Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Purist Approach to the DH

On Sunday afternoon, my parents made the drive down to Philadelphia to see a game at Citizen's Bank Park, the Phillies' new home stadium. The Phillies won on the game in the bottom of the 14th on a bases-loaded walk to Ricky Ledee. It was the first extra-inning game in the history of Citizen's Bank Park, but the climax of the game was Pat Burrell's pinch-hit, two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the 9th to tie the game. As my dad and I were enjoying the scenery in the new stadium, the conversation turned to the purist approach to baseball.

By the 12th inning, my scorecard was a mess. Pitchers and double-switches filled up the open spots, and I was quickly running out of room. As American League fans, we're used to seeing the DH bat; scorecards in the AL usually come out pretty clean. But in the more "traditional" league, the pitcher still bats. During the game, Robby Hammock, the Diamondbacks' number 8 hitter, was walked twice so that the Phillies could face the pitcher with two outs. in response to this strategy, my dad laid an interesting idea on the table. What if the American League is really the more traditional league? If pitchers were true hitters during the early days of baseball in the 19th century, then the Designated Hitter represented a return to the days when all 9 spots in the lineup could hit. It was an interesting idea, and while I had not really heard this approach before, I decided to research it. What follows is a very unscientific sampling of pitchers' batting averages from random selected teams over the last 130 years.

In 2003, Russ Ortiz of the Atlanta Braves led the team's pitchers in hitting. He hit .253/.303/.400 with 2 home runs and 10 RBIs in 70 at bats. His career numbers are not bad, for a pitcher. In six seasons, he has 363 at bats, a .223 batting average, and a .325 slugging percentage. While those numbers are pretty decent for a pitcher, I don't think too many opposing pitchers are worried when Ortiz strolls to the plate.

After checking out a current pitcher's numbers, I decided to head back to the time when my dad was growing up. Here's an excerpt from the e-mail I sent him:
Pitchers have not been good hitters for a long time. Here are a few stats I found:

Whitey Ford's career BA was .173.
Sandy Koufax's career BA was .097.
Cy Young's career BA was .210.
Walter Johnson's career BA was .235.
Sal Maglie's career BA was .135.
I had figured from my sample that this would show some trends. As I went further back in time, pitchers' batting averages improved slightly. The Big Train's .235 is better than the Chairman's .173. But none of these pitchers were close to being considered a threat the the plate.

This, however, was not exactly what he had in mind. He replied:
You would have to go a lot further back in baseball to make this point; Ford, Maglie and Koufax were all modern era pitchers. I'm not sure where I'd put Cy Young and Walter Johnson. But to really determine whether the pure form of baseball is exemplified more by having nine batters who can hit or one who can't, I think you'd have to look at the stats from the first decade or two of professional baseball.
So heading back to BaseballReference.com, I looked up the numbers for a few random pitchers from the pre-modern era of baseball. I delved into the 1800s when teams were named the Brooklyn Ward's Wonders, the Richmond Virginians, the Pittsburgh Burghers (original really), the St. Paul Apostles, the Worcester Ruby Legs, apparently the great-grandparents of the Philadelphia Phillies, and my personal favorite, the Toledo Maumees (Mommies?). Here are the results of some random clicking. It's not very statistically solid, but it seems to prove the point nonetheless.

• In 1876, George Bradley hit .249/.257/.321 for the St. Louis Brown Stockings. In 2258 career at bats, he managed a .229/.243/.295 line in 11 seasons.

• In 1884, Tim Keefe hit .238/.301/.352 in 210 at bats for the New York Metropolitans. During his career which spanned from 1880 to 1893, Keefe hit .187/.252/.270 in 2083 at bats.

• In 1895, George Hemming hit .282/.294/.427 in 117 at bats for the national league Baltimore Orioles. The year, however, would be Hemming's high-water mark. For his career, he hit .223/.260/.330 with a whopping 3 home runs and 80 RBIs in 718 at bats.

