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Interleague Play: Designated Hitter vs Designated Fielder


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Buck just made a comment about how the NL DHs were out hitting the AL DHs in the games between the eastern divisions. To me, this is almost a given. For the AL, there's no difference. Sure, some teams have a fantastic pure DH like Ortiz's old days with the Sox and Edgar Martinez back in Seattle, but that's not always the case. In the NL, each team can put their best hitter in the DH role and put a better defensive glove in that player's place. Almost automatically, that replacement player is going to be far and away a better hitter than a pitcher.

I've always wondered why the NL hasn't done better since interleague started back in '97, trailing the all time series by about 70 games or so from what I could find. Seems as if they'd have a distinct advantage against the AL, but I guess the AL just has the better talent.

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I don't really understand. NL teams will generally get less production out of their with-DH lineup than AL teams because NL teams don't carry a full-time 9th bat. So they are usually adding a bench player to the lineup. There's no inherent advantage for the NL.

Also, MLB forum :P

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I did a little study a few years ago, pretty sure in an article here on the Hangout, on whether the NL or the AL has an advantage in interleague play based on the relative performances of DHs, pitchers hitting, and pinch hitters.

I don't remember the exact details, but the conclusion was that the AL has an advantage, but it's on the order of a handful (1-2?) of wins per league per year. So for an average team they'll win or lose an extra game per decade or so because of league differences.

If I remember correctly, AL DHs hit a little better, NL pitchers "hit" slightly better, and the pinch hitters were pretty comparable. I didn't consider the quality of the fielders used, but I have to assume that's a pretty small effect since there's no consistency in how NL teams employ a DH, or what players the AL team leaves out of the lineup when the pitcher has to bat.

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... I don't remember the exact details, but the conclusion was that the AL has an advantage, but it's on the order of a handful (1-2?) of wins per league per year. So for an average team they'll win or lose an extra game per decade or so because of league differences.

That sounds about right to me. The discrepancies in the AL and NL W-L records in interleague play are the result of:

(1) Advantages based upon trends in relative strengths of the different teams. One year, the Diamondbacks are up; the next season they're at the bottom of their division due to injuries and unexpectedly poor performances. Over the long run, this should balance out, but it can have a pronounced effect over the short term and the effects won't necessarily be balanced between leagues.

(2) Advantages based upon higher average payrolls in the AL. The AL average is skewed by the Yankees, but there will typically be 5-7 AL teams (out of 14) in the top 10 MLB payrolls most seasons.

(3) "Luck", which will average out over the long run but can cause quite a bit of disparity in the short term.

I did a comparison a couple years ago of team payrolls from 1994 through 2007. The overall ranks of team payrolls were as follows:

Rank           Team      Relative Payroll1    New York Yankees         2.002    Boston Red Sox           1.483    Atlanta Braves           1.404    Los Angeles Dodgers      1.345    New York Mets            1.296    Baltimore Orioles        1.257    Texas Rangers            1.218    Seattle Mariners         1.169    St. Louis Cardinals      1.1610    Chicago Cubs             1.1611    San Francisco Giants     1.1212    Cleveland Indians        1.10         Avg. AL Team         1.0613    Los Angeles Angels       1.0514    Chicago White Sox        1.0515    Toronto Blue Jays        1.0516    Houston Astros           1.0317    Philadelphia Phillies    0.99          Avg. NL Team        0.9718    Colorado Rockies         0.9619    Cincinnati Reds          0.9220    Detroit Tigers           0.8821    San Diego Padres         0.8222    Arizona Diamondbacks     0.8023    Oakland Athletics        0.7424    Kansas City Royals       0.7025    Milwaukee Brewers        0.6926    Minnesota Twins          0.6827    Florida Marlins          0.6528    Pittsburgh Pirates       0.5729    Washington Nationals     0.5530    Tampa Bay Devil Rays     0.43

Over the short term, a team's W-L record can vary quite a bit from their payroll ranking, but it should average out over the long term. Essentially, teams which consistently spend more will also have better players on average and win more games.

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If you looked at the graphic, interestingly enough, NL DHs were outhitting AL DHs, but AL pitchers were outhitting NL pitchers.

Small sample! Small sample! Small sample!

Last night, Joel Piniero pitched a complete game shutout over the Mets, limiting them to 2 hits. Joel had 2 hits just by himself, plus a run scored. That's part of the reason why having pitchers hit is more exciting (for me) than using a DH, but it's also not the norm.

The average OPS for all MLB teams so far this season is .748, but the average for pitchers was only .327 (.413 for the Cardinals), compared to the average OPS of .804 for designated hitters. The top 6 teams for DH OPS are in the National League, but so are the bottom 5 teams -- both artifacts of the small samples. Likewise, the top 5 and the bottom 4 teams for pitchers' OPS are all in the AL, another sample size artifact.

To give some perspective, the average NL team has gotten 7 RBIs and 8 runs scored from its pitchers so far this season. For the entire 2008 season, the NL average was 16 RBIs and 16 runs scored. The Cubs and Cardinals led the majors last year, with 33 and 30 RBIs respectively. By comparison, the O's got 44 RBIs and 46 Runs scored from their shortstops in 2008, illustrating how pitchers on the best NL teams are almost competitive with the worst position players on an AL team -- or an NL team for that matter.

In fact, Cardinals pitchers drove in only 1 less RBI (30) than Cardinals shortstops (31) in 2008. That's an artifact of Tony La Russa batting his pitcher 8th the entire season, with Izturis usually being the #9 hitter. The result: Cardinals pitchers had significantly more RBI opportunities than their #9 hitter did, but the pitchers scored far fewer runs (only 18, compared to 68 for the shortstops).

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