Understanding the New NFHS DH Rule

For several years, High School Baseball Head Coaches have had two options regarding the Designated Hitter (DH) – use one (a 10-player lineup) or don’t use one (a 9-player lineup).  Beginning with the 2020 season, however, they are given a third choice – a 9-player lineup that includes a DH.  Let’s examine this new option, and some of the confusion and “headaches” it has the potential to cause for those involved in the game (e.g. Head Coaches, Umpires, Scorers, Announcers).

            The new Rule (NFHS 3-1-4b) introduces a concept that college baseball has used for several years – the Player/DH (P/DH).  However, unlike the college rule, the new NFHS Rule specifies that ANY DEFENSIVE PLAYER (not just the pitcher), can be assigned this dual role. 

At the start of the game, when the Head Coach presents his team’s lineup card to the Plate Umpire, the P/DH must be clearly listed as such in one of the nine batting order positions.  Failure to list a P/DH precludes that team from taking advantage of the new P/DH Rule for that game.  As a preventative measure – before the lineup card is “accepted” – if the Plate Umpire sees a 9-player lineup listed, he should confirm with that Head Coach that “No DH will be used for this game, right?”.  This should forestall a misunderstanding (and a potential problem later in the game) that one of the nine players listed “should have been listed as the P/DH”.  On a side note, the re-entry rule has not changed – any of the players listed on the lineup card presented to the umpires at the start of the game may be withdrawn and re-enter once (NFHS Rule 3-1-3).

As mentioned before, the player listed as P/DH is assigned TWO DISTINCT ROLES – a defensive player role (playing any of the nine defensive positions) and an offensive player role (batting as the DH).  It is very important to keep these two roles separate since each has its own specific rule requirements.  Substitutions can be made for the defensive role at any time (3-1-4b).  However, no substitutions can be made for the offensive role at any time during the game (i.e. the player originally listed as P/DH is the ONLY player that can be the DH in that game).  If any player other than the originally-assigned DH (offensive role) hits or runs in that batting order position, the role of the DH is terminated for the remainder of the game (3-1-4b(2)).  To clarify, a Head Coach may NOT substitute another player for the original P/DH and have that substitute be a P/DH.  In this case, the lineup reverts to a 9-player lineup (the DH is terminated for the remainder of the game).

Let’s look at some Case Plays that demonstrate the use of this new rule option.

Play #1Jones is listed in the 4th spot in the batting order as 1/DH (pitcher)

In the 2nd inning, Jones reaches base and the Head Coach wants to use a courtesy runner for Jones.  This is not legal, since Jones is currently playing offense as the Designated Hitter, not pitcher (which is solely a defensive position).

            In the 4th inning Jones is replaced on the mound by Smith (as pitcher – a defensive role).  The Umpire should ask the Head Coach if: 

(1) Jones will remain as the DH (offensive role in the 4th batting order spot) with Smith fulfilling

the pitcher’s spot (defensive role);  OR

(2) the role of the DH being terminated for the remainder of the game (Smith would pitch AND bat

for himself – a “traditional” 9-player lineup). 

For this play case, option (1) is chosen by the Head Coach, so Jones would continue to bat as the DH (Smith would pitch but not bat).  In the 5th inning Jones again reaches base and the Head Coach wants to use a courtesy runner for Jones.  This is still NOT legal, since Jones is still playing offense as a DH.

RE-ENTRY CONSIDERATIONS:  If (1) above applies, Jones is not considered to have left the game – he stays in the game as DH in a “traditional” 10-player lineup (new NFHS Rule 3-1-4a).  If (2) above applies, Jones has left the game and may re-enter once.  If he re-enters it must be in the same spot in the batting order – the 4th spot (Jones may play any of the nine defensive positions).  In this case, Smith must leave the game and may not further participate in any playing role for that game (e.g. may not be a courtesy runner), although he could serve as base coach.

