Major League Baseball’s 60-game season isn’t the only major change for 2020. This year, National League teams will be able to use the designated hitter, just like their American League counterparts have enjoyed since 1973. That change probably will lead to fewer bunts and an increase in the amount of runs, perhaps allowing the NL to best the AL in runs per game for the first time since 1974.
In light of baseball’s new wrinkle, here are the most likely designated hitters for each NL team, ranked by their projected performance for 2020. There will be some cases where a team might employ multiple players in a DH role, especially in platoon situations, but we limited each team to the one main DH candidate the team is expected to employ during the regular season per the FanGraphs Opening Day tracker. The ranking is based on the player’s projected weighted runs scored above (or below) average, which measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes to his team compared to the average player.
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1. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
2020 projection: .249 with 14 home runs, 31 runs, 35 RBI and one stolen base
7.2 weighted runs scored above average
Schwarber’s defense is a liability, but his ability to blast home runs and extra-base hits makes him an ideal designated hitter. The 27-year-old hit 38 home runs last season and has the ninth most (94) among NL players over the past three years. His isolated power (.257) is the sixth best in that span.
2. Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves
2020 projection: .278 with 11 home runs, 31 runs, 39 RBI and three stolen bases
6.6 weighted runs scored above average
Ozuna spent the past two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, with whom he hit .262 with 31 home runs per 162 games. Last season, he set or tied career highs in barrel rate (12.6 percent of hits were on the sweet spot), exit velocity (91.8 mph) and hard hit rate (49.2 percent).
3. Tommy Pham, San Diego Padres
2020 projection: .271 with eight home runs, 32 runs, 25 RBI and seven stolen bases
6.4 weighted runs scored above average
On Tuesday, the Padres acquired speedster Jorge Mateo from the Oakland Athletics, setting positional changes in motion that will ultimately land Pham as the team’s designated hitter in 2020. Pham has been above average for the past three seasons per on-base-plus-slugging percentage, with a fourth projected for 2020 (.829). He’s also expected to be the third-most-valuable hitter on the team after Manny Machado (1.6 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs) and Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.4).
4. Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers
2020 projection: .252 with 10 home runs, 25 runs, 27 RBI and one stolen base
5.8 weighted runs scored above average
Hip issues sidelined Pederson during spring training, and less time in the field could alleviate the problem. The Dodgers are one of the teams that has discussed a platoon in the DH role, and Pederson’s biggest benefit is batting as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching. Against righties, Pederson produced an OPS of .920 and created runs at a rate that was 37 percent higher than the league average last year (137 wRC+) after taking into account league and park effects.
|Joc Pederson||2019 vs. RHP||2019 vs. LHP||Career vs. RHP||Career vs. LHP|
|Strikeout rate||20.7 percent||30.0 percent||23.3 percent||29.1 percent|
|Walk rate||10.6 percent||2.0 percent||12.9 percent||9.3 percent|
5. Howie Kendrick, Washington Nationals
2020 projection: .300 with six home runs, 26 runs, 27 RBI and two stolen bases
5.0 weighted runs scored above average
Kendrick was instrumental in the Nationals winning the World Series in 2019, and the 36-year-old utility player (he turns 37 on July 12) was in the 90th percentile or better for exit velocity, hard-hit rate and strikeout rate last season. In the 21st century, only Barry Bonds, Ichiro Suzuki and Chipper Jones have batted as well as Kendrick did in 2019 (.344) past the age of 35.
6. Daniel Murphy, Colorado Rockies
2020 projection: .292 with seven home runs, 25 runs, 29 RBI and one stolen base
4.1 weighted runs scored above average
It’s hard to imagine Murphy could go to the best hitter’s park in baseball history and turn in his worst batting season in the majors, but that’s exactly what happened in 2019. He went from creating runs at a rate that was between 10 and 54 percent higher than average after taking into account league and park effects over the past three years to falling 14 percent below average despite playing his home games at Coors Field.
The consensus of the five projection systems audited by FanGraphs expects the 35-year-old to rebound in 2020.
7. Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals
2020 projection: .238 with nine home runs, 30 runs, 25 RBI and two stolen bases
3.7 weighted runs scored above average
The 34-year-old struggled mightily in 2019, setting career lows for batting average (.226) and OPS (.726). Perhaps some of that could be chalked up to injuries. He landed on the injured list twice, first with a lower back strain and then for a right foot contusion a few days later. When healthy, Carpenter is an above-average hitter with an ability to work the count (56 of 678 plate appearances featured a 3-0 count in 2018, an above-average rate). A move to a full-time DH role could help him rekindle some of his magic.
8. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
2020 projection: .269 with 10 home runs, 30 runs, 34 RBI and four stolen bases
3.6 weighted runs scored above average
The adoption of the universal designated hitter did the Brewers a favor. Braun was probably destined to share time at first base with Justin Smoak but can now be used full time as the DH. The 2007 rookie of the year and 2011 NL MVP batted .285 last year, his best mark since 2016, and created runs at a rate that was 17 percent higher than the league average after taking into account league and park effects. He also set a career high in hard-hit rate (45.4 percent), a skill that should carry over for at least another year.
9. Jay Bruce, Philadelphia Phillies
2020 projection: .242 with nine home runs, 20 runs, 27 RBI and one stolen base
1.4 weighted runs scored above average
Bruce got unlucky in 2019. According to the exit velocity and launch angles of the balls he put in play, he should have batted .244 with a .543 slugging percentage. Instead those marks were .216 and .523. Still, in 310 at-bats the left-handed hitter had 26 home runs, with 20 of those coming at the expense of right-handed pitchers.
10. Matt Joyce, Miami Marlins
2020 projection: .239 with five home runs, 17 runs, 14 RBI and one stolen base
1.1 weighted runs scored above average
Expect Joyce to get the lion’s share of at-bats against right-handed pitchers. He is a lifetime .252 hitter with an .806 OPS against righties with 133 home runs (out of 145 for his career). Joyce bats .188 with a .581 OPS against left-handed pitching.
11. Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates
2020 projection: .247 with nine home runs, 27 runs, 29 RBI and four stolen bases
1.0 weighted runs scored above average
Polanco required season-ending shoulder surgery last summer but is expected to bat fifth for the Pirates in 2020, between Josh Bell and Colin Moran. Last year, Pittsburgh ranked seventh in the NL in plate appearances with men on base for the No. 5 hitter (315), giving Polanco some hope for a productive season.
12. Jake Lamb, Arizona Diamondbacks
2020 projection: .232 with six home runs, 20 runs, 22 RBI and one stolen base
0.9 weighted runs scored above average
Lamb used to hit for power (59 home runs from 2016 to 2017) but has since lost his power stroke. He also has some holes in his swing, failing to make meaningful contact with pitches that aren’t in the heart of the strike zone.
13. Nick Senzel, Cincinnati Reds
2020 projection: .261 with six home runs, 26 runs, 22 RBI and six stolen bases
0.3 weighted runs scored above average
The No. 2 draft pick in 2016 had a decent debut in the majors last year, batting .256 with a .742 OPS. The 25-year-old’s power (12 home runs) and speed (14 stolen bases plus a sprint speed of 29.4 feet per second, good enough to put him in the 96th percentile) also illustrate his upside for the Reds down the line.
14. Dominic Smith, New York Mets
2020 projection: .248 with five home runs, 18 runs, 18 RBI and one stolen base
1.5 weighted runs scored below average
Smith is likely a placeholder until Yoenis Céspedes gets healthy, but the 2013 first-round draft pick just turned 25 and is coming off a career year for batting average (.282), OPS (.881) and isolated power (.243).
15. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
2020 projection: .252 with six home runs, 20 runs, 21 RBI and three stolen bases
2.5 weighted runs scored below average
Pence was the Texas Rangers’ DH in 2019 and finished with a .297 average and 18 home runs in 83 games. He also set a career high in OPS (.910) over 316 plate appearances.
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