What is a Designated Hitter (Baseball)?


The designated hitter in baseball is a non-fielding player who is assigned a position in the lineup in place of another player, specifically the pitcher. The designated hitter is only available in the American League, or in case of interleague play, when the game is played in an American League Park.

History Highlights about Designated Hitters

  • 1906-1920: Several discussions occurred, but a 10th player (designated hitter) was never added
  • 1969: Four-year trial in the International League
  • 1973: American League owners vote 8-4 to trial the DH
  • 1976: Designated hitter used in World Series
  • 1986: Rule change to have designated hitters in American League parks during World Series
  • 1989: First year designated hitters used in All-Star Game
  • 2011: Rule changed to always have designated hitters during All-Star Games
  • 2014: Frank Thomas is first player to be elected to Hall of Fame with at least 50% of games played as designated hitter
  • 2018: Edgar Martinez is first player to be elected Hall of Fame with at least 70% of games played as designated hitter

Timeline depicting key points in the history of the designated hitter

So, why is the designated hitter only in the American League?

The most straightforward answer is that the American League owners voted in January 11, 1973 to allow the designated hitter.

The primary reason why the American League adopted the designated hitter rule was due to lower attendance relative to the National League. Over the course of baseball history, one thing has always held true: a belief that fans will attend more games and enjoy baseball more if there is more offense. Chicks dig the long ball!. 90’s era baseball reference, look it up..

What other baseball levels use the designated hitter

I am focusing mostly on just Major League Baseball throughout this piece. But here are some brief notes about the designated hitter in other leagues:

Minor League Baseball

Below AA, the designated hitter is used for all games. At Double-A and Triple-A, it depends on which major league team the minor league teams are affiliated with. If both teams are National League farm teams, then the pitchers bat. Otherwise, both teams use a designated hitter. Note that the Mexican League uses designated hitters no matter team affiliation.

College Baseball

NCAA rules state that designated hitters may be used. Some teams choose to forego a designated hitter due to the hitting ability of their starting pitcher. The rules governing the use of designated hitters align with major league baseball rules.

High School Baseball

The designated hitter rule in high school baseball largely follows major league baseball rules with a few exceptions. For example, changes can be made if the score differential exceeds a certain number of runs. You can look at part of the NFHS rulebook here regarding designated hitters. Or, you may consider purchasing an electronic copy via Amazon (affiliate link). One major difference is that high school designated hitter rules permit teams to substitute the designated hitter in place of any defensive player (i.e., not just the pitcher).

Can you substitute a designated hitter?

Yes, you can replace a designated hitter with another player. Whether as a pinch runner or as a pinch hitter, the player entering the game becomes the new designated hitter.

Does a designated hitter run bases?

Yes, designated hitter run bases. Unless of course they strike out!

Does a designated hitter play the field?

Designated hitters do not play the field. They are almost always (and, perhaps always, just don’t have a good way to verify) players who play, or have previously played, a defensive position other than pitcher.

So, they are capable of playing the field if required. But players like Nelson Cruz (2019 Twins designated hitter: 114 games as DH, and none in the field) no longer play their normal position and, instead, typically assume the designated hitter role when in the lineup.

With that said, every season there are some examples of designated hitters playing the field. In these cases, they technically are no longer the designated hitter and are now whatever position they take over on defense. When this happens, the team forfeits the designated hitter and the pitcher is now required to hit.

Outside of interleague play, this is often how American League pitchers end up with plate appearances, but even then it is rare since these type of changes generally occur later in the game. And late in games are ideal times to pinch hit for pitchers, no matter why they may have gotten to the batter box

Has a designated hitter ever been elected to the Hall of Fame?

To answer this question, you must define a designated hitter quantitatively. In other words, what threshold of games or at-bats are required before one is classified as a designated hitter?

If a player was the designated hitter in 20% of his games, does that qualify him as a designated hitter? 10%? 50%?

The designated hitter role is perfect for players who are not able to effectively play in the field. For some, this comes once they get much older than their baseball peers. For others, this comes much earlier in their career. Ultimately, these two factors (hitting ability and defensive (li)ability) dictate how many games a player is inserted into the lineup as a DH.

So, where does that leave us?

Needing a non-squishy definition for what qualifies. Not knowing quite where to start, I looked at an NBC Sports article where they look at players with as few as 10% of their at-bats as a DH. That seems low to me: I would never think of Carl Yastremski as a designated hitter.

So, I am going to define designated hitters as any player who assumed that role in the lineup for at least 20% of his games. With that definition, then the only Hall of Fame designated hitters would be Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson, and Jim Rice.

Player Games Played (total) Games Played (DH) Year Inducted
Paul Molitor 2,638 1,174 2004
Edgar Martinez 2,055 1,403 2019
Frank Thomas 2,322 971 2014
Reggie Jackson 2,820 630 1993
Jim Rice 2,089 530 2009

Has a designated hitter ever won the MVP?

Again, this depends on how you want to define a designated hitter. Using the 20% cutoff mentioned earlier, then a few designated hitters have won the league MVP award: Jim Rice, Don Baylor, and Juan Gonzalez.

Player Number of Games (total) Number of Games (designated hitter) Year MVP Won
Jim Rice 49 163 1978
Don Baylor 65 162 1979
Juan Gonzalez 32 134 1996

Who has hit the most home runs as a designated hitter?

David Ortiz (former Twins and Red Sox player) has hit the most home runs as a designated hitter. Ortiz hit 485 home runs (487 if you count pinch hitting for the DH) as a designated hitter. Compare that to 58 (or 60) home runs when Ortiz was not the designated hitter.

David Ortiz would be ranked 30th all time if only his home runs as a designated hitter were counted. He actually has the 17th most career home runs.

Is there a designated hitter during the World Series?

Yes, designated hitters are used in the World Series. Just like interleague play, their use depends on if the game is played at a National League or American League home park. Games played at a National League park will not have designated hitters, whereas games played at an American League park will have designated hitters.
Considering the lack of at bats during the season for American League pitchers, this is typically viewed as a minor advantage for National League teams. Even sacrifice bunts require repetitions during practice to be able to consistently complete successfully.
Interestingly enough, this has not always been the case. This is actually the third World Series designated hitter rule since the DH was implemented.

  1. 1973-1976: No designated hitter in the World Series
  2. 1977-1985: Designated hitter used in even-numbered years
  3. 1986-present: Designated hitter used based on home team (i.e., AL home team means designated hitter is used)

Is there a designated hitter during the All-Star Game?

Like the World Series, the All-Star Game has had three different rules since the designated hitter rule was implemented in the American League.

  1. 1973-1988: No designated hitter used
  2. 1989-2010: Designated hitter used in American League parks only (odd-numbered years)
  3. 2011-present: Designated hitter used in every All-Star Game

How well does a designated hitter hit compared to other players?

Rather than replicate, I can going to embed some interesting tables from Baseball Reference. If you have not ever looked over there, I highly encourage you. Just know that you may not leave the site for days.

When looking at these, keep in mind that you cannot just look at totals by position since the National League does not have nearly the plate appearances for designated hitter as the American League.

Home Runs by Position:

Batting Average by Position:

Offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) by Position:

What is the Difference between a Pinch Hitter and a Designated Hitter?

The terms are similar, but they are two different things. Unlike the designated hitter, pinch hitters can be used in both leagues. Pinch hitters are any player who bats for another player.

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