• In 1897, Win Mercer of the Washington Senators hit .317/.354/.403 in 139 at bats. His career numbers (1894-1902) were respectable: .286/.344/.346 with 197 RBIs in 1768 at bats.

In looking at this very small sample, I came to a few conclusions. First, the issue bears more research, but right now, I don't have the time to do that. I plan to follow up on this over the summer. But at first glance, it seems that pitchers back before 1900, at least, could hit slightly better than pitchers today do. I don't think, however, that the Designated Hitter is a return to the traditional way baseball was once played before its modern era. Today's pitchers on the whole seem to hit worse, but no pitcher in the 1880s or 1890s was on par with even the worst-hitting DHs in the American League today. (My apologies to Brad Fullmer.) In looking at baseball stats in the pre-modern era, it was interesting to see certain trends emerge. Pitchers would compile records such as 18-23 while throwing 350 innings. One season, a star pitcher hit for a .300 average with some power, and the following season ended up playing as the regular second baseman. Before nostalgia sets in too deeply, it's just interesting to see what it was like.

In the end, my dad's theory is an interesting one. Pitchers today are certainly not adding to the offense game in the way they used to, but the DH, for purists, appears to overcompensate. As there is much more to this topic, I'll be checking back in with more on this sometime over the summer. Stay tuned.

Another Apology
So this is my first post in quite a while. Let me first apologize and make excuses as to why my post on holds never showed up last Thursday. Right now, it's the middle of finals week, and it's a little tough to go up to New York and focus on writing six papers while maintaining blog posts. Additionally, the newspaper here at Swarthmore of which I am its editor in chief is in the middle of finding staff for next semester, and I've been doing a lot of interviews. To make matters worse, one of the hard drives in my computer (the current one) decided to stop working last Wednesday. It took me two days to restore it, and then I had to go to New York on Saturday. So I've been busy, but now I'm back, and I'll be posting (run-on sentences) regularly. Except for the run-on sentence part. I'll try to avoid that.

Looking Ahead

Wednesday, May 5 — Pittsburgh Pirates @ Houston Astros
The retired Roger Clemens is pitching like he's 20 again. Sporting a 5-0 record, a miniscule 1.95 ERA and almost 9 strikeouts per 9 IP, the notorious East Coast traitor will go up against Kip Wells. Clemens, the National League Pitcher of the Month in April, may well be on his way to a post-retirement Cy Young. Still, he's a traitor.

Thursday, May 6

1. San Diego Padres @ Atlanta Braves: Mike Hampton and his 7.46 ERA face the rejuvenated Padres offense. Could it be that Mike Hampton is pitching for a spot in the Braves rotation or even his career this Thursday? Hampton is a far cry from his days in Houston and New York. If the Braves are going to compete with the Marlins or Phillies, Hampton better turn things around quickly.

2. Boston Red Sox @ Cleveland Indians: Will the real Pedro Martinez please stand up? Pedro faces Carsten Charles Sabathia on Thursday, and as Pedro demands more money than he deserves, Red Sox Nation will hold its breath Thursday. Pedro will face a pitcher who has utterly dominated his opponents this year, yielding just 5 runs in 28 innings. Opponents are hitting just .170 off of Sabathia, and the Sox are no longer sure which Pedro Martinez will show up to pitch.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers @ Florida Marlins: Completing the trifecta of pitchers looking to rebound from bad starts is Dontrelle Willis. Last time around, Willis had probably the worst outing of his career, surrendering 6 earned runs in 1 inning of work to the Giants. I'm sure he'll mow down the Dodgers, but it will be interesting to see how the youngster responds.

Friday, May 7 — Detroit Tigers @ Texas Rangers
Two vastly improved teams meet for the first time this season. While the Rangers have the edge, it'll be interesting to see two teams that have been perennial losers for the past four years square off against each other in meaningful games.

Anyway, that's all from me for today. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the issue of pitchers hitting and the DH. So if you're so inspired leave me some comments, and I'll try to address your concerns later on this season.

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