One of the defining features of baseball is that it requires players to be solid on both offense and defense. However, there is one exception to that rule, which has existed for quite some time—the DH.
So, what is a DH in baseball?
The DH (or designated hitter) bats in place of the pitcher in the lineup. As a result, the pitcher (and any other pitcher who replaces him) does not bat, while the designated hitter (or anyone who replaces him) does not play a defensive position.
The DH is unique in that the person holding it is the one player on the team who is not asked to contribute defensively. However, there is a bit more to their job than that, so we’ll look into the story behind the DH and what all goes into this unique position.
What Is the Designated Hitter Rule in Baseball?
The designated hitter is a unique position in that the player holding the DH spot does not play in the field, while likewise, the pitcher does not come to bat. While that concept is rather simple, there are some parameters to the position.
The designated hitter rule allows a hitter to occupy a pitcher’s place in the order without the penalty of a pitcher being forced to leave the game, unlike any other position on the field. The DH must be selected before the game and can only occupy one spot in the lineup throughout the game.
On the other hand, whenever a pitcher is replaced, the subsequent pitcher does not inherit a spot in the batting order.
The same goes for a designated hitter; whenever he is replaced in the batting order, that does not impact any defensive position, or that of the pitcher in any way, unless the DH moves into the field.
Under the rule, so long as any player in the DH spot in the order does not move into the field or a pitcher takes an at-bat, the DH remains for the duration of the game.
Should a pitcher bat in the DH spot, the DH is eliminated for the rest of the game and each subsequent pitcher must occupy that spot in the order. The same goes for pinch hitters.
Likewise, should a designated hitter move to a defensive position, the DH would be eliminated and the player who was replaced on defense would have his spot in the batting order occupied by the pitcher.
The rule does not allow for a player already playing a defensive position to replace the DH.
This form of the designated hitter exists in all professional leagues in North America, save for the National League (more on that later) and the independent Pecos League, who both have no DH in any form.
There are different rules at amateur levels. The NCAA rule is normally used the same as at the professional ranks but allows the option for a starting pitcher to serve as a DH and remain in the game as a DH after being replaced on the mound.
High school rules allow a DH to hit for any player on the field, not just a starting pitcher/reliever.
Additionally, a rule change for the 2020 high school season allows for a DH to play in the field without losing the DH spot in the lineup, allowing a pitcher to depart from the mound but remain in the game as a DH.
Of course, in all cases, the DH is entirely optional. If a manager would rather have his pitcher hit for himself, he is allowed to do so.
At the Major League Baseball (MLB) level, this most recently happened in 2016, when San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner hit for himself (and hit a double) during a game in Oakland.
Why Is there a Designated Hitter in Baseball?
On the surface, there is a very clear reason why the designated hitter rule exists – to boost offense. For the most part this is true, though the roots behind this rule run deep.
The designated hitter exists as a way to boost offense by removing weak-hitting pitchers from the lineups, therefore removing an offensive liability from the lineup and replacing that spot in the lineup with a legitimate hitter.
In the early days of baseball, it was not uncommon for pitchers to be competent hitters. Additionally, because many pitchers started (and usually finished) more than half of a team’s games in the 1870s and ’80s, they were in the lineup regularly.
Indeed if you look at the box score of the first perfect game in professional baseball history, thrown by Lee Richmond in 1880, Richmond hit second in the lineup, which would be unfathomable today.
Additionally, five days later, Hall of Famer John Montgomery Ward threw the second perfect game in baseball history—and batted sixth.
However, as pitchers began appearing in fewer games and positions became more specialized, their offensive production diminished.
Using an advanced statistic, weighted runs created, people can look at how a player’s production compares to the league’s average offensive production in a given year.
By that measure, pitchers usually were about 70-80% as productive as the average offensive player in the 1870’s and early 1880’s.
By 1900, though, that number was down to about 40% of the production of an average player, and even that lowly figure has decreased steadily over the past 120 years.
In other words, it’s been proven for well over a century that pitchers at the Major League level can’t hit, so the designated hitter was introduced to solve that problem.
When Was the Designated Hitter Introduced?
As stated earlier, the idea of pitchers being poor hitters is not new, and the DH isn’t either. As for the actual implementation at the Major League level, the DH is nearly half a century old.
The designated hitter was introduced into the league in 1973, but only in the American League. After it’s successful implementation, high-level leagues in Japan and Cuba instituted the DH within the decade, in addition to the NCAA and various amateur leagues.
