A Look at Some NL Designated Hitter Candidates

The universal designated hitter will be a reality in 2020, assuming that the Major League Baseball Players Association agrees to the health and safety protocols connected to the March 26 agreement, which is to say, that it will be part of the revised rules for this weird, short season. But because the league and the union were unable to agree to any of the subsequent proposals that have been batted back and forth in recent weeks, the status of the universal DH for 2021 and beyond — with the expectation that it would slip smoothly into the 2022 Collective Bargaining Agreement — is not a done deal, after all. Rather, it’s something that will have to be revisited within discussions over rules changes for next year, which typically begin at the November owners’ meetings.

Even so, as it’s the rare point upon which both sides agreed amid the otherwise rancorous negotiations, I think I’m still on solid ground in discussing the longer-term changes that could come with such a move. On Friday, I discussed the apparent end of pitchers’ often-pathetic attempts at hitting, and last month, Craig Edwards took an initial stab at how NL teams might handle their DH slots given their roster construction, with special consideration given to the Mets’ situation. This time around, I’d like to consider which players might stand to benefit in the longer run.

For starters, it’s worth noting that the demise of the DH has been somewhat exaggerated. Several years back, the AL saw a notable decrease in the number of players reaching significant thresholds of plate appearances at the spot, but those totals have largely rebounded:

While DH production hit a low point in 2017 (95 wRC+), it has generally fluctuated within a narrow range over that timespan:

All of which is to say that the position has not changed very much in recent years, though it is worth noting that the number of aging players getting significant time at DH is decreasing. Last year, just four players age 30 and over received at least 300 PA from the spot (Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis, and J.D. Martinez), compared to 10 just two years prior, and the number of such players getting even 100 PA from the spot (12) was the lowest in the 2010-19 timeframe. Still, I don’t think the trend differs much from the overall greening of the position player population, which last year was at its youngest (a weighted age of 27.9 years according to Baseball-Reference, down from 28.1 in 2018 and 28.9 a decade ago).

In thinking about the likelihood of a more widespread DH, one might still suppose that the primary candidates would be older players who are still above-average hitters but whose defensive value is low. Towards that end, I gathered a list of players who met the following criteria:

  • Posted a 105 wRC+ or better in at least 500 plate appearances from 2017-19
  • Had negative defensive values over that three-year range, as defined by the average of a player’s UZR and DRS (since catchers don’t have UZR and don’t tend to transition to DH, I left them out of this)
  • Are active, to the point of at least having gone to camp with an NL team in 2020
  • Are entering their age-31 season or later

That yielded a list of 18 DH candidates, players who might be better off at the position if they’re playing at all:

Potential Over-30 DH Candidates on NL Teams
Name Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR Def
Charlie Blackmon Rockies 33 2055 .312 .374 .559 128 11.4 -8.5
Matt Kemp Marlins 35 1035 .278 .321 .460 105 0.2 -6.8
Daniel Murphy Rockies 35 1422 .302 .354 .490 112 5.0 -5.4
Andrew McCutchen Phillies 33 1594 .265 .368 .455 122 7.9 -3.2
Brian Dozier Padres 33 1819 .243 .335 .443 107 7.6 -3.0
Mike Moustakas Reds 31 1817 .259 .319 .498 110 7.2 -2.2
Eric Thames Nationals 33 1288 .241 .343 .504 118 5.0 -2.1
Jay Bruce Phillies 33 1311 .236 .304 .475 105 3.2 -2.0
Starling Marte Diamondbacks 31 1531 .284 .334 .458 110 8.1 -1.8
Ryan Braun Brewers 36 1380 .270 .331 .488 111 4.9 -1.3
Adam Eaton Nationals 31 1133 .288 .377 .425 114 4.7 -1.3
Jed Lowrie Mets 36 1333 .270 .355 .445 121 8.5 -1.1
Asdrúbal Cabrera Nationals 34 1646 .267 .336 .445 107 5.8 -1.0
Robinson Canó Mets 37 1419 .279 .338 .450 112 6.8 -1.0
Justin Turner Dodgers 35 1518 .307 .397 .519 145 13.0 -0.9
Ryan Zimmerman Nationals 35 1089 .284 .345 .520 123 4.7 -0.9
A.J. Pollock Dodgers 32 1268 .263 .324 .475 107 5.7 -0.8
Stats cover 2017-19 seasons. Def = annual average of DRS and UZR.

This isn’t to say that all of these players are actually likely to DH significantly in 2020. Marte, whom the Diamondbacks acquired from the Pirates in late January, is slated to be their center fielder, while Moustakas is apparently the Reds’ second baseman, though he could fit at DH if the Reds wanted to try Nick Senzel at second, assuming the latter has recovered from September surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Many of the others are penciled in as starters in the field for their respective teams, and despite being in the red defensively, aren’t really so bad that they have no business with a glove.

