National League Teams Are Still Figuring Out This Whole DH Thing

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The introduction (and then reintroduction) of the designated hitter to the National League wasn’t the smoothest of rollouts. It was first brought about as a safety measure in the chaos of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, designed to relieve unnecessary stress on pitchers who were already dealing with a disrupted preseason. Despite the best efforts of the Players Association, the DH was removed from the NL for 2021, as the league declined to implement it without getting something in return (in this case, a delayed and potentially shortened season). A year later, and more than two months into the lockout, as the league and the union battled through negotiations over the new collective bargaining agreement, it was announced that the universal DH would return for the upcoming season, this time indefinitely.

It was a difficult task for NL teams to prepare one way for one season and another for the next. Of course, any hitter can slot into the DH spot on any given night, but not every team comes with a player who can provide real value with his bat alone, and it takes time either to acquire or develop a player like that, or to build enough depth to overcome not having one. With the universal DH, NL clubs would need to get another 700 or so productive plate appearances from their rosters — that’s no small feat. Understanding this, let’s consider the state of the DH in the National League.

Over the last two seasons, just two NL teams — the Phillies and the Dodgers — have ranked in the top 10 in offensive runs above average from the DH position. For Philadelphia, most of that came from Bryce Harper, who spent much of the last two years at the position while playing around injuries. The Dodgers have had it pretty good, too; Justin Turner split time with Max Muncy and Will Smith in 2022, and then All-Star J.D. Martinez took over as the club’s regular DH last season. And now they have Shohei Ohtani.

Most Offense from DH, 2022–23
Team Off
Angels 70.8
Phillies 50.6
Dodgers 42.0
Astros 28.9
Twins 28.8
Orioles 28.3
Blue Jays 17.1
Yankees 16.9
Rays 16.1
White Sox 11.7

These teams, of course, have great lineups beyond the DH spot, but they also have invested in that additional hitter, rather than just using that spot to give everyday position players a break from fielding. When the NL adopted the DH for good, the Phillies did not intend for Harper, who was fresh off his second MVP season as a right fielder, to be the one to fill the role. Instead, in March 2022, they signed Kyle Schwarber – a slugging outfielder who, ideally, would play the field as little as possible – to be their everyday DH. This season, though, with Harper expected to be Philadelphia’s starting first baseman, Schwarber should get most of his playing time at DH. As long as Ohtani is healthy, the Dodgers will use him exclusively as their DH for years to come, aside from the occasional rest day. Atlanta, too, has built its team to have one player, Marcell Ozuna, get most of its DH plate appearances. (Atlanta is not among the 10 teams featured on the list above because Ozuna was a below-average hitter in 2022.)

Percentage of DH PA by One Player, 2023
Rank Team %
1 Braves 86.1%
2 Angels 82.1%
3 Nationals 80.6%
4 Dodgers 68.2%
5 White Sox 65.6%
6 Marlins 63.5%
7 Pirates 61.7%
8 Red Sox 60.5%
9 Tigers 56.3%
10 Phillies 55.3%

Other teams have managed to find some success with a DH-by-committee approach. In the two full seasons of the universal DH, the Cardinals combined for a 111 DH wRC+, using Gold Glovers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, a resurrected Albert Pujols, bat-first infielder Nolan Gorman, bat-first catcher Willson Contreras, and super utility man Brendan Donovan, among others, in the role. Some of the Giants who contributed to their 108 wRC+ at DH in that span are Joc Pederson, Wilmer Flores, Tommy La Stella, Darin Ruf, and J.D. Davis. The Padres took a few short-lived, low-risk bets on a handful of DH types, such as Luke Voit, Matt Carpenter, Josh Bell, and Nelson Cruz, and they also used Manny Machado there at times when he was banged up. Altogether, San Diego DHs had a 107 wRC+ over the last two years, while the Reds managed a 106 DH wRC+ without any players taking 200 plate appearances at the position.

