I want to preface this by saying that I am in no way a supporter of the designated hitter. The strategic joy of the waltz between relief pitchers, pinch hitters, and managers walking to the mound to pull their pitchers with a slap on the ass is far too interesting to yield to a fat man who only hits; out of the 14 qualifying DHs this year, 11 of them are age 30 or older. Have you ever seen a lineup card from a long extra-innings game? This article is merely an academic exercise and I am merely a soul drifting through the ether in search of objective truths, which have led me here.
The Pirates have their deepest bench in years. I wrote that article shortly after Jung-Ho Kang returned, and he has been fantastic since then despite not playing every day. With at least one of Kang, Freese, and Jaso on the bench in any given game, the strong hitting from Sean Rodriguez this year, and Matt Joyce absolutely mashing the ball as a pinch hitter, the question should be asked: would the Pirates benefit from having the DH in the National League? Or at least would they benefit more with their current construction than other teams in the National League?
Coupled with the impending collective bargaining between the very rich players and the even richer owners who use their riches to pay young adults to play a children’s game that is beamed from disparate locales around the country (and Canada) all the way to outer space and then to the boxes in their living rooms on which millions of people watch said grown men playing a children’s game (and can you think of anything more wonderful?), discussion of an everyday designated hitter in PNC Park is not out of the realm of possibilities. The DH would certainly benefit the Pirates in their current, injured form, giving “days of rest” to players without pulling their bat out of the lineup. It would also have benefited Jung-Ho Kang when he was coming back from injury, allowing him to avoid the field most days. On certain days with a favorable matchup, Kang could move into the field and Matt Joyce could DH; he’s also been stellar this year and having both of those bats in the lineup would be awesome. Additionally, this could possibly be a spot in which to ease Josh Bell into the Majors, given that he’s been crushing the ball in AAA and one of the major barriers to his promotion (other than John Jaso’s fantastic performance in his first season with the Bucs and the Super Two deadline) is his transition to first base; with the DH, his bat would do all the talking and he could be transitioned to the field as needed.
How much would this benefit the Pirates, though, compared to the other teams in the National League? Obviously the introduction of a designated hitter to the National League would cause teams to approach everything differently, including lineup construction, drafting, free agency, and salaries. However, it would take several years for the league to adjust to the new restrictions being placed on them (additionally, I would argue that small market teams would be more hurt by the addition of the DH than large-market teams, leading to an even greater disparity in the opportunities presented to the rich and the poor for success, mirroring the situation in the United States as a whole right now). Given that, I think the Pirates are in a prime position to use the DH to their advantage for the time being.
To quantify this, we can simply look at the offensive contributions from the 9th best player on each team and make the assumption that his offensive stats will now affect the team significantly more. This ignores some of the nuances of how playing time will change for the players below this 9th player’s level, as well as the fact that different players will be moving in and out of the lineup, but overall, this is a decent way to look at how much of a boost each team would get from having a ninth real hitter. The best stats to do this are through either wRC+ and Off, which each only account for hitting and baserunning, which are the exact things our hypothetical NL DH would be doing. Here’s the list of the 9th player on NL teams in terms of wRC+ and Off, ranked by wRC+ for each team:
|9th player wRC+||9th player Off
You can see that it’s the same teams in the top 5 in each category, with only the Cubs and D-Backs switching positions at 4 and 5 between the two stats. The Cards and Pirates are tied for first in wRC+, at 109. For the Pirates, that’s Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen, with their counterpart on the Cardinals being Jeremy Hazelbaker. For Off, the Cardinals have a bit more of an edge, with Matt Holliday at 1.2 and John Jaso at 0.5 for the Buccos.
Obviously, defensive positioning factors into this quite a bit and has been ignored thus far. For example, John Jaso isn’t going to be the Pirates’ DH, because he’s the first baseman. And Matt Holliday isn’t going to be the Cardinals’ DH, because he’s their left fielder:
So both the Pirates and Cards would benefit from this significantly. It’s difficult to say who would benefit more, because the Pirates’ injuries and the return of Ruben Tejada muddle the picture a bit, as does the defensive alignments of each team with the DH. It's possible that the Pirates could gain a more significant edge in total WAR from their lineup (including fielding). The Pirates have the most WAR from their 9th position player (Francisco Cervelli, who's obviously a starter), for example, which incorporates stats from defense as well. Suffice it to say that the Pirates would benefit significantly from a DH in the NL based on this simple analysis, even if it's not quite as much as the Cardinals only considering offensive contributions.
That being said, the DH is for chumps and I hope the Pirates never have to think about this. Long live pitchers hitting! #BanTheDH