Should the Union Have Sought Another Small Victory?

Personally, I prefer the DH-less game. I like when managers are forced to make more in-game decisions — in particular, when they must decide whether to allow a starting pitcher to take one last at-bat before exiting. I like that starting pitchers who are perhaps pitching too aggressively up-and-in are held accountable by stepping into the batter’s box. In an age of elevated pitching injuries, I like that the pitching spot allows pitchers a breather when working through the lineup multiple times. I like that each player who wields a bat must also wear a glove. And as a former beat writer, and as a fan of the game, I like that the game moves a little more quickly without the DH.

But it seems the adoption of the DH by the NL is inevitable, having become part of the game at the amateur level and every professional level besides the NL. Entering the most recent collective-bargaining cycle, it seemed like the DH-to-the-NL could be in play.

I bring up the DH today because Pedro Alvarez is still available. I bring up the DH today because the NL’s leading home-run hitters last season, Chris Carter, had so little appeal on the market this offseason that he considered playing in Japan before agreeing to a one-year, $3-million deal with the Yankees. I bring up the DH because Adam Lind (142 wRC+ in 2014, 119 wRC+ in 2015) settled for a one-year, $1.5-million deal with the Nationals in mid-February. I bring up the DH because, as Dave Cameron wrote earlier this offseason, the industry is not valuing bat-only players.

The players seemed to have largely kicked the can down the road in the most recent CBA. Their objectives seemed modest in nature, focused primarily on the qualifying offer. And the changes to QO compensation did mark a small victory for the union. Despite a declining share of revenues, players are nevertheless enjoying record average salaries. Perhaps the status is quo is good enough for the majority of players.

But if the union is seeking small victories, it’s a little surprising the DH wasn’t more of a focus. It didn’t seem to be a significant negotiating topic in CBA talks despite indications from Rob Manfred that there was growing interest from his perspective, and with Tony Clark suggesting that he was open to the idea when speaking with the St. Louis Post Dispatch back in 2015.

Perhaps the players misread the direction of the market, that bat-first players are increasingly experiencing difficulty in finding work. Has the market overcorrected against these players? Will it correct back? We don’t know for sure.

What we do know is bringing the DH to the NL could create 15 new starting jobs — real economic growth! — where only a bat is required, though teams increasingly have sought to use the DH as a vehicle to create roster flexibility with more versatile players.

Moreover, the DH would also address, if only slightly, the growing revenue imbalance between players and owners. As Craig Edwards wrote last winter, the designated hitter was the highest paid position in the game.

Wrote Edwards:

A combination of the free agent system, aging, and the decline that puts the spectrum to use mean first basemen and designated hitters make the most money while shortstops tend to make the least when taking all starters into account.

Edwards also explored what adding the DH and a 26th man would mean for players’ share of revenues. Adding a 26th man would create just $54 million in new player salary, Edwards estimates, with the average bench salary being $1.8 million at the time of his study last offseason. But if the designated hitter arrived in the NL, the salaries filling those slots would be more significant, assuming the position continued to be paid well because of the type of player — aging sluggers — who often fill it.

Now, big picture, the DH debate is a relatively small matter, though it’s a big thing for a growing pool of bat-only players who were still waiting for work in February as spring-training camps opened.

Under Clark, the union hasn’t been interested in picking a big fight like, say, over a salary floor or the service-time requirements to become eligible for arbitration or free agency. Players haven’t engaged there. But I think most agree that the players could have done better for themselves in the most recent CBA. And even if they didn’t want to pick large battles, even if their focus is on incremental improvement, they could have chosen — and perhaps won — a smaller victory with the DH, and helped a growing nobody of bat-first players while taking a slice out of a growing revenue imbalance. I like the DH-less game, but the players should want the DH in every lineup in baseball.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Brian Cartwright
5 years ago

Each year there are fewer than 10 the AL who start more often at DH than in the field, and only a handful that start 80% of the time at DH. Ortiz, Martinez, Morales…OK, help me.

All the other teams rotate guys through DH to give them a “rest” from playing the field. Adding the DH to the NL would give maybe 5 players a starting gig, while on the rest of the teams everyone on the roster would get an additional 60-80 PAs over the course of the season.

Brian Cartwright
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

High paying for those half dozen guys who can rake while otherwise being unathletic.

JimmieFoXX
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

“Dave Cameron wrote earlier this offseason, the industry is not valuing bat-only players”

Your opening paragraph was great, I agree with all of it. The rest is an underhanded attack on the National League that is contrary to the facts.

I’m only looking forward to the arrival of Shohei Otani because he’s a two-way player. It’s my profound hope that Otani is a driving force to remove the DH from MLB.

Max Power
5 years ago
Reply to  JimmieFoXX

Shohei Otani makes much more sense for the AL than NL. NL teams aren’t going to run him out in LF when he’s not pitching. In the NL, he hits once every 5 games. In the AL, he can DH when not pitching and hit every day.

JimmieFoXX
5 years ago
Reply to  Max Power

“NL teams aren’t going to run him out in LF when he’s not pitching”

I would not have any special interest in Otani if I were not “going to run him out in LF when he’s not pitching”

I thought I made that point in my post, but I guess not.

Mike NMN
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

Travis–What’s the breakdown between older former position players now mostly DH-ing as they work off their long term contracts, and new free agents being signed at market rates?

RobM
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

EE and Morales are DH’s, but they are used to play the field too because bullpen usage has reduced benches. The best DH’s are ones who can occasionally take the field. Yet NL teams are not going to sign EE or Morales types because they recognize they need the DH position to fully unlock their value.

bosoxforlifemember
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

Perhaps I am overly influenced by what a great DH can mean to a team. I know there aren’t many David Ortiz’s, but I find it difficult to understand why teams keep a thirteenth pitcher instead of a strong, but otherwise unplayable, hitter. I will settle for Kendry Morales, Victor Martinez or Albert Pujols. A lineup with a regular and a good DH is certainly better than a lineup with the same regular, now the DH, and a bench player playing and some of the DH’s that have been used should embarrass team management. I understand the trade offs for rest but giving up the constant of another strong bat in the lineup everyday seems an inefficient use of personnel.

Chrismember
5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

What evidence is there that NL teams would actually increase their payrolls rather than just allocate the same money differently?

There’s pretty strong evidence to the contrary, which is that the owners seemed to be amenable to the idea, and they are generally not interested in any change that adversely affects their bottom line…

RobM
5 years ago

Quite true, although the economics of the DH is still within your post, both for the team and players side. Teams pay so much money now for their players they want to maximize their use, while also keeping them healthy, so rotational use of the DH spot allows for this. From the players side, it allows for the extension of careers for players making a good salary. The union is very interested in that, which is why the DH will never go away. Matt Holliday is no longer good in the field. He signs a one-year, $13M deal to DH for the Yankees. He can still hit. Carlos Beltran will DH for the Astros. Hanley Ramirez moves from the field into a more full-time DH slot. Edward Encarnacion will make $20M a year for the next three years to mostly DH, etc. There’s a reason these players exist in the AL and not the NL. The union will not give up those high-paying positions.

I’m fine if the NL never adopts the DH. I understand fans who grew up watching that style prefer that style. I’m a fan of an AL team. I’m in my 50s, greying, a recent grandfather. I mention this to point out I’m not a kid. I’ve only known the DH for my favorite team. As a fan, I never want to see a pitcher hit. To me, it’s not a question of the DH leaving the AL. It’s question if the NL ever wants to adopt the DH. That’s up to them.