Play #2Russell is listed in the 3rd spot in the batting order as 2/DH (catcher).

In the 2nd inning, Russell reaches base and the Head Coach wants to use a courtesy runner for Russell.  This is not legal, since Russell is currently playing offense as the Designated Hitter, not catcher (which is solely a defensive position).

In the 4th inning, Russell again reaches base.  The Head Coach substitutes Correa as a pinch runner for Russell.  At this point, the Umpire should clarify that Correa is a PINCH RUNNER (a substitute – legal) rather than a COURTESY RUNNER (not legal, as stated above).  If the Head Coach indicates that Correa is a pinch runner (a substitute, NOT a courtesy runner), then the role of DH is terminated for the game (NFHS Rule 3-1-4b(2)) and the lineup reverts to nine players.  Correa (and/or any substitute for Correa) will be required to play both offense and defense.

RE-ENTRY CONSIDERATIONS:  Since he was a starter, Russell may re-enter the game once.  If he re-enters, it must be into the 3rd spot in the batting order (his original spot) and he would play both offense and defense (any defensive position), which is consistent with 9-player lineup rules.  Correa would not be allowed to participate further in that game in any playing role.

Play #3Schweitzer is listed in the 8th spot in the batting order as 8/DH (center fielder).

            In the 3rd inning, Kim pinch hits for Schweitzer (Schweitzer has not yet batted).  This is legal, but the role of DH is terminated for the remainder of the game (NFHS Rule 3-1-4b(2)), resulting in a 9-player lineup.  Kim may play any of the nine defensive positions in addition to batting in the 8th spot.  Schweitzer may re-enter the game once, but only in the 8th spot in the batting order.

Play #4Kuzillo is listed in the 1st spot in the batting order as 3/DH (first baseman).

            In the 3rd inning, Kuzillo is replaced defensively at first base by Ahmad.  The Head Coach notifies the Umpire that Kuzillo will remain in the game as the DH.  The lineup now reflects a “traditional” 10-player lineup; the new NFHS Rule 3-1-4a (2019’s Rule 3-1-4) would apply for the remainder of the game, except that Kuzillo is the only player that can bat as DH.  Kuzillo is NOT considered to have left the game for re-entry rule purposes.  If any player is substituted for Kuzillo offensively, the role of DH is terminated for the remainder of the game (3-1-4b(2)).

            In the 6th inning, Kuzillo returns to play first base (defensive role).  This is legal, and the 9-player lineup is re-instituted.  However, the DH is terminated for the remainder of the game (3-1-4b(1)).  This “defensive re-entry” provision only applies to an originally-assigned P/DH, and may only be applied once (3-1-4b).

            In summary, a High School team can now manage its lineup during the game in three distinct ways.  Umpires and Head Coaches should be fully aware of which option is being used at all times during the game to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.  The three options are:

            1.  Start with a 9-player lineup (no DH), must remain a 9-player lineup (no DH) for the entire game;

            2.  Start with a 10-player lineup (“old style” DH), remain a 10-player lineup for the entire game OR revert to 9-player lineup (terminate the DH);

            3.  Start with a 9-player lineup with P/DH, change to a 10-player lineup (separate DH and defensive player) for the remainder of the game, OR change to 9-player lineup (terminate DH).

            Strict attention to detail will be the key for Umpires, Head Coaches and scorekeepers to implement this Rules change smoothly and keep the game from being delayed needlessly.

Coach Interactions

Most governing bodies in sports share the admonishment to officials to neither seek out or avoid coaches after a game.  Their thinking is that approaching one may be interpreted as confrontation, which never helps anyone.  Avoiding, meanwhile, is interpreted more and more as aloofness; if you simply “stand your ground,” it works best from the officials’ standpoint.  If he or she wants to offer congratulations on a game well done – great!  If there’s a fair question to be asked, it should be no different than during the game and handled just as appropriately.  Anything else would show the coach to be casting the first stone – and at that point the official should get away from the nut.