The other eight NL teams posted a sub-100 wRC+ from the DH position in that span, some with regular DHs and others with groups of contributors cycling through the spot. In 2022, the Nationals entrusted the role to Cruz, who was 41 at the time, and then to Joey Meneses last year; both players struggled. Meanwhile, over the last two years, the Diamondbacks had 11 different players start at least 10 games at DH. The team received a combined 90 wRC+ from the position in that span.

DH wRC+, NL Teams 2022–23
Team wRC+
Phillies 133
Dodgers 129
Cardinals 111
Giants 108
Braves 108
Padres 107
Reds 106
Marlins 98
Pirates 97
Mets 97
Cubs 92
Diamondbacks 90
Rockies 89
Brewers 88
Nationals 86

AL teams have varied in their approach to filling the DH spot, too. The Angels were fortunate to have Ohtani for the last six seasons. Outfielder Yordan Alvarez is perhaps the most dangerous hitter in baseball, and the Astros have been happy to use him primarily at DH in order to keep him healthy. Conversely, the Orioles used a combination of Anthony Santander, Adley Rutschman, and Ryan Mountcastle at DH in 2023 and finished fourth in baseball with 24.0 runs of offense above average from the position.

The Tigers had the shell of Miguel Cabrera as their DH the last two years; he posted an 83 wRC+ in 797 PA at the position in that span. (Detroit looks better suited with Kerry Carpenter poised to get most of the team’s plate appearances at DH in 2024). The Royals used a by-committee approach over the last two years, with Salvador Perez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Edward Olivares, and MJ Melendez, among others, all seeing time at DH. But, like the Tigers, Kansas City did not get much value from the position (81 wRC+).

Between the two leagues, there hasn’t appeared to be a meaningful difference in approach. Out of 60 team-seasons between 2022 and 2023, eight AL clubs have given more than half their DH plate appearances to a single player, compared to 10 in the NL. Ten AL clubs have gone the full season without a single player getting one-third of their DH PA; 11 NL clubs have. The average AL club has assigned 43.8% of their DH PA to their leading option. The average NL club? 43.3%.

But when all was said and done, the NL clubs were still a step behind their AL counterparts in terms of DH production. All told, over the last two years, the median AL team generated 11.7 runs of offensive production above average at DH, while the median NL team produced -7.7.

Now, let’s contextualize the impact here. AL teams are, on average, getting more from the DH spot than their NL counterparts, but it’s difficult to get much from that position in the first place. Over the last two years, the median AL team produced 1.9 DH WAR, compared to the median NL team’s 0.2. The difference between being a top 10 team from the DH spot and a below-average one might mean a difference of one or two WAR — that’s either a big deal or it’s really not, depending on how you frame it.

Still, the outlook doesn’t look much brighter for the NL’s designated batsmen in 2024. Heading into this season, just two of the top 11 teams in projected DH WAR, per our Depth Charts projections, are in the NL — Ohtani’s Dodgers and a Phillies team that expects to see more Schwarber and less Harper in that role. The bottom five teams on that list are NL clubs: the Mets, Marlins, Pirates, Nationals, and Rockies. That said, these projections could change between now and the start of the season. The unsigned players who could provide some thump at DH include Martinez, Brandon Belt, and Tommy Pham, among others.

Projected DH WAR, 2024
Team Proj. DH WAR
Astros 4.1
Dodgers 4.0
Yankees 2.4
Phillies 2.1
Blue Jays 1.8
Rays 1.8
White Sox 1.7
Guardians 1.7
Orioles 1.7
Rangers 1.6
Red Sox 1.6

At the start of year three since the reintroduction, it’s too soon to draw any grand conclusions about whether AL teams will continue to outpace NL clubs in DH production. But so far, at least, it appears that NL teams are still playing catch up.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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1 month ago

It’s funny to see the Brewers near the bottom of the list, since they used to be an American League team that used a DH from its inception in 1973 until 1997