As the article points out, "After Mariners slugger Edgar Martinez suffered hamstring and knee injuries in 1993 and 1994, he came back as a designated hitter and made the All-Star roster in 1995, while batting an impressive .356 at the plate."
The article also examines a frequent complaint about the designated hitter rule, that it lessens the strategy involved in baseball by eliminating the need for the manager to choose between letting his pitcher hit in a close game or bringing in a pinch hitter. On the surface, this appears to be a cost of the designated hitter rule, but Buehler and Calandrillo find that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, it might make pitching decisions more difficult for managers. As former Angels manager Bobby Winkles said, "It was a great help when the pitcher used to bat because, even if you weren't sure if he was tired, if he was up and you had a man on and were down by a run, you'd take him out. Now you try to make sure he's tired and you might go just one man too long."
Given the low incidence of injury from batters being hit by pitches and the bench-clearing brawls that sometimes accompany hit batsmen, the article concludes that this cost, while serious, does not outweigh the benefits the American League enjoys as a result of the designated hitter rule.
So, if it works for the American League, wouldn't it work for the National League? Not so fast. The article finds that the cost-benefit analysis would be different for the two leagues for a simple reason – National League fans have different preferences than American League fans.
As Buehler and Calandrillo conclude their article:
"American League fans enjoy the increased offense that the designated hitter rule provides. National League fans enjoy pitching duels and the chance to see the manager struggle with the decision whether to pinch-hit for the pitcher in close games. Thus, this may be an instance in which fans should agree to disagree. As long as fans in each league are satisfied with the game under the existing rules, let's play ball (and pass the Cracker Jacks)."