I said I could live with the DH in the National League in returning for balancing the number of teams in each division. Vlad takes the "death before DH" stance, and I admit I once held that attitude myself. His argument is that the DH reduces the strat-ee-gery involved in the game. When do you bunt? When do you pinch hit? When do you change pitchers?
Vlad and I got into a debate the other day about the DH.
I contended that much of what we think of as strategy is really not strategy at all. If your pitcher comes up in the fifth inning of a 2-1 game and there's one out and a runner on first, the pitcher bunts, or tries to. This is pretty much automatic 99.9 percent of the time, and to me there's no strategy involved in automatic decisions. To me, strategy is an argument. If you and a friend are at a game and you say, "I'd hit for this guy with player X," and your friend says, "You're crazy, let him stay in and bat," well, NOW you're talking strategy.
Anyway, I decided to see what the numbers say to determine if there's more strategy in the NL than the AL. What would we consider to be strategic points quantifiable by numbers?
One might be the sacrifice bunt, for which information is available in bb-ref.
Another might be the intentional walk, ditto.
(A third might be the number of pinch hitters used, but oddly I didn't see a breakdown for that on bb-ref. If anyone knows of a location for the information -- number of pinch hitters used by league, especially if it has the numbers broken down by batting order position -- please steer me there. Similarly, there may well be a breakdown there somewhere for sac hits by batting position for each league, but I couldn't find that either.)
So let's say that strategy is a form of argument between opposing managers. One would bunt in situation X, the other wouldn't. Now obviously, there's a big difference in the raw number of sac hits between the leagues. In 2010 NL batters recorded 1006 and AL batters recorded 538. So on the surface it looks like there's twice as much bunt strat-ee-gery going on in the NL, and that Vlad is right.
However, I'm going to go way out on a limb and in the absence of stats suppose the difference is almost entirely attributable to pitchers sacrificing, which to me is not a strategic move at all, not if everyone would bunt in the same situation.
And it's not like there's NO strategy at all in the AL. It's not like the sac bunt has disappeared entirely. And you could make the case (and I'll try) that in the AL there's a wider range of argument over when to bunt.
In the NL in 2010, the team that sacrificed the fewest number of times had 35 and the team with the most had 85. That's a ratio of about 2.5:1. In the AL, the range was 16 to 53, closer to 3.5:1. I know there are some other factors in all this, but for the most part, in 2010, the argument about whether the bunt is a good strategy was more pronounced in the AL.
In 2009, there were 1,138 sacs in the NL, 497 in the AL. The NL range was 54-100, less than 2:1. The AL range was 13-53, or better than 4:1.
In 2008, there were 1,049 sacs in the NL (49-90, again less than 2:1). In the AL there were 477 (23-52, or better than 2:1).
There appears to be more of an argument going on in the AL about sac bunting philosophies, hence more strategy. And don't forget, there are much less quantifiable strategic decisions that go on when your ninth batter is a real hitter versus a pitcher. You have hit and run options you don't have with a pitcher. You have stolen base options.
Yeah, you have pinch hitting options too, and I'd guess if I found the numbers I'd see that the NL uses a lot more pinch hitters than the AL. This only makes sense, but again, is it really strat-ee-gery to hit for your pitcher in the sixth inning when you're behind 3-1? I'd argue no, because 99 percent of managers would. In the AL, if you're behind 3-1 in the sixth and your No. 9 hitter comes up, you really have a decision to make, not least because you'd also have to replace the guy in the field. (You also have a tougher decision to make there about when to remove your starter, since the decision is not forced on you by the starter coming up to bat. It's up to you to decide when he's finished.) Anyway, I'm just supposing here without any numbers to look at.
One other stat I thought I'd look at was intentional walks. Now you might suppose there would be more IBBs in the NL than the AL, and you would be right (part of that is because there are more teams in the NL, of course, but never mind that for now). Without the batting order position IBB numbers to crunch, I'd suppose that's partly because you might be most inclined to walk the No. 8 hitter to GET to the pitcher and thus force the type of move we discussed above. But that's often a no-brainer too. In the AL, if you choose to walk a batter, it's to get to another real hitter, and then you open your strategic decision to the possibility of greater criticism. Almost nobody is going to be upset with you if you walk a guy to pitch to a pitcher.
Anyway, in 2010 NL pitchers issued 759 IBBs (27-78, just under 3:1) and AL pitchers issued 457 (16-50, just over 3:1).
In 2009, NL pitchers issued 770 IBBs (37-76, just over 2:1) and AL pitchers 409 (16-39, about 2.5:1).
In 2008, NL pitchers issued 780 IBBs -- that number is remarkably consistent, isn't it? -- (21-71, or about 3.5:1), and AL pitchers issued 530 (23-49, or just over 2:1).
So we have kind of a split decision here. Managers in the two leagues seem to come down to about the same range on the IBB. The argument is a narrower one.
One other point I'll try to make though, and let's be honest: Unless you're watching a clown car infield defense where every bunt is an adventure, I'd argue that the sac bunt and the IBB are among the dullest plays in the sport, just from an aesthetic standpoint.
Also, with the former you're giving up an out to move a runner 90 feet, and I believe the tables say that in general this DECREASES your chances of scoring (though the fact that out is a pitcher who likely would have been an out anyway kind of mitigates that a little). So there's twice as much bunting going on in the NL, and it's probably decreasing the likelihood of scoring, and this is a point in FAVOR of strategy?
There's more intentional walking going on in the NL, adding a baserunner for the opponent, generally increasing the possibility of your opponent scoring, and this is a point in FAVOR of strategy?
FWIW, I have a hardback copy of the original Bill James Historical Abstract, and on page 260 is an article titled "1973: DH rule increases strategy," in which he made pretty much the same arguments I just did. Disagree with me all you want, but it likely means you're disagreeing with James too.