When the National League finally adopts the designated hitter for good, it won't resemble the one-dimensional sluggers of the past
The 2020 MLB season was, in a word, slapdash. Torn to shreds by the coronavirus, stalled by a stalemate between labor and capital, and then tossed together at the last moment in order to stage some semblance of a championship campaign, the year brought us wholly new forms of baseball. Extra innings worked differently than they ever had before. Some games lasted just seven innings, by design. The playoffs were expanded and transformed on the very eve of the season.
From both historical and futuristic perspectives, though, the most interesting wrinkle might have been the implementation of the designated hitter rule in National League parks.
Since the inception of interleague play in 1997, baseball history has been circling the eventuality of a universal designated hitter. The implementation of the original DH rule, in the American League in 1973, applied modest pressure to the senior circuit, but as long as the two leagues only met in annual exhibitions and in the World Series, one could make excuses for the continued dissonance of having such a significant difference in gameplay between them. Once that wall came down, it became inevitable that both leagues would eventually play under a unified set of rules, and by the time that happened, the progress of the game itself had determined which way the change would go.
Pitchers can't hit. That's been true, to some extent, for as long as anyone has been paid to play baseball, but it's become steadily more true since the end of World War II and the integration of MLB. That trend has only accelerated in recent years, as the AL's use of the DH has taken half of MLB's pitchers entirely away from the discipline of hitting; decreased starting pitcher workloads have led to fewer hurlers taking third and fourth plate appearances within games; and specialization of baseball skills has occurred everywhere from Little League through the majors. In 2018, a new nadir was reached, as big-league hurlers batted an anemic .115/.144/.149. All of the six lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging) figures by pitchers in MLB history have come since 2012.
In 2020, however, the men who replaced those pitchers in the NL weren't as far superior to them as their teams might have liked. In fact, in their first chance to perform the task on a full-time basis, NL designated hitters batted worse than the league's averages.
The explanation for that is simple: Teams throughout the NL were denied any chance to truly plan around having the DH. (The same will be true in 2021, whether the NL ultimately plays under the DH rule or not, because of ongoing posturing between the players and the owners over the issue.) That underscores a crucial point about having a designated hitter: The advantage it confers is not primarily rooted in the production that hitter provides.
Rather, teams benefit from the existence of the DH because it gives them greater planning power, greater flexibility and reduced risk. A team can much more easily carry a marginal defender with good offensive chops and can more confidently pay him a handsome salary on a multi-year deal if they have a DH slot into which he can slide. However, a team can also more easily hide a terrific fielder with an atrocious bat because a decent DH can make up for lost offensive production.
When the DH is in play, a good positional roster can become a great one because everyone can stay fresher and every matchup can be played to perfection. The Dodgers started 11 different players at the position over the 60-game schedule, and Joc Pederson led the club with 12 starts there. However, AJ Pollock, Justin Turner and Corey Seager also started at least nine times at DH during the regular season. That allowed the team to deploy the best versions of their platoons against certain opposing starters; put the ideal defensive alignment behind each pitcher; keep the bats of ailing players in the lineup when they weren't able to play the field; and rotate players into an otherwise-crowded lineup, helping them maintain a rhythm at the plate.
Pitchers can't get hurt at bat or on the bases if they're never asked to perform those duties. Nor can a manager err by leaving a pitcher in too long, trying to get him through to the next half-inning and avoid having to pinch-hit for a fresh reliever. Injured and injury-prone players can be handled more carefully. Players can get rest without being absent from the lineup altogether. The Cubs, who eked out the NL Central crown, started catchers Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini a total of 34 times at DH, allowing each to stay in the lineup without exposing either to the grind and injury risk associated with playing catcher on an everyday basis.
On the American League side of things, where the DH has long since lost its novelty, it has also lost much of its luster as a space reserved for an elite but one-dimensional slugger. Nelson Cruz still does an admirable impression of David Ortiz, Edgar MartÃnez and the other great DHs of previous generations, but players like Cruz are increasingly rare. Having had the rule for decades, clubs have found that, in most years, it makes more sense to use the role as the equivalent of the free space on a Bingo card. A great hitter, after all, makes one lineup spot better, whereas a well-used tool with such flexibility can (given the right personnel on hand) make several spots better.
The ability — which has essentially become a need, in recent years — to cycle players through the role has also made players with great versatility more valuable and helpful to American League teams. A player who can be the starting left fielder one day, the second baseman the next, a DH two days later and the shortstop when an injury arises has more value when that DH spot exists, allowing (and sometimes necessitating) the displacement of other players to make room for the utility guy. That's how Marwin Gonzalez emerged as a minor star during his tenure with the Astros, and he filled the same role in two years with the Twins.
Few NL teams, however, had all the personnel required to really capitalize on the sudden availability of the DH, for the reasons mentioned earlier. All winter, they planned for a world without a DH. The Braves got a bit lucky, as their big bet on left fielder Marcell Ozuna put them in a position to use an unusually strong batter at the DH spot. The Dodgers' depth, including super-utilityman Enrique Hernandez, positioned them perfectly for the sudden change. For many teams, though, even a single offseason isn't enough time to acclimate to the universal DH, given the reshaping of both the starting lineup and the bench it demands — and the time they actually had to prepare for the 2020 version was woefully insufficient.
Part of the problem — one reason why DH production will likely never soar to its prior levels, and why even more time and certainty under which to build a roster won't lead every team to plug and play a star-caliber slugger — is that the game's ongoing demographic shift continues to favor pitchers. It's so easy to find solid pitchers that it's becoming steadily harder to find standout hitters. Just as importantly, success at the plate has become increasingly tied to athleticism, as reflected by the huge gains shortstops, third basemen, and center fielders have made in relative production over the last decade and a half, so teams have less desire than ever to stash great hitters at spots that limit them to those responsibilities. As such, the DH slot can augment run scoring, but it does so in a collective way. It can also, almost paradoxically, help some teams primarily by improving their run prevention. It no longer creates much in the way of extra jobs or extra dollars for players, although it can certainly still generate an extra win or two for teams.
Still, like automatic runners in extra innings, the universal DH felt very much like a glimpse of the future. It will be the way of things throughout the majors, sooner than later, and even if 2021 represents a disruption on the highway leading to that outcome, the destination is unchanged.
— Written by Matt Trueblood (@MATrueblood) for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Nelson Cruz photo by Brace Hemmelgarn, courtesy of twinsphotog.mlblogs.com)