Though 1973 was the birth of the DH, it existed as early as 1969, with Jim Bouton recalling in Ball Four that some spring training games that season featured the “Designated Pinch Hitter”
In that season, four minor leagues, including the Triple-A International League, used a designated hitter for the entire season, after which the league elected to keep permanently.
A fifth minor league, the Triple-A American Association, used a “Designated Pinch Hitter” for the 1969 season. The minor league subsequently dropped the DH pinch hitter for the next few seasons.
The idea of replacing pitchers in the batting order goes back well before that point, with National League teams voting on replacing pitchers in the order with a substitute (in essence, a DH) taking place as early as 1891, which was voted down by the rather close margin of 7-5.
The idea was broached again in 1906 by Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia A’s, but the proposal quickly died out under public scorn.
The most serious proposal in the first half of the 20th century came before the 1929 season when National League teams voted to adopt a DH rule, but the American League did not, so the proposal faded away.
The next mention of a DH rule was a proposed rule change in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1961, but the proposal was quickly voted down.
However, after the so-called “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, Major League Baseball experimented with the DH during spring training and in the minor leagues the following year, though implementation was limited and mostly confined to just the 1969 season.
That wouldn’t be the case for long, though, as the American League, citing offense (and attendance) that was lower than the National League, elected to institute the designated hitter on a trial basis for the 1973 season.
After both runs and attendance increased that year, the American League made the change permanent within a few years.
Why Doesn’t the NL Have a DH?
One of the greatest curiosities in all of sports is the fact that the American League has the designated hitter, but not the National League.
As a result, MLB is the only major sport where teams in different leagues or divisions play by different rules, though there is a reason why.
The American League added the DH on its own before the 1973 season, but not the National League because the two leagues were largely separate entities at the time and did not play each other in the regular season. The NL did not want to use the DH at the time, so they did not adopt it.
The NL came close to adopting the DH in 1980, with a vote of owners occurring that year. However, Philadelphia Phillies owner Rudy Carpenter skipped the meetings to go fishing but told his vice president Bill Giles to vote in favor of the DH.
When it was discovered that the implementation would not take place for two years, Giles couldn’t reach Carpenter and was unsure of whether to still vote yes, so he abstained.
The Pittsburgh Pirates intended to follow the Phillies lead, so they abstained as well, causing the DH proposal to fall one vote short. That was the last time the NL voted on the issue to date.
Because of this split, there are different rules for interleague play. Since the institution of interleague play in 1997, the DH has been used for all games in AL parks and no DH is used for games in NL parks.
This has also been the arrangement for the World Series since 1986.
There was no DH in the World Series until 1976, which began a span when all World Series games had a DH in even-numbered years and no DH in odd-numbered years, which ended in 1986. Since 1986, the home team has dictated if the DH is used in the World Series.
As confusing as the split arrangement can be, that may be coming to an end rather soon.
Will We See a DH in the National League?
While the National League has never used the designated hitter in a full-time capacity, the winds of change appear to be blowing when it comes to reversing the status quo.
In 2020, Major League Baseball implemented a universal DH for all games as part of the rules in place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The rule is currently only for the 2020 season, with the NL reverting to no DH for the 2021 season.
Regardless of not having using a DH in the NL for the 2021 season, multiple media outlets speculate that the designated hitter may become a permanent part of the National League in 2022.
This would come about in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association which would come into effect for the 2022 season.
Consequently, this may put an end to pitchers hitting weak balls into the field and being easy outs.
Odds and Ends About the DH
- The first DH in MLB history was Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees. On April 6, 1973, Blomberg had the first at-bat by a DH, which came in the first inning of New York’s opener against the Boston Red Sox. As the rule hoped for, Blomberg walked and singled in his first two plate appearances and hit .329 for the season.
- The most games played as a DH is 2,028 by David Ortiz. Ortiz played just 278 career games in the field during his career, during which he hit 485 of his 541 homers as a DH. Ortiz is one of just nine players who have appeared in more than 1,000 games as a designated hitter.
- As of 2020, three players who played more than 50% of their career games at DH have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame: Frank Thomas, Harold Baines, and Edgar Martinez. Thomas and Baines played 56% and 58% of their games as a DH, while Martinez made over 68% of his appearances in the DH role. Additionally, Paul Molitor made the Hall of Fame while appearing in over 1,000 games as a DH.
- Ever since the adoption of the DH in 1973, the American League has posted a higher league-wide batting average in every single season, fulfilling the rule’s intent of adding more offense to the game.