The Designated Hitter, commonly referred to as DH, is a player in the batting order to hit only but not play defense. He hits in place of the pitcher. If the DH is replaced by a player who then takes a position, the pitcher must bat in the designated hitter's place. The Designated Hitter is often considered the most significant rule change to occur in baseball's modern era.
Use in Major League Baseball
The Designated Hitter was used only in the American League, starting in 1973 but was not adopted in the National League until the 2020 season, when special rules were put in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic. After a return to previous rules in 2021, the DH was made universal starting in 2022.
The rule allowing a DH has long been controversial since some wanted the rule eliminated, some wanted the rule adopted in both leagues and some wanted the rule to remain in its split state. NL teams used a DH in road games during interleague play, while AL teams had the pitcher bat in road games in interleague match-ups. There were various calls for the two leagues to harmonize their rules (usually coming from proponents of the DH who wanted the rule to be applied universally); this tended to pop up every time a high-profile pitcher is injured either batting or running the bases. What was clear is that pitchers devoted less and less effort to maintaining their hitting skills over the decades the rule was in place even though it was not universal. This led to the adoption of a universal DH as part of the 2022 Collective Bargaining Agreement; ironically, it came on the heels of Shohei Ohtani having the best two-way season in over a century, demonstrating conclusively that at least some pitchers can hit.
In the World Series, the DH was used in even years starting in 1976, with pitchers batting in odd years. This lasted until 1985, then starting in 1986, the DH was used in American League parks and pitchers batted in National League parks. In 2020, the DH was used universally, as it had been in the regular season and during the rest of the postseason, with things reverting to past practice in 2021, and the universal DH also coming for good in the World Series in 2022.
While critics of the DH suggest that it was designed to allow poor fielders to remain in the game despite their defensive flaws, it has not always been used that way. Many Designated Hitters have been players who were capable fielders who were injury-prone and kept from fielding to preserve their health. Paul Molitor, the first Hall of Famer to play more games as DH than any other position, fell into this category. Some teams don't even have a regular DH and instead use it to give their regular position players a break from fielding.
Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees was the first player to bat as a designated hitter. Hal McRae was the first player to spend most of his career as a DH; other all-time leaders at the position include Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines and David Ortiz, who is now the career leader for hits, home runs and RBIs at the position.
Use in Minor League Baseball
The DH was first used in the American Association in 1969. Usage in the minors changed over time - originally, individual organizations had some say in whether their teams used the DH or not. For a while, the Cincinnati Reds were adamant about having their pitchers bat for all their minor league affiliates. At other points a team would have their pitcher bat while their opponent used a DH. Since the late 1980s, usage has become the following: in AA and AAA games, the DH is used unless both teams are farm clubs of NL teams, in which case pitchers bat. In class A or lower games, the DH is always used.
Though it is officially a AAA league, the Mexican League uses a DH in all games.
In 2021, the independent Atlantic League was asked by MLB to test a new version of the rule, in which the designated hitter would be removed as soon as the starting pitcher left the game. The objective would be to encourage teams to use their starting pitchers deeper into games, and also to cut down on the use of openers, while injecting some additional strategy late in games.
Use in Japanese Baseball
In Japan, the Pacific League adopted the DH in 1975. In 1988, the minor league Eastern League and Western League used it, but Central League farm clubs are allowed to opt out. The Central League never used the DH until interleague play began in 2005, when they used a DH on the road against Pacific League teams. In 2014, Japan flipped the rules for interleague games, using DH on the road at Central League parks but not at PL parks.
The DH Rule
There are a few peculiarities to the DH Rule (rule 6.10 of the Major League Baseball Rules):
- The DH is optional. A team may decide to bat its pitcher and not use a designated hitter in a game where it would normally be used. A few instances were Ferguson Jenkins on October 2, 1974 for the Texas Rangers against the Minnesota Twins; Ken Holtzman on September 27, 1975 for the Oakland A's against the California Angels; Ken Brett for the Chicago White Sox on July 6, 1976 at the Boston Red Sox; and Brett again on September 23, 1976 for Chicago against the Twins. Rick Rhoden, a pitcher, was a DH on June 11, 1988 for the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles in a game in which he was not pitching. This possibility was used much more frequently by the Los Angeles Angels when the aforementioned Shohei Ohtani was the starting pitcher.
