Checking in on the Status of the Universal Designated HitterJay Jaffeon November 10, 2020 at 6:00 pm

As if this winter’s free agent market needed anything else to slow it down, the fate of the universal designated hitter has yet to be settled. Like seven-inning doubleheader games and the extra innings runner-on-second rule, usage of the DH in NL games was considered to be part of MLB’s 2020-specific health and safety protocols rather than a permanent change, and so the subject must be revisited in talks between the players’ union and owners. Given the need for Senior Circuit teams to adapt their rosters accordingly, and for a number of free agents to generate competitive bidding and decide their destinations, it’s a decision that should be made as soon as possible, but… it’s complicated.

The possibility of using the DH in the NL for the 2020 season didn’t arise until mid-May, about two months after the coronavirus pandemic forced teams to shut down spring training. Not until late June, when the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to return for a 60-game season, was the decision finalized; at that point a number of revised rules were shoehorned into the 2020 Operations Manual, whether or not they were directly related to player health and safety. Those rules, which “shall apply during the 2020 championship season and postseason only,” included:

  • The universal DH.
  • The extra-innings rule that begins each half-inning after the ninth with a runner on second base.
  • An override of the previously introduced rule limiting the usage of position players as pitchers to extra innings or depending upon the score deficit
  • The three-batter minimum rule for pitchers.
  • The continuation of suspended games shorter than five innings.
  • The allowance for pitchers to carry a wet rag in their back pocket for the purpose of providing moisture as a substitute for licking fingers.

Rules regarding seven-inning doubleheader games and MLB’s expanded playoff format, both of which were adopted after Opening Day and thus not included in the widely-circulated version of the Operations Manual, are also covered by this. In an October 23 interview with radio host Dan Patrick, commissioner Rob Manfred said that “all of the COVID-related rule changes” were likely to “return to the status quo, absent an agreement with the players association” in 2021. The talk of adopting the universal DH has been going on for much longer than the pandemic, however; I’m not going to relitigate my argument in favor of it, but at this juncture, it seems nonsensical to go back to having pitchers hit after a season in which they did not, particularly with the matter likely to be resolved in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement following the 2021 season.

Via ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the union would like the universal DH to return — those are generally higher-paying jobs — and most front offices view that prospect favorably but owners “want the players to agree to some form of expanded playoffs for the 2021 season in exchange,” which is hardly an equitable trade unless the players are getting a substantial cut of the rights fees. As with anything involving nearly a billion dollars and two sides with no shortage of rancor towards one another, that’s not something likely to be resolved overnight, which isn’t great news for the likes of Michael Brantley, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnación, Marcell Ozuna, Justin Turner, and other free agents who spent substantial time DHing in 2020 and/or figure to do so in the future. From their point of view, the more potential landing spots, the better, particularly as NL teams didn’t have the luxury of planning very far ahead this past year.

Planning aside, the performance of NL designated hitters as a group was pretty indistinguishable from those of AL DHs; the former hit .235/.319/.412 for a 96 wRC+, the latter .229/.314/.410 for a 97 wRC+. Thanks largely to the addition of the full-time DH, NL teams outscored AL ones on a per-game basis for the first time since 1974, just the second year after the DH rule was introduced in the Junior Circuit. Here’s a look at Wild Card-era scoring rates:

As for DH performance, the level of parity we saw this year has been uncommon during interleague play; here’s a look at the past decade:

Prior to this year, only once in that span did NL DHs outhit AL ones, that in 2017, and even then it was in a sample size that was 1/15th of the AL’s. Looking back at my ancient research, it apparently happened in 2002 and ’09 as well, in similarly puny sample sizes. What I found back then — at a time when interleague games were clustered together rather than the daily occurrence necessitated by odd numbers of teams in each league — was that when it came time to use DHs, NL teams tended to employ higher-caliber hitters in that capacity, using it as a way to rest regulars rather than promoting bench players. Even so, that hardly guaranteed strong performance in the spot, and while sample size issues provided one explanation, it’s also possible that players were DHing because they were at less than full health, and it does appear as though the job of sitting around waiting to hit does not come naturally for some players.

With the need to staff the position daily rather than only a handful of times a season, and the luxury of expanded rosters, NL teams took a varied approach to filling the DH job in 2020. With an average of 241 plate appearances per team devoted to their DHs, only two NL teams, the Braves and Reds, gave more than half of those to a single individual (Ozuna and Jesse Winker, respectively). No NL player reached 200 PA at the spot, only five reached 100 PA, and only seven reached 80. By comparison, seven AL teams devoted more than half of their DH plate appearances to a single player. Four AL players reached the 200 PA threshold as DHs, with eight reaching 100, and 13 reaching 80; the A’s were the only team in either league who doubled up at any of those thresholds, giving 94 PA to Khris Davis and 86 to Mark Canha. Here it’s worth pointing out that Dan Vogelbach reached 125 PA — just over the 50% threshold for the average team — as a DH while splitting his time between the Mariners and Brewers.

