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How many more balls would be put in play with the Universal Designated Hitter?

By Dan Holmes ♦ March 5, 2019
Edwin Encarnacion has made a living as a designated hitter for several years.

It appears likely that very soon the National League will join every other professional league and adopt the designated hitter. If it doesn’t happen in 2019, it’s most likely going to be implemented in 2021. The time is ripe for this change and both sides, the owners and players, have reasons to embrace the change.

The players want another starting position with a nice paycheck. The owners want to bolster offense and see more balls in play. During negotiations in 2016 for the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Universal DH was nearly implemented, but the two sides couldn’t agree on how to phase it in. Both sides are warm to the idea now, and since the owners want other wholesale changes, even the last traditionalist holdouts are certain to approve it.

There’s no question offense will increase in the National League with a designated hitter. In 2017-18 in interleague games where they used the designated hitter, NL teams scored eight percent more runs than in games where they could not use the DH.

Commissioner Rob Manfred is on a mission to increase the number of balls being put in play. Strikeouts are increasing at an historic rate, batters are taking more pitches and walking more, and every few years a new league-wide home run record is set. According to research by Chuck Bannon at Qlik, in the last ten years MLB has seen balls in play decrease by nearly 10,000 per season. That translates to two fewer balls in play per game. In 2018, about 24 balls were put in play each game. The main culprit is the strikeout, which is up 25 percent since 2009.

How many more balls will be put in play if the National League adopts the designated hitter? Let’s answer that question.

First we define batted balls through this simple formula:

(At-Bats + Sacrifice Flies + Sacrifice Hits) – (Home Runs + Strikeouts)

Here’s the 2018 data for pitchers and pinch-hitters who batted for pitchers:

ABSFSHHRSOBIP
81664837913330865374

Now the data for American League designated hitters:

ABSFSHHRSOBIP
868375843923295998

That works out to 624 additional balls in play. But we have to account for a few other items.

Note: the discrepancy in at-bats is because there’s more offense with a DH, so the lineup will turn over more and that slot will get to the plate more often. It’s hardly noticeable, it works out to about one more at-bat every four games.

Second, designated hitters will get more plate appearances than pitchers do. That’s because the DH will rarely, if ever bat ninth. If the DH averages the fifth spot in the order that’ll mean about 1,000 more at-bats and 700-750 more balls in play. Of course we’re already accounting for some of that in the chart above.

DH’s will hit more home runs than the pitcher’s spot, obviously, but they will also strike out less (about 750 times less according to 2018 data). Interesting to note that the difference between the home runs is about the same as the difference between sacrifice hits.

Once we factor for more plate appearances, the Universal DH should result in roughly 1,000 more balls in play, which seems like a lot. But spread that out over 15 teams and you get 66 per team, or less than one more ball in play every two games.

Doesn’t sound like much, right? It’s not. The Universal DH won’t solve the balls in play crisis. But the designated hitter will infuse a lot of offense into the National League. A lot of sac hits and strikeouts will become base hits and home runs.


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