- In 2022, MLB further tweaked that possibility with what might be called the "Shohei Ohtani rule" (or codicil): a team that declines the use of the DH to let its starting pitcher bat can keep him in the game as the DH even after he has left the mound. The adoption of this tweak was a direct reaction to Ohtani's historic 2021 season, as an incentive for teams to develop two-way players - or at least good-hitting pitchers.
- The DH can play in the field, but once a manager decides to play him on defense, the pitcher immediately takes over the batting spot of the defensive player which the DH replaced (unless there are multiple substitutions, in which case the manager can decide where the pitcher will bat). The team then forfeits the use of the DH for the rest of the game. This happens a few times every season, and sometimes results in a pitcher being forced to bat in an AL game.
- The DH spot is locked in the order. If the DH bats, for example, fifth in the order, no substitution can be made to move him to fourth or sixth, or anywhere else.
- Any substitute for the DH, including pinch hitters and pinch runners are automatically considered to be the new DH, and the restrictions outlined above apply to them as well. These substitutes are listed in the boxscore as "Smith ph-dh" or "Smith pr-dh". This is how a number of AL pitchers end up with games as DH in their statistics: these are almost always the result of being used as a pinch-runner for the DH.
The Phantom DH
The DH listed in the starting line-up must bat at least once before being substituted, unless there is an injury or the opposite team's starting pitcher has been changed. This rule was added after the 1980 season to close a loophole discovered by Orioles manager Earl Weaver: he would list one of his inactive starting pitchers in the starting line-up as a phantom DH, and then, when his first time to bat came up, Weaver could decide which of a number of players to use as a pinch hitter for his DH, depending on the situation (for example if there were men on base, if he needed a baserunner, etc). Pitchers Steve Stone and Dennis Martinez were used most often in this capacity. Boxscores from that time would list the pitchers as having played a game at DH, but after the amendment to the rule was adopted, these "appearances" were erased from these pitchers' records.
Other versions of the rule
- Rule A allowed for a pinch-hitter to bat for the pitcher twice in a game with the pitcher remaining in the game. The pitcher could be used to bat for himself at anytime. An example is a pinch-hitter batting for the pitcher the first time and fourth time; the pitcher could bat the second at bat; another pinch-hitter could bat the third time. A pinch-hitter could play defensively, if he took the field the next half-inning after batting. The pitcher would bat in the replaced player's spot.
- Rule B was the DH rule that would eventually be the standard in the American League, except that the player could not go in defensively later.
- Rule C allowed for a pinch-runner only twice in a game for the pitcher or pinch-hitter in Rule A or DPH in Rule B. The pinch runner could enter defensively at any time, even though he appeared twice as a runner.
- Rule 6.10
- A site advocating the abolition of the DH
- Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award
- "Here's the best DH in every AL team's history", mlb.com, May 19, 2020. 
- David Brandt (Associated Press): "Half-century holdout over, DH comes to National League", Yahoo! News, March 12, 2022. 
- AJ Cassavell: "Universal truth? Execs talk NL DH possibility", mlb.com, January 16, 2016. 
- Anthony Castrovince: "DH debate again front and center at WS", mlb.com, November 1, 2021. 
- John Cronin: "The DH in the World Series: Interesting Facts", The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 40, Number 2 (Fall 2011), pp. 53-54.
- John Cronin: "The Historical Evolution of the Designated Hitter Rule", The Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Volume 45, Number 2 (Fall 2016), pp. 5-14.
- John Cronin: "Why Has No True DH Been Elected to the Hall of Fame - Yet?", Baseball Research Journal, SABR, Vol. 47, Nr. 2 (Fall 2018), pp. 58-63.
- Thomas Harrigan: "DH rule extended these Hall of Fame careers", mlb.com, April 5, 2020. 
- Gabe Lacques: "Rays-Dodgers World Series showcases inevitability of universal DH: 'It is very normal now'", USA Today, October 27, 2020. 
- Chris Landers: "Here's why the NL doesn't have the DH: When fishing trips go horribly, horribly wrong", mlb.com, January 30, 2020. 
- Bob Nightengale: "MLB traditionalists won't like it, but the designated hitter will come to the NL. They better get used to it.", USA Today, May 22, 2020. 
- Dan Schlossberg: "Baseball Hall of Fame: Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines prove DH's belong in Cooperstown", USA Today, July 20, 2019. 
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