Results of the designated hitter rule change in the MLB

October 9, 2020

After many years of discussing the possibility of adding the designated hitter (DH) to the National League for the 60-game 2020 season, Major League Baseball (MLB) added the DH to reduce the possibility of injury to pitchers and increase offensive production. At first, it appeared to have many mixed reactions. Many people were happy because that meant more hitting due to the pitcher themselves not hitting. More hitting means more runs and more runs means more exciting games. However, other people disliked the rule change because they either wanted to stay true to the game and have pitchers hit, or just liked seeing pitchers hit in general. The 2020 regular season has ended, and the playoffs are underway, but with over 60 games of this new rule, it can be seen what effect this rule change actually had. 

To compare the effect of the DH, we first need to take a look at what the statistics were from last season. According to Baseball Reference, the entire league batting average was 0.252 and teams average 4.83 runs per game. Half of the league had the DH and the other half did not. Baseball Reference says that the American League (the league with the DH) teams had an average batting average of 0.253 and the teams scored a total of 11,859 runs and averaged 4.88 runs per game. If we compare that to the information from Baseball Reference about the National League (without DH), the National League teams had an average batting average of 0.251 and the teams scored a total of 11,608 runs and averaged 4.78 runs per game. 

The league with the DH had a two point higher batting average, scored 201 more runs and averaged 0.1 more runs per game than the league without the DH. So, it seems apparent that the American League has more offense because of DHs. More runs and higher batting averages mean the DH leads to much more offense, right? Obviously, there are many things that could be taken into consideration such as the possibility that the hitters of the American League are better than those of the National League. Another answer could be that the pitchers of the National League could be better than those of the American League. Before checking what is going on in 2020, let’s first take a look at what exactly the DHs did in 2019. 

Designated hitters should be better at hitting than pitchers, right? After all, designated hitters are paid to hit, while pitchers are paid to pitch. Let’s see if this is completely true. The DH position had an average batting average of 0.236, according to Fangraphs. They also hit 532 home runs and scored 1406 runs. If you compare that to the Fangraphs’ statistics of pitchers, who hit an average batting average of 0.105 and 24 home runs, they scored only 248 runs. It seems pretty clear that on an offensive showing, DHs are significantly better than pitchers. Again, there are many factors that could go into these statistics, but even with all these factors it is safe to say that if you have the DH in your lineup, you are going to generally score more runs and do better on offense, because the DH is a better hitter than the pitcher. We have now concluded that the DH is most likely better for offense, so let’s see what happens when you add the DH into the National League line-up. 

So, for the 2020 season, there was a DH for the teams in the National League for the first time. Since there was now a DH in both leagues, you would assume a higher average batting average for the entire league. However, that is not what occurred this season. Based on the information from Baseball Reference, the average batting average for the entire league was 0.245 and teams scored 4.65 runs per game, on average. If you take a look specifically at the National League, you can see that they had an average batting average of 0.246 and only scored an average of 4.71 runs per game during this season. Both of those statistics are less than last season without the DH. 

Does this mean that the DH in the National League is actually worse for teams’ offenses? Do the DH curse National League teams to have worse offensive seasons? Should the National League go back to having pitchers hit to improve batting for these teams? The answer is: maybe. In reality these statistics are a bit deceiving because of the shortened season. The previous year’s stats were measured for a full 162 games while this year only consisted of 60 games. So, in general the down year could actually improve if there were more games, considering most hitters start off really slow and get better when they play more games. Additionally, this season was full of surprises. Many players were either forced to not play or chose not to play due to restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, so this may have influenced batting stats. 

For example, according to Yahoo Sports, Washington Nationals superstar Juan Soto was forced to miss over a week’s worth of games due to a positive test result for COVID-19. Situations like this may have slightly lowered the batting stats for the season. One player is not going to completely change the landscape of baseball statistics; however, what is clear is that adding a DH to the National League will not immediately increase the scoring in the game overall. There are so many variables involved in baseball that adding the DH in the National League statistically and on an overarching level may not change much. 

Even though statistically overall, the addition of the DH did not accomplish the task of increasing the offense in the MLB, the entertainment level of the game likely went up. No longer did people have to sit and watch the pitcher be a “free out.” The reality of the change is that it seems like there is more chance for offense because you have someone that can actually hit in the lineup over the pitcher. 

Overall, the rule change did its job. It helped keep some pitchers safe from being injured and it gave people that only watch National League baseball a taste of what it is like to have a DH hitting instead of the pitcher. People don’t really care about whether or not statistically there was an increase in offense in baseball. What people really care about is what seems to be happening. It doesn’t matter if the batting average of teams went down; now that the pitcher isn’t hitting, you have one more chance of hitting a home run in any particular inning. 

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