Those 18 players are unevenly distributed, hailing from 10 of the NL’s 15 teams. The Nationals have four candidates based on these criteria, and yet it’s quite possible that the bulk of the DH duty will go to Howie Kendrick, whose defense grades out as average for the period, so he’s absent from the list. Likewise, while there are two Mets here, I can think of three other DH candidates off the top of my head whom this search has failed to capture (we’ll get to those).

A few from the list do stand out, starting with the two most valuable players here over the past three seasons. Turner has had a hard time staying on the field lately due to injuries (ankle, back, wrist, hamstring), averaging just 123 games over the past three seasons. He set a high for the period with 135 games last year, but had his worst year defensively (-6.7 UZR, -3 DRS at third base). On a team with so many moving parts — Max Muncy, Enrique Hernández, Chris Taylor, and Cody Bellinger can all play multiple positions — it seems less likely that the Dodgers commit to a single player at DH than determine their lineup based on matchups, but Turner might suffer less wear and tear if he spent significant time on hitter-only duty.

Blackmon has fallen off on both sides of the ball from an outstanding 2017 season (142 wRC+, 6.6 WAR), particularly on defense. Over the past three years, he has the majors’ lowest DRS among outfielders (-47), and third-lowest UZR (-23.9), that even while switching to right field last year, where he was anything but a success (-10.6 UZR, -9 DRS). Statcast says he’s lost some speed, falling from the 79th percentile in sprint speed in 2017 to the 48th percentile last year, while his outfield jumps have fallen from the 35th percentile to the 10th in the same span. While his gloves should probably be sealed in concrete and then buried as he takes up residency as a DH, the Rockies’ haphazard approach to roster construction leaves them another candidate for the spot in Murphy, though defensively, he was actually more or less an average first baseman last in his first year with the Rockies after years of rather brutal work at second base in New York and Washington; the problem was that he slipped to an 86 wRC+.

McCutchen is a player who came to mind when I was discussing the possibility of a universal DH on one of the several radio spots I did last week, mostly regarding the labor situation and Long Gone Summer; a host asked me to name an older player who might benefit from DHing full time in the service of building a Hall of Fame case and I summoned his name as an emergency hack. Mind you, I don’t think Cutch is particularly on track for the Hall. He’s a five-time All-Star with a Gold Glove and an MVP award to his name but scores just 42 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, and through his age-34 season, he has 44.8 career WAR (Baseball-Reference version), 38.4 peak WAR (his best seven seasons) and 41.6 JAWS, placing him 30th among center fielders. He’s been slightly above average in the outfield corners over the past two seasons but was limited to 59 games last year due to a torn ACL in his left knee. Though he’s no longer the hitter he was during his Pittsburgh prime, it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up transitioning into the DH role and enjoying a long run at the position.

Of course, there’s a whole other group of players I haven’t considered as candidates, namely those 30 or younger. Teams are often loath to shift such players to full-time DH duty unless they’re particularly clumsy or injury prone, but in this brave new world, it’s worth thinking about the option, not only given that some teams may view them as more desirable because they’re less expensive, but because the universal existence of the DH slot opens up new trade possibilities.

Potential 30-and-Under DH Candidates on NL Teams
Name Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR Def
Josh Bell Pirates 27 1816 .264 .352 .483 118 4.0 -6.7
Michael Conforto Mets 27 1726 .257 .363 .492 129 11.1 -3.6
Nick Castellanos Reds 28 2007 .287 .337 .505 121 7.2 -3.4
Kris Bryant Cubs 28 1756 .284 .390 .511 137 13.9 -3.1
Juan Soto Nationals 21 1153 .287 .403 .535 143 8.5 -2.7
Christian Yelich Brewers 28 1926 .311 .398 .562 151 20.0 -2.4
J.D. Davis Mets 27 634 .275 .338 .468 114 1.9 -2.3
Jesse Winker Reds 26 855 .285 .379 .466 122 2.3 -1.6
Wilmer Flores Giants 28 1076 .282 .326 .460 109 2.5 -1.3
Tyler White Dodgers 29 583 .245 .329 .425 107 1.0 -1.3
Stats cover 2017-19 seasons. Def = annual average of DRS and UZR.

