Even with the snow piled high, that most summery of debates – to DH or not to DH – has worked its way into the news. Major League Baseball is in the last year of its current collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. A new round of negotiations appears it will put everything back on the table, from revenue splits to competitive balance taxes to travel schedules for players to — this time, perhaps — the designated hitter.
This round of discussion started when St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak said during a offseason question-and-answer session with fans that there was “more momentum” to adding the designated hitter to the National League, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Commissioner Rob Manfred then said, in a Q&A with Yahoo!, “I don’t even know if it’s going to be a topic.”
So, Mr. Commissioner, you’re saying it’s possible.
For the moment, let’s put aside the rancor about the right way to play the game (as National League, pitchers-should-hit traditionalists might frame it) and the why-not-let-a-real-hitter-hit crowd (as American League fans might argue), and save it for another time. As odd as it may seem, baseball has now had a different set of rules for one league than the other for more than 40 years and has not only survived, but flourished. It’s weird, sure. But from a fan’s perspective, it works, because whichever rules you prefer, there’s a game for you.
The problem, though, is it doesn’t necessarily work for the clubs. Well, the National League clubs, at least.
First, how important can a designated hitter be? Quite obviously, during the season, rather important. Last year, seven players with at least 60 appearances as a designated hitter contributed at least two wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs: Seattle’s Nelson Cruz, Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion, Boston’s David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, Kansas City’s Kendrys Morales, Minnesota’s Miguel Sano and Albert Pujols of the Angels.
An easy list to look at and consider. Those players combined for 233 home runs in 2015. Of those players, only Encarnacion and Pujols have spent any time in the National League. There’s an impact on the offenses of each of their teams, an impact not available to an NL team.
But both the importance of the DH and the imbalance it provides aren’t as important during the season as they are in the offseason.
Teams build rosters to fit their beliefs, their ballparks – and their leagues. Only three of the seven players above qualified as full-time DHs last year – Ortiz, an institution at the position in Boston; Rodriguez, whose hip surgeries have virtually eliminated his mobility in the field; and Morales, signed by the Royals as a free agent prior to 2015 to replace the outgoing Billy Butler (who became a full-time DH in Oakland).
But the fact that the others can get at-bats as a designated hitter on a given night is a huge factor in attracting free agents who might benefit from days off in the field. Think of it this way: an American League team has, roughly, an extra 600 plate appearances to offer a free agent hitter.
This, some executives and agents say, absolutely impacts the market for players. Sure, it affects the players, because in an extreme sense someone like Morales wouldn’t want to sign with half the teams in baseball, thus limiting his options. But even a more versatile player – Cruz, for instance, played 80 games in right and 72 at DH last year – might prefer a team in the American League that could offer the benefit of split time.
Think, too, about contract lengths. Take Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth. When he signed his seven-year deal with Washington prior to the 2011 season, he was 31. He will be 37 in May. He has two years and $42 million remaining on that contract – a contract that was important in turning the Nationals from 100-loss jokes into perennial contenders. If there’s no seventh year, there’s no way Werth ends up in Washington. It just wasn’t an attractive place to play back then.
Now? As the Nationals have pursued free agents over the course of this winter – including runs at the top three outfielders on the market in Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes – there has always been the question of where such an incoming star would play, given Werth is entrenched in left, Bryce Harper in right and newly acquired Ben Revere likely supplanting youngster Michael A. Taylor in center. Because none of those marquee former free agents is a natural center fielder, it has always been hard to see that one of them would have been a perfect fit for Washington.
But what if the Nationals were an American League team? The Nationals could say to an Upton or a Cespedes, “Hey, Jayson’s going to take his turns as a DH. You might benefit from 40 games there, too.” The distribution of workload, and the allowances for minor health issues, become a lot easier to handle. The last couple of seasons in the Orioles’ seven-year contract with Chris Davis are more palatable because Baltimore could easily shift the slugger, who will be 36 in the final year of the year, to DH, at least occasionally.
Other issues: Those purists who would prefer pitchers hit in both leagues can forget about it. The players’ union would (rightly) think of this as a cutting of job opportunities, and fans should remember that such a change would deprive them of Ortiz in his prime or Rodriguez in his twilight. It isn’t happening. The DH will either exist in one league or both – not neither.
So given all that, it’s easy to see why Mozeliak could argue there’s “more momentum” for National League teams to discuss the universal DH. He said, in the past, it would have been a “non-starter.”
Now? If NL teams are convinced they’re losing out on players, or at least losing out on the opportunities to make their best pitches, that momentum could increase. And while much of the upcoming negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement will center around off-the-field items that mostly affect players and clubs, keep in mind there’s one potential chip at the table that affects how fans watch the game, too.