The league has officially announced that all MLB teams will be required to adopt the universal DH rule beginning in 2019. The change is expected to make baseball more popular, but it also threatens a major aspect of what makes the sport so unique and fun for fans.
The “universal dh 2022” is here, and it has been in the works for a while. It’s finally happening, so get ready to see MLB games with a universal DH.
The era of the universal designated hitter is here. Except for a few Shohei Ohtani starts on the mound and a smattering of pinch-hit appearances (Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke) or pinch-running maneuvers (Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke), a style of baseball that has been a near constant in this country since 1876 is about to fade into quasi-extinction.
It’s done and dusted. That became true when the new CBA was thankfully adopted, and it became true again when free-agent DH Nelson Cruz signed with the Washington Nationals, his first NL club since breaking in with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005.
Pitcher hitting is dead in the Baseball’s Baseball’s Baseball’s National League now that the DH has arrived. Whether you like it or not, the game will be changed. But how different are they? Many assumptions have been made about how this will play out, some of which are correct, but many of which are much more convoluted. You may be surprised by what you find out.
Let’s put a few of those theories to the test.
Assumption: Pitchers will be outhit by designated batters.
Is this correct? Well, of course.
Proponents of the universal DH — which we’ll now refer to simply as “the DH” since the “universal” portion is no longer necessary now that it’s been implemented — like to emphasize the enhanced offense it will bring.
More on that later, but we can be assured that designated hitters, as a group, will outperform whatever stats pitchers would have put up if they had continued to bat. This is self-evident, but we must start there since that is essentially what this is about.
Pitchers vs. DHs
|Decade||OPS for pitchers||DH OPS||Factor|
|*Data from TruMedia, since 1974.|
Pitchers normally cannot bat at the major league level, although DHs can. Pitcher hitting has been steadily worse. Pitcher hitting had to die because of this, according to many.
Assumption: The magnitude of the differential in hitting ability will result in a large number of additional runs.
Is this correct? It depends on your definition of “many.”
As the position has increasingly become a shared role rather than one for daily players, we’ve witnessed a consistent reduction in collective DH performance. Nonetheless, as seen in the graph above, the difference between DHs and pitchers at the bat has only widened over time. In terms of OPS, DHs were less than twice as good as pitchers in the 1970s; that ratio has climbed to more than 2.5 in the 2020s (or largely last season, because few pitchers hit in 2020).
Consider the following graph:
Per-game appearances of pitchers at the bat
|Decade||Per-game batting averages for pitchers|
|*Data from TruMedia, since 1974.|
The raw number of Per-game appearances of pitchers at the bat has dropped continuously over the years as the emphasis on getting starters deep into the games has waned. Thus we’re now talking about fewer than two Per-game appearances of pitchers at the bat (per team) that will be replaced by DHs.
According to TruMedia, major league pitchers saw 4,829 plate appearances last season. Let’s assume Ohtani isn’t a real person. We can now estimate that DHs contributed 0.155 more runs per plate appearance than pitchers last season using weighted runs generated by FanGraphs. If all pitcher at-bats are replaced with DHs, the MLB scoreboard will gain an additional 750 runs, or approximately 25 runs each club over the course of a season, or around one run every six or seven games.
Assumption: As the DH rule is expanded, scoring will increase.
Is this correct? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
The AL has virtually always outscored the NL throughout the AL-only DH era. The disparity has ranged from 0.71 runs per game in 1996 to 0.03 runs per game now (1976). (This does not include two seasons in which the Baseball’s Baseball’s Baseball’s National League outscored the The The The American League is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the, which we’ll discuss later.) The average differential each game has been 0.28 runs.
The problem is that the AL has witnessed higher year-over-year scoring variations than 0.28 runs 16 times over this time period, while the NL has seen it 10 times. In other words, whatever increase in offense we observe as a result of the Baseball’s Baseball’s Baseball’s National League’s adoption of the designated hitter might be offset by other reasons. All we can say for certain is that with the DH, we will get more runs over the course of a season than we would without it. From this perspective, the impact in a single game isn’t very evident, however NL fans will notice when they get at the stadium and see all those DHs displayed in the lineups on the scoreboard.
Assumption: The enlarged DH will aid in the resolution of baseball’s scoring issues.
Is this correct? Because the assumption is predicated on a flawed premise, the answer is no.
