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How the Designated Hitter Forever Changed Baseball

The introduction of the designated hitter (DH) rule in the American League in 1973 stands as one of the most impactful and controversial rule changes in baseball history. Adopted originally as a three-year experiment, the DH continues to shape pitching strategy, hitter longevity, and the fan experience nearly 50 years later. The rule allowing a permanent substitute batter exclusively for the pitcher has transformed the game significantly since its inception. The DH was implemented across both leagues starting in the 2022 season.

When owners approved the DH, they hoped it would increase offense, enable older hitters to prolong their careers, encourage marquee pitchers to throw deeper into games, and boost attendance. Analysis of comprehensive MLB statistics before and after 1973 provides perspective on the motivations behind the DH and whether it achieved the intended benefits in the American League compared to the National League.

Offense - More Runs or Greater Strategy?

The AL trailed the NL in runs scored for five straight seasons prior to adopting the DH, including by nearly half a run per game in 1972. AL owners believed substituting superior hitters for weak-stick pitchers would increase run production. As expected, the AL outscored the NL in 35 of the next 36 seasons.

However, the edges in run differential between leagues have narrowed significantly in recent seasons. Since 2010, the AL leagues leads by just 0.18 runs per game over the NL. Stricter enforcement of performance enhancing drugs, defensive shifts, and bullpen specialization likely contributed to this balancing.

Detractors argue watching pitchers flail haplessly was better than endless pitching changes that disrupt the pace today. NL managers must strategize when to pinch hit for the pitcher or sacrifice outs to move runners along. The DH deprives fans of this cat-and-mouse game in the AL, they contend. With the DH, rallies often simply end in another power bat stepping to the plate.

Longer Careers for Veteran Sluggers

Many believed the DH would extend the careers of popular but defensively challenged veteran hitters nearing the end of their careers. However, analysis of average batter age between leagues does not indicate a major difference.

From 1973 to 2008, the average age of AL hitters increased just 110 days compared to 167 days for the NL. Superstar late career DH's like Boston's David Ortiz remain more the exception than the rule. In the free agency era, teams seem unwilling to reserve permanent spots for fading one-dimensional sluggers.

The game has evolved to value multi-positional versatility. Veteran bats like Nelson Cruz seamlessly toggle between outfield and DH without wide swings in performance. Modern conditioning also allows players to retain defensive skills deeper into their 30's. The DH has not proven to be disproportionately a haven for graying sluggers as once envisioned.

Pitching Strategy and Complete Games

AL owners anticipated starters would pitch deeper into games without exerting energy batting and running bases. Pitcher complete games have steeply declined in both leagues, however - mirroring the expanded bullpen roles.

Yet AL starters still amassed slightly more complete games than the NL since 1973. Pitching exclusively surely confers some advantage in conservation of energy. But factors like five-man rotations and reliance on set-up men have also cut starter workloads.

Ironically, critics maintain the DH hurts pitching strategy by enabling managers to yank starters earlier rather than let them bat with runners on base.substitute bats counteract this tactic somewhat in the NL. The DH has not substantially increased games pitched by starters as intended.

Attendance and the Fan Experience

Generating more fan interest measured by attendance increases was a prime factor behind adoption. However, comparing attendance accurately is complicated by new stadium construction, strikes, and expansion. Gains in attendance from 1973 onward did not differ markedly between leagues.

But AL advocates of the DH maintain it added excitement and unpredictability that hooked new generations of fans. Hulking sluggers like Oakland's Mark McGwire emerged as larger-than-life figures in the DH role. Seeing slow-footed pitchers flail helplessly offered little drama.

Detractors point to growing game length and lack of situational strategy as detriments to the fan experience. Interchangeable DHs baiting relievers for walks arguably detracts from a contest between pitcher and hitter. But AL owners likely achieved the attendance boost intended from the DH spectacle.

Lasting Impact and What Comes Next

Analysis suggests the DH only partially achieved the stated goals of increasing offense, starter longevity, and attendance. But it undeniably altered baseball's competitive fabric and fan perception. The DH remains unlikely to take hold in the NL given its strategic merits and tradition.

But the AL seems wedded to the DH for good, regardless of lively debate over its merits. Like it or not, the DH left an indelible impact on the game. With both leagues currently displaying robust attendance and revenue growth, radical rule changes appear unnecessary. The DH debate will rage on, but the data shows it did fulfill key desires of AL owners upon implementation, for better or worse. The unique dichotomy between leagues only adds to baseball's charm and tradition.

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