Here you can see some problems with this methodology, given that it’s capturing not one but two former NL MVPs. As with Blackmon and McCutchen, Yelich’s defensive rating here is being sunk by the end of his tenure as a regular center fielder (-12 DRS and -0.9 UZR in 2017). Assuming he has recovered from last year’s season-ending fractured right kneecap (it still hurts to type that), he should be fine in right field. Bryant has been slightly in the red at third base via both DRS and UZR in each of the past three seasons, and he’s been nothing special in the outfield, either. No, he probably doesn’t need more time in Triple-A to work on that glove, but it’s worth wondering whether moving him all around the diamond is as productive as the Cubs have thought.

Conforto is another player who doesn’t belong in center field, given his -17 DRS and -4.8 UZR there over the three-year period; the Mets, with a perennially mismatched collection of outfielders, have played him there extensively, but he rightfully belongs in a corner. Davis, who broke through with the bat last year, is a butcher whether he’s playing left field or third base, and particularly well-suited to the bat-only lifestyle. Speaking of the Mets, Flores — who departed Queens after the 2018 season, spending last year with Arizona before moving on to San Francisco — isn’t much to write home about at any position, but probably can’t do too much damage as a platoon second baseman.

Bell and Castellanos have been quite lousy in the field. The former is dead last among first basemen in both DRS (-25) and UZR (-15.3, the only player in double digits) over the past three seasons, and has nowhere to hide along the defensive spectrum. The latter, who was bad enough at the hot corner that the Tigers moved him to the outfield after 2017, hasn’t taken to that spot either, as his -26 DRS and -17.3 UZR in 2018-19 attest. For the Reds, he’d be a better choice to DH than either Moustakas, who’s at least playable in the infield, or Winker, though the latter’s numbers in the outfield in 1,525.2 innings over the past three seasons (-22 DRS, -13.7 UZR) are rather brutal themselves.

Soto, who has done remarkable things with the bat since arriving in the majors in mid-2019, was actually about average in left field last year after a rough introduction as a rookie; like Yelich, he’s probably safe to pass over here. White had a hot half-season as the Astros’ DH in 2018 but couldn’t replicate that production last year, and is in the wrong organization to be looking for at-bats in the DH role.

One player who escaped my stat-based sweep whose offense has not been up to snuff — at least in the three-year picture — is Dominic Smith, as if the Mets needed another DH candidate. After struggling mightily in his limited opportunities in 2017-18 (78 wRC+ in 332 PA, plus -9 DRS and -5.5 UZR in limited time at first base and the outfield corners), Smith hit a very respectable .282/.355/.525 (133 wRC+) in 197 PA last year, though Pete Alonso’s Rookie of the Year-winning campaign made it clear that regular first base duty is out of the question. Smith’s numbers in limited duty in the outfield corners established that he’s not an outfielder, either, but as noted above, he’ll have plenty of competition for playing time in a DH scenario. We haven’t even accounted for the return of Yoenis Céspedes, who hasn’t played since July 20, 2018 (his only game since May 13 of that year) due to ankle and heel injuries. His 2016-18 numbers in the outfield (-6 DRS and -5.7 UZR) are distorted by his last foray in center field in the first of those seasons, but it seems likely that the 34-year-old slugger’s legs aren’t what they used to be, and so he’s in the Mets’ logjam as well. Good luck to rookie manager Luis Rojas sorting all that out.

What this admittedly imperfect exercise shows is that the number of established National League players whose defense is clearly lousy enough to merit DH duty isn’t that large, though my use of three-year numbers may paper over trends suggesting more abrupt fall-offs. And I haven’t even attempted to account for the more solid defenders and better overall players who might be steered to the position in the longer run, the Goldschmidts and Vottos and Poseys (oh my) whose bats — and contracts — may carry them further than many of the players above. If the universal DH is truly here to stay, there will be ample time to discuss them, but for now, we’ll have to be content with watching how NL teams take to staffing the position.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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2 years ago

I am adamantly against the DH, can’t stand it, hate it. But if I was forced as a manager to use it I would take advantage of it as a rotating spot. Someone new each day would be there. Your 8 regular fielders would get an automatic day off in the field, but still bat, and use it to get those bench guys time in the lineup to keep them fresh.

2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

Please count me as the first to say I’m so glad you don’t make meaningful baseball decisions for my favorite or any major league team!

2 years ago
Reply to  Moate

So just sticking a hitter in there that can’t play the field well is better than being strategic about who you put in there each day?

2 years ago
Reply to  bluerum29

I agree on a rotation, but not necessarily getting everyone in there. Some guys are better suited for the role than others. A platoon situation makes more sense to me. I’m a Padres fan, so I’d like to see Tommy Pham’s bat in the lineup pretty much every day but let him rest the glove. Depending on the other pieces involved I could see him making 30-50% of his starts as the DH. Veteran hitters like Brian Dozier make some sense as well.