I’m not attempting to construct a straw man argument here, and this information seems to be essential more for semantic reasons than anything else. However, you’ll often hear arguments for the DH that contain something about increasing baseball scoring. And if that’s the intended impact, it seems to reason that we’d want that since baseball has a scoring issue.
Baseball, on the other hand, does not have a scoring issue. The current three-year scoring average (4.67 runs per game) ranks 16th out of 51 time periods studied throughout the divisional era, and is greater than any time period prior to 1994.
This is something to consider while considering the DH. When people remark about baseball’s lack of offense, they’re not talking about the number of runs scored, but rather how those runs are scored. They’re complaining about too many strikeouts, walks, and home runs, as well as a lack of… everything else. The extension of the rule will not fix the issue until clubs start using Ichiro Suzuki knockoffs as DHs.
Assumption: The offensive settings in each league will now be equal.
Is this correct? Yep.
The designated hitter will be in use in the major leagues for the 50th time in 2022. The AL averaged more runs per game 47 times in the first 49 seasons. The exceptions were 1974, the second year after the AL implemented the DH to stop an era of dreadful junior-league batting, and 2020, when the NL employed the DH during the pandemic-shortened season.
The one-sidedness might be explained by three factors: talent distribution, the DH, and ballparks.
The distribution of talent across leagues will always be a moving target. Sometimes one league is just better than the other, however this should even out over time. The DH is being phased out as a component in league-versus-league scoring. Then there are the ballparks.
Even with the NL claiming the exceptional scoring atmosphere of Coors Field in Denver, according to FanGraphs’ park variables, there isn’t much of a difference in aggregate stats across the leagues.
Park considerations over the next five years
|League||Scoring of Runs|
|Baseball’s Baseball’s Baseball’s National League||99.9|
|The The The American League is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the||99.7|
|Fangraphs.com is the source for this information.|
There are some rounding mistakes since the aggregate average should be 100 by definition, but you get the picture. When it comes to run situations, the circuits are on similar footing now that the DH is in play in both leagues.
Assumption: The number of strikeouts will decrease.
Is this correct? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
To begin, let’s state the obvious: pitchers strike out more batters than DHs, and it’s not even close. Pitchers have a high strikeout rate. Pitchers whiffed in 44 percent of their plate appearances last season, according to baseball-reference.com. When sacrifice hits are removed from the equation, the percentage climbs to 48%. The next greatest position group, unfortunately, was designated hitters, who accounted for 26% of the total.
As a result, we’ll have fewer strikeouts. Last season, MLB’s overall strikeout rate was 23.2 percent. When pitchers are taken out of the equation (which won’t be totally the case as long as Ohtani is there, along with pinch-hitting possibilities like Bumgarner, Greinke, Michael Lorenzen, and others), the percentage drops to 22.6 percent.
Maybe it’s a little change, but it’s a rare step in the right direction. There will be more balls in play, and the average batting average in MLB will climb. Last season, it was.244 with pitchers in the lineup and.247 without them.
However, as with Scoring of Runs, the gains here are small enough that if other factors continue to push the strikeout rate upward there may be no progress at all. But there will be more progress without pitchers hitting than there would be if they did.
Assumption: Small-ball tactics are certain to fail.
Is this correct? To a large extent.
Will we detect any variations day after day when we watch the game? In some ways, we’ll be surprised at first, but we’ll become accustomed to it over time. It will be an adjustment for fans in NL-only markets who haven’t seen much of the DH in person over the years. The DH, on the other hand, has been a part of major league baseball for half a century, so it won’t be long until they grow acclimated to it.
Some tactics, on the other hand, are likely to become so seldom employed that we will mostly forget about them. Double-switches. Bunts must be sacrificed. Intentional walks, especially to batters towards the bottom of the lineup. These are topics that have always come up when watching an NL-style game, and they provided us with fodder for discussion when scenarios happened that may need such tactics.
Will the discussions be missed? When the pitcher was hitting, we (fans, players, managers, and announcers) had to keep one eye on the batting order to see where the next batter would be. That impacted our interpretation of everything that occurred before to and during the pitcher’s at-bat.
That element is no longer present. Much of this has already occurred. Even yet, the presence of pitchers in lineups had kept some of these small-ball strategies alive. The plug has now been removed from the wall.
