Study shows that the DH is bad for MLB pitching
A study by Cornell University has shown that when pitchers are asked to bat, they actually improve on the mound. Maybe MLB should ditch the DH.
Recent years have seen an embracing of specialization by MLB in a way that is far and away beyond anything that has gone before. Although at first resistant to the concept, MLB has gone all-in on the statisticians view that sacrificing one part of the game to gain in another may be worth it in the end.
Most noticeable at the plate, both by hitter and pitcher, this has led to minuscule batting averages and soaring ERAs around the league. In no other era would a catcher or outfielder with a batting average below .200 be kept on the roster. In today’s game, however, the argument that home runs more than make up for low averages holds sway.
On the mound it is a similar story. Long derided by National League fans, the designated hitter was seen as a cop-out, allowing teams to artificially inflate their offense and allowing a pitcher to ignore anything that was outside of his comfort zone. Namely hitting.
In 2023, MLB decided to stop fiddling with the game and just make all the changes that they had in mind in one fell swoop. It may have been lost amidst the pitch timer, larger bases, and pick-off limitations, but the designated hitter was quietly rolled out across both leagues.
Purists will argue that this is bad for baseball, while MLB argues that it is good for excitement and home runs. But now a study by Brittany Bond of Cornell University and Ethan J Poskanzer of the University of Colorado has shown that stepping outside of your comfort zone makes you better at your speciality.
In a paper titled “Striking Out Swinging: Specialist Success Following Forced Task Inferiority”, the academics show that by asking a specialist to perform a task that they are uncomfortable with, and perform poorly in, the specialist will see improved performance in their area of expertise.
Plainly stated, pitchers who bat will see an improvement in their pitching.
Noticing that David Price improved on the mound as his frustration over his dismal batting increased during Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, Brittany Bond began to investigate the phenomenon.
“Specialization has become a real focus in the current workplace and there is this idea that having specialists engage in anything other than their specialty is going to make them less productive,” says Bond.
But by going through 22 years of records, Bond and Poskanzer found that the opposite was true. Across the board, there is a statistical bump in pitching performance the inning after a pitcher bats, making them more likely to record an out in the first batter they face, less likely to surrender a walk, more likely to find the strike zone, and allowed fewer opposing hitters to get on base.
“The improved performance lasts through the first three batters faced the next half-inning, and when you look at that over the course of a season, the positive effect of forced inferiority on pitcher performance is worth 3.06 runs,” explains Bond. “In the time period we study, this amounts to 30.7% of one additional win per season, and any player estimated to add one full win to a team’s record would command $11.1 million in salary. So, the value of recognizing forced inferiority in team strategy would be estimated as roughly $3.41 million.”
While this study is looking at one unique skillset, namely pitching, Bond and Poskanzer feel that their findings would apply across the entire spectrum of the general population. Perhaps Kyle Scwhwarber could up his dismal batting average if he played an inning or two at third base, for example. Or try Joey Gallo at first, what do you have to lose?
But in this day and age of hyper-specialized baseball, maybe rather than rolling the DH out around the league, we should be limiting it instead.