MLB: The case against the universal DH

Here is why MLB should go back to the way things used to be and move away from the universal designated hitter.

This is probably one of the most futile arguments I have ever written. But it is also one of the easiest.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has already thrown his backing into making permanent most of the Covid-related changes put in place this past season. That presumably includes the use of the universal DH.

The universal DH is highly likely to happen, if not in 2021 then certainly as part of a new Basic Agreement.

Both the Players Association and the baseball media absolutely love it. The Union is guaranteed to make it a negotiating point this time next year. A consensus is developing to look beyond the valid arguments against it. With Manfred supporting it and the union poised to demand it, the universal DH is only a matter of time.

Even if it shouldn’t be. Which it shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Several reasons, really. First, it’s expensive. In 2019 – the last season players were paid their full salaries — the average player signed by an American League team to be its primary DH got $13.65 million. That was three times the average $4.35 million salary for all positions that season.

Six of the 15 primary DHs were paid in excess of $20 million, topped by Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera at $30 million. Seven were the highest paid players on their team. Only three – Toronto’s Rowdy Tellez, Houston’s Yordan Alvarez, and the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani – failed to hit the MLB salary average. They were also the only three DHs to rank outside their team’s top five in salary.

The second reason, a companion to the first, is that, even as a highly paid group,  a DH made only a relatively modest contribution to team success. The average 1.78 WAR of a primary DH ranked only seventh in that category among players on their own teams who had a minimum of 100 plate appearances.

Two – Baltimore’ Mark Trumbo and New York’s Giancarlo Stanton – failed to even reach the 100 plate appearance threshold: Stanton due to injuries and Trumbo due to poor performance. None of the 15 who were signed primarily to be DH led their teams in offensive WAR, and fewer than half ranked among the top five.

In other words, the typical AL DH in 2019 was a high-cost, low-performance asset.

That leads to the third reason to oppose the universal DH: 2020 performance. The NL did use the designated hitter in the short 2020 season. By all logic, that should have driven NL averages upward.

In fact, the opposite happened. National League teams batted .246 in 2020, five points WORSE than without the DH in 2019. In fact, the arrival of the DH coincided with the sinking of NL averages to a half-century low. Not since 1968 (.243) had NL hitters performed so ineptly. Slugging averages also fell by 10 points, from .431 in 2019 to .421.

On a per game basis, run production also declined, although only fractionally. Letting pitchers hit, NL teams scored 4.8 runs per game in 2019; with the DH in 2020, that average dropped to 4.7. Of the 15 teams, eight saw declines in per game offense even after replacing the offenses of pitchers with that of their DH.

The exceptional season enjoyed by Atlanta Braves DH Marcell Ozuna obscures the group averages. But subtract Ozuna and here are the composite figures for the other 14 primary NL DHs: a .234 batting average and .434 slugging percentage.

Three of the most-used NL DHs in this just-completed season failed to even hit .200. Six failed to slug .400.

In short, this is what many propose to impose on the NL in 2021: an ultra-expensive position with a history of underperformance in the AL – especially relative to its cost – that failed miserably to improve offense in its 2020 NL trial.

Approaching a season when revenues are at best problematic, why would any sane MLB executive want to adopt that change?