Designated Hitter vs Pinch Hitter – Explaining Both

If you are trying to improve your baseball knowledge, you may be wondering about designated hitter vs pinch hitter. Obviously, both involve hitters, but what exactly are designated hitters and pinch hitters and how do they differ?

A designated hitter is a player in the lineup that only bats and does not play a position in the field. Designated hitters are only used in American League ballparks because under American League rules, pitchers do not have to bat.

But because pitchers don’t bat, there is a void created in the lineup. This void is filled with the designated hitter. The pitcher plays in the field and the designated hitter bats. Together, they form the role of one player.

A pinch hitter is quite different than a designated hitter. A pinch hitter is a replacement hitter used in-game to hit for another batter in the lineup.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the difference between designated hitter vs pinch hitter is to understand how they would be used in a sentence. A manager might tell a player “you’re in the lineup today as the designated hitter.” Pinch hitter is different. A manager would never say “you’re in the lineup as the pinch hitter today.”

Pinch hitter isn’t a lineup assignment, it is simply another name given to a substitute hitter. When a player pinch hits, they are called a pinch hitter for only that one at-bat because pinch hitter is in reference not to a position, but to the action of substitution. If that pinch hitter stays in the game long enough to bat again, they will no longer be referred to as a pinch hitter.

Below we will discuss designated hitter vs pinch hitter in further detail and also discuss some of the most common questions that surround both of these baseball terms.

Designated Hitter vs Pinch Hitter

Designated Hitter

Designated hitter (also known as “DH”) in a non-fielding position in the lineup that bats for the pitcher in games played at American League ballparks.

Some people say that designated hitters are only used by American League teams, but that is incorrect. It is an American League rule, but during interleague play, when the home team is an American League team, National League teams also have the right to use a DH.

Teams do not have to use their DH. They can elect instead to have the pitcher bat. This basically never happens because pitchers are poor hitters who work on hitting a fraction of the time that position players do.

Why Does The American League Use A Designated Hitter?

The American League adopted the Designated Hitter rule in 1973 to add more offense to the sport. Allowing a premium hitter to bat in the lineup spot of a poor-hitting pitcher intrigued American League owners such as flamboyant Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley, who envisioned extra offense as a way to draw more fan attention to the sport. In discussing the topic, Finley said:

“I can’t think of anything more boring than to see a pitcher come up (to bat)…”

Charlie Finley, Former Oakland Athletics Owner

In the early 1970s, the American League lagged behind the National League in both scoring and attendance. They saw the adoption of the DH as a way to change that scoring trend. The adoption of the DH rule is considered by many experts to be one of the most consequential rule changes in the sport’s history.

The American League has averaged more runs per game than the National League for 44 straight seasons. In 2018, 360 more runs were scored by AL teams than NL teams. It is impossible to deny that the DH has a positive impact on scoring.

It is possible, however, to argue whether or not the DH has a positive impact on the game itself. It’s existence has created both passionate supporters and harsh critics. Supporters applaud the offensive boost it provides the game while critics lament the sport departing from its traditional roots of pitching, strong defense, and all nine fielders batting.

Can A Designated Hitter Play Defense?

Yes, a player who is in the lineup as the DH can be moved to the field, but not as the DH. If a manager wants to replace, for example, his first baseman and slide his DH to first base, the DH then becomes the first baseman, the team forfeits their DH spot for the game, and subsequently, the pitcher must bat.

Because moving the player in the DH spot to defense results in the loss of the DH spot for the game, this is almost never used by managers.

Pinch Hitter

A pinch hitter is someone who comes off the bench during the game and substitute hits for a player already in the lineup. The phrase “pinch hitter” only applies to that single at-bat, and is not a position.

Nobody gets penciled into the lineup pre-game as a pinch hitter like they do for designated hitter.

Can A Pinch Hitter Bat Twice?

Yes, if he remains in the game. No, if he does not.

Yes – If a pinch hitter remains in the game after pinch hitting, they are eligible to bat as many times as needed until the conclusion of the game or until they are removed from the game.

No – If a pinch hitter hits for a player in the lineup, he cannot then again pinch hit for a different player later in the game. That’s not how pinch hitters work.

Once you pinch hit, you’re officially in the game. Once you’re officially in the game, you must remain in the game unless you are replaced by another player. Once you are replaced, you return to the bench and cannot enter that game again.

For example, if a bench player pinch hits for the left fielder in the bottom of the 5th, that same player can’t return to the bench and then also pinch hit for the catcher in the bottom of the 7th.

Once the player pinch hits for the left fielder, the pinch hitter now is officially in the lineup. He assumes that specific spot in the lineup until he is replaced or until the game ends.

If the manager wants to pinch hit for the catcher in the 7th, he has the right to do so, just not with the player he used to pinch hit for the left fielder in the 5th inning. The manager would have to choose another bench player (who has not yet officially entered the game) to pinch hit for the catcher.

When Can You Have A Pinch Hitter?

A manager can elect to pinch hit for any player at any point in the game as long as he has bench players that have not yet officially entered the game.

Does A Pinch Hitter Have To Play The Field?

Not necessarily. They do if they remain in the game (unless they pinch hit for the designated hitter, who does not have an on-field position).

But the manager may select one bench player (a strong hitter) to pinch hit, then immediately replace the pinch hitter with another bench player who is a good fielder.

For example, maybe a team has a power hitter who is a first basemen on the bench and they use him in the 8th inning to pinch hit for the catcher. Well, once the inning is over, the power-hitting first baseman isn’t going to go play catcher. So the manager has basically two options at that point:

  1. Replace the pinch hitter with the backup catcher, so the backup catcher can go catch.
  2. Replace the first baseman with the backup catcher. Which means the pinch hitter will then go play first base and the backup catcher will go catch. (Or some other type of substitution that involves multiple players.)

In theory, the pinch hitter in this hypothetical situation is eligible by rule to go play catcher even if that is not a natural position for him. Nothing in the rule book prohibits it. But that would never happen in the Major Leagues except for some type of situation where perhaps an injury would force it.

Why Are There Pinch Hitters?

A manager will chose to use a pinch hitter for two main reasons:

  1. An injury occurs and the scheduled hitter is unable to hit and a bench player pinch hits for him.
  2. A manager is trying to put a better hitter at the plate.

Most often, a pinch hitter happens later in a game (with exception of injury). The pitcher’s spot in the lineup (in National League games) is usually pinch hit for late in games unless score or special circumstance dictates otherwise.

Another reason a manager will pinch hit is to improve the matchup of pitcher vs batter. This also will occur usually later in a game because a manager is cautious to burn through his bench early in a game.

Every pitcher and hitter has tendencies. Managers will look at player splits to identify matchups to avoid and matchups to attack. For example, when a pitcher dominates left-handed hitters but gets hit hard by right-handed hitters, a manager (if the situation allows for it) might pinch hit a right-handed hitter for a left-handed hitter in that situation.

Managers have a lot of responsibility, but the overall impact a baseball manager has on the win-loss record of the team is debated among industry experts. One significant way they can impact games is to manage substitutions late in a game effectively (like pinch hitters).

If you are trying to improve your baseball knowledge, a good place to start is by understanding what a baseball manager is responsible for doing and what type of direction he is trying to give to a team. Here is my article on what baseball managers do and how they affect the game.

Paul Johnson

Paul has been with us from our beginnings. He focuses on a wide range of sports, including NFL, NBA, MLB and golf.

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