Since 1973, the Designated Hitter rule, which allows a non-fielding player to bat in place of the pitcher in baseball’s American League, has certainly changed the game. There is a lot of ambivalence surrounding the DH, and I will not begin to try to deal with whether the rule should be changed. What I will address is some of the problems the rule has created, especially regarding the valuation of players. Free agency and interleague play have fuzzied the differences between the leagues, leaving the DH as the last major divide. With the designated hitter rule in effect in only one league, it has become very difficult to consider certain players properly.
A lot of what Hall of Fame voting has become is comparing statistics–looking at how a player’s key stats compare with “floor” Hall of Fame statistics for a certain position or era. Consider Harold Baines. It has been said that Baines must be voted into the Hall because no player with as many hits as he had (2866) has ever been left out of Cooperstown. (The requisite number of hits to make it to the Hall of Fame on hit production alone has long been 3000; the de facto number is slightly lower.) Baines may be the one player who can demonstrate the limits of comparing numbers because his numbers so overshadow his mystique, so his situation is unique. But in any case the designated hitter rule is horribly destructive of this type of comparison –both vertically (comparing to times before 1973) and horizontally (comparing between both leagues as they currently are). Because the DH is such a problem, we should look carefully at the stats acquired by a player when he was DHing.
How many times have you heard “This player wants to move to/stay in the AL so he can DH and extend his career by 3 to 5 years”? It turns out that there’s a lot of truth to that. Look at Paul Molitor. He’s often talked about as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he benefited quite a lot from the DH rule. He retired after 1998, but the last year he played fewer that 100 games as DH was 1990. If you subtract all the hits he got while primarily playing DH from his career total of 3319, you get 1870. Can you believe that? You just went from 200 more hits than Tony Gwynn to 200 more hits than Tony Pena. Without the DH, Molitor would have played more games in the field in his later years and garnered many of those hits, but it is apparent that a good bit of his production came from the designated hitter rule.
There are several players from the National League who, if they had played in the American League, might be in Cooperstown. Dave Concepcion was a lifetime Red who was productive both in the field and at the plate. A member of the Big Red Machine of the middle 70’s, he remained an All-Star until the early 1980’s. With the arrival of Barry Larkin in 1986, he was forced to take on a different role as a platoon player for the final three years of his career, though he remained productive (in 1987 he batted .319 in only 279 at bats). If the Reds had been in the American League, he could have earned many more plate appearances and bolstered his career hit total of 2326. Plus, he probably would have been in the game a year or two longer. So, for NL players like Concepcion, the decision to remain with the same team is effectively discouraged as those who travel to the American League can improve their statistics and make a better case for Cooperstown.
Before the designated hitter rule, nobody had the chance to extend his career. Wally Berger, who played during the 1930’s, is one of the greatest players of all time who is not in the Hall of Fame. A career .300 hitter, he hit 242 home runs as the center fielder for, primarily, the Boston Braves. When he was still in his prime, a shoulder injury hampered the rest of his career, hurting his power and limiting his playing time. He was still a productive player in the final four years of his eleven-year career, an an opportunity to bat as a DH would almost certainly have extended his too short career, bringing more attention to his already impressive Hall of Fame credentials.
The designated hitter rule may be good for the fans, and it may or may not be good for the strategy of the game, but it should make the Hall of Fame voters sick. So the next time somebody tells you that Mr. Whats-his-name belongs in the Hall (or doesn’t) because of a particular hitting statistic, you should remember the effect of adding a few “DH years” to the end of a productive career.