Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the first use of a Designated Hitter in a Major League Baseball game. Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees made history as he stepped in to hit against Luis Tiant of the Boston Red Sox on April 6th, 1973.
And now, forty years later, the DH remains a heavy topic for debate in baseball circles, as it remains unused in the National League while the American League has gone from using it on a trial run to make it a permanent fixture – should the NL adopt the DH? Or should the AL drop the DH and let the pitcher hit?
What I want to know is…why do we have the DH in the first place?
The history of baseball trumpets its long-standing traditions, the symmetry, and the overall aversion to change, yet it’s baseball that features one of the biggest asymmetrical rules in all of sports (professional or otherwise).
So what problem was baseball looking to solve that led them to want to adopt the DH at all?
Quick History Lesson: The Designated Hitter was introduced in 1973 because the American League was struggling at the gate. In 1972, one American League team (Detroit) averaged more than 20,000 customers per game; five A.L. clubs didn’t manage to average even 10,000 fans per game. The National League enjoyed a whopping 26-percent attendance edge over the American League. There were a number of reasons for the A.L.’s disadvantage, but one obvious issue seemed to be the hitting; in ’72, scoring in the American League fell back to roughly the same level as in 1968 — the so-called “Year of the Pitcher”.
To improve attendance, the American League owners proposed two old ideas: the Designated Hitter, and Interleague Play. For both leagues. The National League rejected interleague play out of hand — why help the American League? — but permitted the American League to use the DH on a three-year trial basis, while rejecting the DH for itself.
Hold the phone. This is an interesting line that has been drawn – the true reason for the DH is declining attendance?
Let’s try a little root cause analysis but first define the problem – despite playing with equal rules, the National League is outdrawing the American League. Is that the problem the AL is looking to solve? Let’s say it absolutely is.
– Why is the NL outdrawing the AL? Some possible reasons are ticket prices, team traditions and fan bases, different players and superstars, and maybe the NL hitters have better numbers than their AL counterparts.
Let’s now assume ticket prices are pretty much equal, and that fan bases remain the same as they have for years (Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs don’t go through cycles with number of fans year over year, I don’t believe). There are good players and superstars in both leagues, and there is no salary cap – salaries are irrelevant because MLB still had the reserve clause in place and in 1973 was two years away from free agency.
– So maybe the NL hit better than the AL and scoring in the NL was higher – in 1972 the NL teams averaged 3.91 runs per game and had a .248 batting average, while the AL teams averaged 3.47 runs per game and had a .239 batting average. Having recently come through “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 it certainly was plausible that hitting would not recover to past levels.
However, every MLB team had essentially the same access to the same players via draft or trade and maybe some better luck in the NL a few years prior to 1972 came to fruition with better hitting (and better attendance) down the line.
So why did the NL hit better? My guess is not because of rules, but probably because of good fortune. Even still, .248 is not a good batting average. Without doing regression analysis or testing of statistical relevance, I would chalk the hitting difference between the leagues up to random cycles.
But the powers that be in baseball decided that the discrepancy in hitting (and subsequent boost in attendance) would be solved by giving a hitting advantage to one league by permitting pitchers to not hit, and creating asymmetry in the rules.
Now, if root cause analysis is applied properly and the resulting improvements are directly linked back to those causes, those problems should start to go away. In this case, the AL should start to hit better than the NL, while the NL hitting continues to flounder. Did it work?
Those differences are not statistically significant. Yes, the AL hitting improved from 1973 on, but it did in the NL as well. The AL hitting surpassed the NL hitting, but not by much. The rising tide lifted all boats. And look at the boom in 1977 – runs per game jumped by about half a run per game…in both leagues.
It appears that the immediate effects of the DH were not significant relative to hitting. But what about attendance? Back to Rob Neyer:
Anyway, it might have worked. In 1973, American League attendance jumped 12 percent, and the National League’s attendance edge dropped slightly, from 26 percent to 20 percent. In ’73, only two American League clubs — the Indians and Rangers — failed to draw at least 10,000 customers per game.
So the gap was closed on attendance…but it did not close completely. Attendance improved but the hitting in both leagues improved as well.
Was that a result of the DH? I give more credence to luck, randomness, and “what goes down must come up.” The desired outcome – increased attendance – was realized but not because of adopting the DH.
Now, the use of the DH today is considerably different than its use in the 1970s – hitting statistics in the AL favor the aging slugger who is too slow to play the field but gets to extend his career as a DH. The strategy in the AL is different than that in the NL as well – the NL features double switches, sacrifice bunting, pinch hitters, and late-game player strategies. In the AL the use of pinch hitters is limited since you never have to worry about the pitchers coming up to bat.
Anyway, happy anniversary to Ron Blomberg. Had MLB utilized better root cause analysis, the DH might not exist and he might not have gone on to his historic achievement.