2021 total sacrifices
|Baseball’s Pitchers in the Baseball’s Baseball’s National League||The The The American League is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the DHs|
|TruMedia is the source of this information.|
|Position in the lineup||The The The American League is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the||Baseball’s Baseball’s Baseball’s National League|
|Baseball-reference.com is the source for this information.|
The one-run strategy’s demise has been gradual and unavoidable. As long as home run rates stay unchanged, the percentages against it will remain unchanged. Most offensive incentives are now substantially skewed toward long-ball techniques, according to any decent run expectancy table. That’s why there isn’t much, if any, offensive style variance across teams these days. And, in the case of bunts, the less we see, the fewer we may anticipate to see in the future, since the ability will go extinct.
While IBBs are tedious, MLB decided we didn’t need to watch them any longer, and their decline is just another piece in the manager’s toolbox that is rusting away. They are often more aggravating than enjoyable. Even yet, it’s entertaining to watch teams battle it out to plate or prevent a single run. That will be a thing of the past.
Few fans will be saddened by the virtual removal of sacrifice bunts and deliberate walks, since they are unlikely to be seen at many games. However, variation is appealing, and there aren’t many stylistic distinctions across teams beyond basic individual use trends. Having the pitchers bat guaranteed that there was some variation in style of play from league to league. That is about to change.
Is it for the better or for the worse? It’s all a question of personal preference.
Assumption: Games will be more time consuming.
Is this correct? Perhaps, but not due to the DH.
Consider how all of this may affect game duration, a topic that should come under the category of “hot button” yet has been mostly ignored throughout the CBA discussions. Expanding the DH rule would be a point against it if it contributed to baseball’s length-of-game issue, which you agree is a problem.
Game time is calculated based on a 9-inning game.
|Year||The The The American League is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the||Baseball’s Baseball’s Baseball’s National League|
|Baseball-reference.com is the source for this information.|
There has been essentially little variation in average game time amongst leagues during the last decade. The AL has had a slightly greater run total, while the NL has had the majority of pitcher at-bats, which tend to be shorter than other at-bats. Researchers discovered that National League clubs had less time-consuming mid-inning pitching changes. Nonetheless, it’s all been a wash in the end.
As a result, we shouldn’t anticipate the DH to be the cause of any greater lengthening of games, which is a positive thing. But it’s also unlikely to assist.
Assumption: The number of pinch hitters will be reduced.
Is this correct? Without a doubt.
NL clubs have used 1.14 more pinch hitters per game than AL teams over the previous five seasons. Last season, there were 1.24 pinch hitters per game, a record low for the DH period, so if the DH rule is increased, we’ll see many less pinch hitters.
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In reality, there will be fewer participants each game. Over the previous five complete seasons, NL clubs have utilized more pitchers per game (a differential of 0.28), as well as more players overall (an additional 0.44 per game in that span, including 0.65 in 2021, the second-biggest bulge of the DH era, behind 2011).
This may be considered as one of the unintended outcomes of a broader DH regulation. While no one wants to see even more pitchers come out of the bullpen than we currently have, when managers are forced to deploy their benches, it is both entertaining and pleasant.
Roster depth will be more about navigating a season than a game, as it currently is, but it will be much more so now. At some spots, some teams will still platoon. The Rays do this a lot, and it’s practically an upset on the Dodgers when a guy plays a complete game at one position. Even yet, given that Dave Roberts won’t have to deal with pitcher at-bats, L.A. may utilize a more established lineup.
While season-long roster management is critical, you don’t sit at a game with a scorecard trying to forecast how many days off players will need by July. You maintain track of who’s left on the bench and the various matchups they could represent later in the game by crossing off players when they join the game. There will be less of it in the future, which is a loss.
Assumption: NL pitchers will throw longer innings.
Is this correct? If that’s the case, it won’t be due to the DH.
Whether the DH first came to the majors in the 1970s, another point of contention was how it would effect the manager’s choice on when to remove a pitcher. The idea was that the total number of complete games would skyrocket. That didn’t happen, but the AL did have more full games for a while. Nothing is more irrelevant now than totals throughout the whole game. No one understands them.
The question is if there is still a difference in starting pitchers’ average outing time across leagues. If there is, this is a point in the DH’s favor. Starting pitchers are required to do more, not less, in baseball.
Unfortunately, NL pitchers have thrown somewhat more innings per start in recent seasons than their AL counterparts. In 2019, NL starters pitched 0.37 more innings per outing than AL starters, the highest advantage for any circuit since the DH was implemented.
