NL Teams Stand to Lose out If There’s a Universal DH in 2020

There are many proposals floating around concerning when and how the major league season will begin. Several such plans include divisional alignments that go beyond the standard American and National Leagues that have been present for more than a century. The main point of difference still in play between the leagues is the presence of the designated hitter in the American League and the absence of the same in the National League. I think most fans would be in favor of tweaks to the division rules if those changes prove necessary for baseball to return this summer. While sticking to the interleague rule where the home ballpark dictates whether the designated hitter is in use might be feasible, given that the standard divisions don’t exist, going to a universal designated hitter might be an easier solution. It also might be slightly safer, helping to prevent pitcher injuries in a shortened season. But should a universal DH be adopted, NL teams will be at a significant disadvantage at the plate this season.

Our Depth Charts currently project National league teams for 291.5 WAR on the position player side, while the American League comes in at 314.3 WAR, a difference of 22.8 WAR. The main source of that difference is the designated hitter, where AL teams are projected for 27.1 WAR and 700 PA per team while NL teams are projected for 8.8 WAR and 300 PA per team. While those 300 PA are deemed part of the designated hitter category, in reality, it is mostly pinch hitting opportunities, which come without the positional adjustment associated with the designated hitter. With the positional adjustment, the NL WAR would actually be below replacement level. Of course, if NL teams were actually using the designated hitter, they would apportion playing time differently and also receive the same 700 plate appearances as the American League (for the purposes of this exercise and to ease understanding, we’ll just go with a normal 162-game season).

On the fantasy side, Paul Sporer discussed which players might benefit from a universal DH. His piece is instructive on how teams might apportion the extra playing time available with a designated hitter. For our purposes, we’ll mostly use projections to guide how teams might use the DH, while I’ll do my best to insert a little bit of reality as well.

In the table below, you’ll see a number of columns that show how teams might benefit from the DH. The first two columns simply show the team and the player I chose to be that squad’s primary DH. Next, you’ll see that player’s projected playing time and WAR without the DH. Then, you’ll see that player’s projected WAR as a DH over 600 plate appearances, followed by an adjustment for our current DH projections in the depth chart. The penultimate column adds in the WAR benefits from the adjustment. For an example of how that plays out, say Ryan Braun and his current projection of 462 PA is moved to 600 PA at DH. Other players will take up those 462 PA and accumulate WAR there. The final column shows how much WAR a team might gain (or lose) in the projections if a universal DH is added.

NL Gains from Universal Designated Hitter
Team Projected DH Proj PA Proj WAR (No DH) DH Proj WAR (600 PA) Proj DH “Loss” Other Gains TOTAL Gain/Loss
Cardinals Matt Carpenter 539 2.2 1.5 0.4 2.2 1.1
Dodgers Max Muncy 595 2.9 2.8 0.7 1.6 0.8
Rockies Daniel Murphy 511 0.4 0.4 0 0.8 0.8
Reds Jesse Winker 449 1.3 1.6 0.4 0.9 0.8
Brewers Ryan Braun 462 1 1.1 0.4 1 0.7
Nationals Howie Kendrick 349 1.3 1.4 0.5 0.8 0.4
Dbacks Jake Lamb 306 0.6 0.7 0.4 0.7 0.4
Phillies Jay Bruce 266 0.6 0.7 0.3 0.6 0.4
Atlanta Austin Riley 308 0.8 0.6 0.4 0.9 0.3
Padres Josh Naylor 206 0.4 0.6 0.4 0.3 0.1
Cubs Ian Happ 434 1.3 0.9 0.4 0.8 0.0
Pirates Jose Osuna 272 0.3 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.0
Marlins Garett Cooper 304 0.4 0.3 0.4 0.4 -0.1
Giants Hunter Pence 383 0.1 -0.2 0.4 0.4 -0.3
Mets Dominic Smith 273 0.3 0.0 0.4 0.3 -0.4

Teams with the ability to put good hitters in the DH spot, and give those new DH’s prior playing time in the field to quality depth players, are in the best position to implement a designated hitter. The Dodgers could put Max Muncy in the DH spot and cover his playing time using a group of quality players including Chris Taylor, A.J. Pollock, Enrique Hernández, and Matt Beaty. If the Cardinals make Tommy Edman their stating third baseman, it means almost no drop-off in the overall quality of play and gives more playing time in the outfield to Tyler O’Neill and prospect Dylan Carlson. For the Rockies, moving Ryan McMahon to first and letting Brendan Rodgers play second base provides a decent projected gain. The Reds could theoretically gain more by moving Nick Castellanos to DH, but that seemed unlikely.