Today’s question, by corollary, is whether interactions between coaches and officials away form the heat of competition – perhaps months before or after the first game – should be treated any differently.  First, I must admit that I’m a little aloof by most standards, compared to others.  I once heard a person described as so outgoing that he refused to let you not be his friend…  I’m not him and, as an officiating leader, that might be OK if my reputation is for keeping a respectful distance from people; as a mater of fact, that’s helped me a few times in my career, where a suggestion of collusion could be quickly disregarded.  So, where i’m coming from is that while it’s good to keep a respectful distance in relations with coaches, leaders should never turn down an ‘avocational’ opportunity to interact with them;  To my mind, any opportunity you can seize to find commonality will be good for everyone too.

My biggest advice is that it makes sense to give coaches, or the coaching community, the opportunity to interact with you, your board or the membership at large as often as they desire.  Having been a coach at one time, I’m well aware there’s often a big difference between how the coach acts when he or she is down four with eight seconds left and how the coach behaves as an invited speaker at your banquet or meeting.  So many coaches will spill the missile codes over what they want, don’t want or hate about officials when the Booster Club isn’t watching.  After all, they’re often teachers or some other professional too and see the mutual value of helping officials understand their expectations and attitudes.  Note that I said mutual; often, your best officials played at fairly high levels of the sport, themselves, so they’re aware of what successful coaches are thinking and what drives them; that helps them be good officials.  the rest of your group can stand to learn what coaches are thinking and how it meshes with other advice they’re receiving.  Hence, one of the best places to be with them would be in a room with a well-stocked bar.  Don’t worry about some coach showing up and disgorging on the first three rows of attendees; once an invitation is accepted, a coach can be counted on to behave, but not necessarily say things everyone will agree with.  That’s fine, but the bottom line is that the coaches are there for the same reason your are.

OK, we got it: Help the coaches help us.  But, what about another aspect?  Should we be reaching out to coaches or conferences when a coach out there is causing trouble for you or looks really bad in that striped tie and needs to hear?  Many coaches don’t fully understand the rules, but admit to it being one of the best reason for continuing to hire officials.  Others have the outlook of an executioner and the ambition of a tyrant, leaving us wishing there was some way of getting through to this person when the lights are down.  I’m sure you can offer other examples of these love / hate scenarios.  Overtures to these kinds of personalities are out of bounds.  If heir principal, spouse or the AD can’t get through to them, why can you?  Even if you can get through to them, you’re still impinging on that respectful distance and asking for trouble even if it doesn’t always materialize.

Finally, what should our attitude be about coaches approaching us?  What if they want a noble steed to speak to their parents’ night about helmet rules or some other aspect of the game?  Maybe they want your or someone to come in after practice and watch the video of that controversial play from last Tuesday night.  Perhaps they just want to ask an opinion of find a reference about a rule interpretation.  Some just want to bleat about something that happened tonight and don’t want too much time to pass before they stop being mad.  What should your policy be?  In my book, policies are mostly to prevent the next lawsuit for the same thing.  Ergo, you shouldn’t have a policy about how coaches can (be allowed to) approach you; there are just to many nuances to be prescriptive.  Take each situation and each individual as a unique situation and treat it as an opportunity for improvement, at least initially.  That’s another way of saying that one of the things which got you elected was your ability to do what’s best for your people.  If the right thing is to be proactive, defensive of dismissive, that’s why you were elected to the position you have.  If your feel for the situation ends up being wrong too often, you can only hope the person they vote in to replace you does better.  The point is not to stop trying to keep communication lines – whether you like what your’re hearing or not – open until discretion dictates otherwise.

I can’t think of a great official who hasn’t developed effective communication skills.  I don’t think there are many such association leaders either.  Even when it’s a challenge to put up with all the different personalities, your first job is to do it anyway.

Work on behalf of your people and make the most of your available relationships with coaches.