This isn’t to say that NL pitchers will start pitching fewer innings right away. It simply indicates that the DH factor has a little role in deciding average outing duration for starters when compared to a thousand other factors. At the very least, pitchers will no longer get harmed while hitting and jogging the bases, which was already a rare occurrence.
Assumption: Everyday DHs like David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez will become increasingly common.
Is this correct? There’s no way.
Consider the case of C.J. Cron. Cron has a 116 OPS+ over the previous five years, averaging 32 home runs and 96 RBIs per 162 games. In each of those five seasons, he has also played for a different team, however he now seems to have found a home in Colorado. Cron can play first base with a respectable glove, so he’s not a perfect example, but he’s a good illustration of the kind of bat-first slugger who clubs are increasingly seeing as fungible.
Maybe this will self-correct with the addition of 15 new season-long DH slots, but color me a skeptic, if not quite a denier. For one thing, there have never been enough full-time DHs who needed daily at-bats to fill even half of the The The The American League is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the is a professional baseball league in the, much less the entire majors. There has never been more than six AL players in a given season to receive at least 500 plate appearances as a DH, and that’s only happened four times (1982, 1991, 2007 and 2015). Since 2000, the average number of hitters to get even 400 PAs as a DH is five.
There aren’t many full-time DHs around, and there never have been, guys who are real elite-level hitters but can’t play a position. While 400 plate appearances is a significant amount of playing time, you’ll almost certainly need to be able to do more than bat to make the team. There won’t be a surge of Ortizes and Martinezes because there aren’t nearly enough no-field hitters with the stick to warrant a full-season roster place.
Assumption: Players in their 30s will have more chances.
Is this correct? It’s possible. Hopefully.
While the pencil-him-into-the-cleanup-slot-every-day DH is uncommon, it benefits older players and good-hitting catchers whose bats you’d want to retain in the lineup but who need a day break from squatting for three hours or more. You may not DH such individuals every day, but you can rotate them in from time to time and, in theory, get more out of your older players over the course of the season.
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This is excellent: Older players are well-known and recognizable. And they’ve always used the DH rule to their advantage. Since the rule’s inception, 79 percent of players with at least 100 DH plate appearances have been at least 30 years old, and that percentage has remained consistent throughout time.
It’s possible that the Crons of the world will become more appealing as a result of the extra roster spots, but it’s also possible that we’ll see even more utility players come and go from the bottom of active rosters, giving other older players the opportunity to take a half-day off every now and then.
Prepare for additional buzzwords like “versatility,” “flexibility,” and “risk management,” and then sit back and watch ticket sales skyrocket.
Assumption: Fans are in favor of the new regulation.
Is this correct? Yes, it makes me feel like a minnow swimming upstream against a voracious carp attack.
This will come off as someone whining about how much they dislike the DH. Without rehashing the already decided (and boring) topic, all I can say is that I grew up cheering for an AL club (the Royals) during the DH era, and one of my favorite players was a DH (Hal McRae).
I’m not anti-DH per per, but I’ve grown more of a supporter of the status quo over time. I want the McRaes, Paul Molitors, Ortizes, and Martinezes of the world to get their hacks, but they aren’t so common that two leagues are required to accommodate them.
Meanwhile, as I spent more time at National League games over the years, I discovered that I like the NL game somewhat more. The most significant change was the increased usage of rosters. As the games progressed, there was more to see and consider.
One metric I’ll be keeping an eye on, much like baseball’s owners, is attendance in NL markets. In reality, I don’t think it’ll be an issue. Although it is true that NL clubs have outdrawn AL teams in the aggregate every season since 1995, this is more of an Oakland/Tampa Bay issue than a DH one. This is still something to keep an eye on.
Pitcher hitting is no longer a viable option. The DH supporters have triumphed. We’ll make adjustments, and the game will shift. However, the modifications will be gradual. That is, we won’t notice the progression until a DH replaces Madison Bumgarner in the batting order, or we start talking about the last time we saw a sacrifice bunt.
In the end, I’m afraid the enlarged DH rule will be remembered for what it has taken away from the game rather than what it has added. We’re going to find out whether that dread is justified, whether we like it or not.
The “universal DH 2021” is the name of a new rule that Major League Baseball has implemented. This rule will allow players to bat both right-handed and left-handed in the same game. Reference: universal dh 2021.
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