At the bottom, the projections simply don’t like Dominic Smith as a hitter, resulting in the Mets’ last place finish. If Yoenis Céspedes were healthy and hit his solid projections, the Mets would move up to the middle of the pack. For most teams, we could fiddle around with the playing time, the players expected to be the DH, and their replacements in the field, but we won’t see materially different results.

Most NL teams simply aren’t built to put a slugger in the designated hitter role. If a team had a really good hitter, it likely would have already found a spot for them on the roster and a way for them to get playing time. Few teams have extra quality starters they can just plug in for another 600 plate appearances. In the AL, Yordan Alvarez, J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, and Shohei Ohtani are already there as primary DHs with quality hitters like Jorge Soler, Edwin Encarnación, and Franmil Reyes also serving that role. Those players just aren’t on NL rosters right now. The total gain above amounts to about five more wins, which would still put NL teams, on average, about a win behind their AL counterparts with the entire difference due to the DH.

While the numbers above are more back of the envelope than gospel, this is what the positional power rankings for DH might look like with all 30 teams:

In a typical season, only about 5% or so of an NL team’s schedule features the designated hitter, and those same teams only compete against each other for playoff spots. Even in the World Series, we are only talking about a few games and an unlikely significant impact. In a season where teams are not normally equipped with a designated hitter, but using a designated hitter every day and competing for a playoff spot against teams prepared for the DH presents a pretty significant disadvantage. It is an advantage that teams might just have to live with in a very unusual season, but a universal DH would most definitely confer an advantage on the traditional AL teams against their NL counterparts.

We hoped you liked reading NL Teams Stand to Lose out If There’s a Universal DH in 2020 by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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David Klein
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Member

Cespedes or Davis is the Mets likely dh as Cespedes legs likely don’t allow him to play the OF—and I think the Mets are in better shape than most nl teams when it comes to a dh and even if Ces can’t go Dom did put up a wRC+ around 130ish in around 200 plate appearances last year.

Rob
Member
Rob

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Cano. I’d think you gain value taking Cano out of the field even if it means putting Davis at 3rd. With the DH it makes using Marisnick as a regular easier to digest.

ihatehataz
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Member
ihatehataz

I think between Smith, Davis, Cespedes, and Cano the Mets actually are in good shape here. They have always built their team with questionable defensive alignments and with players who probably should be a DH playing the field.

carter
Member
Member
carter

Iirc Cano actually hit the ball a lot better than the results showed. I think he will end up being fine offensively.

Anon
Member
Member
Anon

37 years old, BB rate cratered, K rate up to a career high, EV down from the year before (though in line with the 3 prior years), LA down and my personal highlight stat to show whether a guy has lost it, his chase rate spiked. OVer the 5 years of the Statcast era he has underperformed xwOBA by 13 points and he put up a .328 xwOBA last year.

I wouldn’t assume Cano will go back what he was.

gvanlue
Member
gvanlue

The thought process around arbitrarily choosing Smith as the primary DH just makes no sense. I mean, if you’re choosing him, why not have him play the field instead and let Alonso DH? That would improve the defense. Why choose a guy who is actually decently well-rounded (though less visually well-rounded than he used to be) when you can put a guy like Davis at DH and remove him as a defensive liability?

mookie28
Member
Member
mookie28

Also Dom Smith is considered a superior fielder at 1B to Alonso and the Mets could use Smith at 1B and Alonso at DH with Davis/Cespedes in LF on various days. I think the DH would actually benefit the Mets more than most NL teams. Strange projection for them.

gvanlue
Member
gvanlue

Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. Even if Cespedes and Lowrie aren’t able to play, the team should have a lot of configuration options; it seems like the author arbitrarily chose an option that doesn’t optimize the team in any way.

mookie28
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Member
mookie28

I made my comment from my phone and hadn’t clicked more comments so I’m sure I just missed it. I think a lot of us are on the same page that Mets have several guys that should/can hit but are poor in the field so a DH option would likely benefit not harm the team. Also no one is getting 600 PAs anyway.

carter
Member
Member
carter

Mets have like 5 guys who could DH. Alonso, Cespedes, Davis, Cano, Smith. Honestly all 5 are probably close to worthy hitters.

Brock Paperscissors
Member
Member
Brock Paperscissors

Seriously. No mention of Cano or Davis, who would certainly see plenty of time at DH, along with a healthy Cespedes – I’m not even sure Smith would earn a plurality of the DH share. An argument can be made that the Mets are one of the teams who would benefit most from a universal DH. Simply plopping one player’s projections into a chart doesn’t even tell half of the story.