When MLB commissioner Rob Manfred spoke back in 2018 about the possibility of adding a designated hitter to the National League, revealing that the dialogue “probably moved a little bit,” MLBTR readers responded in what was probably the most evenly-split poll we’ve ever conducted here; among 13,118 respondents, there was a 50.07 to 49.93 percent result ever so slightly favoring the status quo and keeping the DH to the American League only.
Circumstances have changed in 2020, to say the least. Over the weekend, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that the proposal the league is preparing to present to the Players Association includes a designated hitter in both leagues for the 2020 season — a measure aimed at keeping pitchers healthier during a shortened schedule that could include an abnormally brief ramp-up period, increased doubleheaders and/or fewer off-days.
If such measures are put in place this year, that will surely serve as a litmus test of sorts for a more permanent implementation of the rule. Adding a DH in the NL has been a hotly debated and oft-discussed topic for years now, as NL purists lament the potential loss of strategy while those in favor of the DH point to the general futility of pitchers at the plate.
The primary reason the league would favor the change, in the long term, would be to increase the regularity of balls in play. Pitchers batted a combined .128/.160/.162 last season in 5173 plate appearances (a negative-18 wRC+) — and that was their best offensive showing in the past five years. But that was also due in part to a BABIP spike, it seems, as pitchers struck out at a woeful 43.5 percent clip — their worst mark ever. Conversely, the league-average non-pitcher hit .256/.327/.443 with a 22.4 percent strikeout rate. Dropping pitchers for even league-average bats in those DH spots would have resulted in about 1100 fewer strikeouts over the course of the season (plus another 606 bunts).
On the other side of the coin, fewer double-switches would occur, and managers would be spared the occasional decision of whether to let a hot pitcher hit with runners aboard in a close or scoreless game. Those decisions are among the most cherished strategic elements of the game for many fans — particularly those who grew up up in NL cities or prior to the implementation of the DH entirely. We just passed the four-year anniversary of Bartolo Colon’s iconic home run, and there’s nary a more universally rejoiced oddity than watching Big Sexy’s home run trot against the audio backdrop of an elated Gary Cohen roaring, “Bartolo has done it! The impossible has happened!” Highlights of that nature are rare, but it’s that very scarcity that makes them such instant classics and treasured memories.
With all that in mind, and recognizing the unprecedented circumstances under which the league and union are working to put together some semblance of a season, let’s check in on some thoughts regarding the addition of a DH to the senior circuit. I know many in the anti-DH crowd would vote to remove the DH in the American League. However, it doesn’t seem that either the union or league would have cause to prefer that route, so I opted not to include it as an option — but feel free to voice it in the comments (link to poll for Trade Rumors mobile app users).