Here’s a closer look at NL DH performance and player usage:

National League DH Usage 2020
Team AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ Top three in PA
Braves .310/.405/.580 160 Marcell Ozuna (179), Matt Adams (40), Travis d’Arnaud (26)
Mets .249/.311/.520 122 Pete Alonso (69), J.D. Davis (54), Robinson Canó (51)
Phillies .266/.362/.472 121 Andrew McCutchen (73), Bryce Harper (41), Phil Gosselin (37)
Dodgers .271/.356/.431 117 AJ Pollock (43), Justin Turner (42), Joc Pederson (42)
Cardinals .242/.343/.452 116 Brad Miller (117), Matt Carpenter (49), Paul Goldschmidt (24)
Padres .265/.342/.446 115 Tommy Pham (53), Ty France (26), Eric Hosmer (21)
Marlins .253/.316/.431 104 Jesús Aguilar (79), Garrett Cooper (72), Matt Joyce (34)
Reds .200/.315/.422 97 Jesse Winker (130), Matt Davidson (26), Joey Votto (20)
Brewers .216/.289/.392 82 Ryan Braun (66), Daniel Vogelbach (58), Keston Hiura (43)
Cubs .195/.309/.330 78 Willson Contreras (72), Victor Caratini (45), Kyle Schwarber (33)
D-backs .234/.307/.335 76 Christian Walker (62), Josh Rojas (22), Kole Calhoun (21)
Nationals .230/.311/.349 71 Howie Kendrick (78), Asdrúbal Cabrera (45), Eric Thames (39)
Giants .187/.262/.347 67 Wilmer Flores (88), Austin Slater (57), Pablo Sandoval (47)
Pirates .190/.275/.308 60 Colin Moran (106), Josh Bell (82), Gregory Polanco (26)
Rockies .212/.280/.351 53 Matt Kemp (116), Raimel Tapia (41), Charlie Blackmon (39)

Yikes. Seven NL teams got an 82 wRC+ or worse — sub-replacement level work, in other words — costing them at least half a win, while just four AL teams were in that boat. Only two of those seven NL teams made the expanded playoffs, namely the Brewers and Cubs, and both were ousted in the Wild Card Series, as were the White Sox, the only AL team to get such poor production from that spot. The Brewers spread their DH duties around quite a bit, with six player reaching double digits in plate appearances, while the Cubs had five such players, though it was their two main catchers who took the bulk of the work. The Pirates and Rockies were two of the five NL teams who invested at least 100 PA in a single player for the spot, yet they got the league’s worst performance from their DHs. The White Sox (60 wRC+) gave 180 PA to Encarnación as their DH, while the team with the majors’ worst production there, the Rangers (48 wRC+), spread the misery around, with six players reaching double digits in PA as DH, led by Willie Calhoun (77) and Shin-Soo Choo (50).

All of which is to say that while getting good performance out of the DH spot was rather important in terms of team success, there wasn’t much correlation between performance and frequency of use there, which doesn’t bode particularly well for DH types on the market. Here’s a look at who’s identified as a DH in our Free Agent Tracker, and how much time they spent at the spot:

Free Agent Designated Hitters
Name Pos Prev Team Age 2020 WAR Proj WAR PA DH% wRC+DH
Justin Turner 3B/DH LAD 36 1.3 3.2 175 24% 169
Marcell Ozuna LF/DH ATL 30 2.5 2.9 267 67% 201
Michael Brantley* LF/DH HOU 34 1.3 1.9 187 59% 103
Nelson Cruz DH MIN 40 2 1.1 214 100% 165
Howie Kendrick 1B/2B/DH WSN 37 -0.3 0.4 100 78% 47
Ryan Braun RF/LF/1B/DH MIL 37 0.1 0.3 141 47% 39
Mitch Moreland* 1B/DH SDP 35 0.9 0.1 152 8% 26
Logan Morrison* 1B/DH MIL 33 -0.2 0.1 28 64% 81
Matt Joyce LF/RF/DH MIA 36 -0.3 0.1 148 23% 98
Jay Bruce* RF/LF/1B/DH PHI 34 -0.1 0 103 32% 165
Derek Dietrich 1B/2B/DH TEX 31 -0.1 0 75 45% 120
Edwin Encarnación DH/1B CHW 38 -0.3 0 181 99% 72
Justin Smoak+ 1B/DH SFG 34 -0.7 0 132 10% -100
Shin-Soo Choo* RF/LF/DH TEX 38 -0.1 -0.1 127 39% 58
Matt Adams* 1B/DH ATL 32 -0.5 -0.1 51 78% 59
Eric Thames* 1B/LF/RF/DH WSN 34 -0.7 -0.1 140 28% 20
Yoenis Céspedes LF/DH NYM 35 -0.2 -0.4 34 100% 69
Matt Kemp LF/DH COL 36 -0.1 -0.6 132 88% 77
* = bats left-handed. + = switch-hitter.

I left out a few players who did not appear in a major league game this year, and I added Turner given how much time he spent DHing in 2020; whether or not he returns to the Dodgers, that role figures to be part of his diet going forward given the frequency of his lower body injuries. Not all of the players above are bad fielders who should be full-time DHs; Turner’s metrics were in the red, but as he showed during the postseason, he’s still more than capable at the hot corner, while Ozuna, Brantley, and Moreland have generally had positive defensive numbers, and even Encarnación has been passable in the field of late. Those guys — the first three of whom landed on our Top 50 Free Agents list, as did Cruz, perennially the best in the business — will probably be fine regardless of when a decision on the matter is made, but having even larger markets for their services would still help, particularly since there’s no guarantee they’ll get another bite at the apple while they’re still above-average hitters.

It’s not clear when we’ll get a resolution to the DH question. Usually rules changes are discussed and voted upon at the November owners meetings, but this year, those — which were scheduled for November 17-19 in Arlington, Texas — have been canceled due to the pandemic. On Monday, ESPN’s Buster Olney echoed Passan, calling the return of the universal DH a “safe bet… unless the MLB and players’ union animus erupts to the point of complete dysfunction,” although it was only a few months ago, during negotiations for the return to play, where we saw just that. Until the matter is settled, it may discourage teams from signing some of these players, as if the winter market needed one more excuse to slow down.
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