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What to expect from the designated hitter coming to the National League

Los Angeles Dodgers v Colorado Rockies Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The MLB owners meetings concluded in Orlando on Thursday, and commissioner Rob Manfred held a press conference. Among the items he discussed — when not overstating the owners’ position, or saying out loud that owning an MLB team was less profitable than the stock market — was that owners plan to make a proposal to players on Saturday.

The expected announcement of a delay to the start of spring training did not come on Thursday, but most likely by design. When that seemingly obvious step becomes official either this weekend or soon after, it’s easier to lay blame on both sides rather than have Manfred announce it before the owners make another offer.

In the 10-plus weeks since MLB instituted a lockout, there have been only a small handful of negotiations. But among the items already agreed to by players and owners, as noted by Manfred on Thursday, include a draft lottery and the use of a universal designated hitter.

While it’s important to note that nothing is final until the entire collective bargaining agreement is agreed to, then ratified — Manfred estimated once the two sides reached agreement, it would take a few days before the deal was finalized and spring training could begin — it’s been expected for a while that the DH was eventually coming to the National League.

The universal DH is wanted by both sides, but the usual hold up — and why 2021 did not see the DH in the NL — was the owners wanting something in return for the DH, often something much more value to the owners (like expanded playoffs) than the DH brought to the players.

The declining value to the players is the fact that many teams use the DH to rotate regulars for some form of rest while still playing, rather than employ an extra regular. J.J. Cooper at Baseball America wrote about the trend prior to the 2021 season:

The numbers are even more stark when looking at players who DH everyday. In 2015, six teams had a player who received 500 or more plate appearances as DH. By 2019, that number had been cut to one.

Last year actually saw an uptick in at least semi-regular designated hitters. Nelson Cruz (573 PA) and Shohei Ohtani (560) each got over 500 PA, while J.D. Martinez (487), Giancarlo Stanton (467), Yordan Alvarez (425) and Franmil Reyes (424) eclipsed 400 PA.

What the universal DH would mean is no more pitchers hitting, which in the National League in 2021 was a group that hit only .110/.149/.140.

Pitchers in the National League averaged just 1.97 plate appearances per game last season, a steady decline from 2.28 PA per game in 2011 and 2.18 per game in 2016. A common refrain among opponents of the DH is that it reduces strategy, one refuted on Wednesday by Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus:

Realistically, what we have in the National League is the reverse double hook, which sounds like a knot or a basketball dunk. Teams get the benefit of having a “real” hitter in the pitcher’s spot in the later innings, once the starter is out of the game. It just happens to be a string of pinch hitters, rather than a single designated one.

The National League requires a manager to hit three buttons instead of one, and they all follow the same plan. It’s entirely predictable what the plan is. That’s not strategy, that’s just inefficiency. The evolution of the game means that the National League is basically halfway to the DH anyway.

We talked about the DH on the latest episode of the True Blue LA podcast, with Jacob Burch and I each drafting five Dodgers to see who got the most total plate appearances at designated hitter in 2022. In a scintillating vote that came down to the wire, 51 percent of you sided with Team Jacob.

In the 60-game 2020 season, when the NL did have the DH, nobody had more than 12 starts at the position. The Dodgers spread time around, with 15 different players taking at-bats as designated hitters. As a group, Los Angeles DHs in 2020 hit .271/356/.431, a 116 wRC+.

It was a welcome change for the Dodgers, who since interleague play started in 1997 have gotten the least power of their designated hitters of any team in MLB. Dodgers DHs during the regular season have hit .246/.329/.361 with the fewest home runs (20), the second-lowest slugging percentage, and fifth-worst OPS (.690).

I would expect more of a timeshare at DH for the Dodgers in 2022. It stands to reason that 37-year-old Justin Turner — who led the Dodgers in games played and defensive starts in 2021, without a DH — and 34-year-old AJ Pollock would see a good amount of time at DH when they aren’t playing the field. But with a handful of others — Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts — coming off injuries, there will be many other candidates to see time at DH.

But what is becoming clear, and has been expected for a long time, is that the designated hitter is coming. Now it’s just figuring out how NL teams utilize it.