For the first time since 1972, both the American League and National League played a season under a uniform set of rules. The institution of the universal designated hitter was one of several concessions made to the unusual circumstances of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, as with pitchers already facing a heightened injury risk from a lack of normal preseason preparation time, the decision was made to spare the pitchers the extra stress of hitting. Both the league and the players’ union agreed that the DH would become a full-time feature of National League baseball for the first time ever.
What was the reaction? Well, it probably depended on how you felt about the DH in the first place. It didn’t quite stand out as much as other oddities of 2020 baseball (i.e. the automatic runner on second base in extra innings, or seven-inning games in doubleheaders) since the DH has been part of the game for almost 50 years, yet some fans of National League teams surely felt unusual watching games played in their favorite team’s ballpark without a pitcher coming to the plate. If you’re a fan of the Dodgers, Braves, or Padres, you probably learned to love the DH — having an extra lineup spot to house a big bat was a key reason why these three playoff-bound clubs scored the most runs of any team in baseball.
DH-free baseball has long been on the decline at many levels of the game, and the thought was that the universal designated hitter would eventually become part of Major League Baseball. With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring after the 2021 season, it has long been assumed that the universal DH would be one of the many issues to be debated between the owners and players. The 2020 implementation was considered to be a first step in that direction, and since the experiment seemed to work well, could the league and the MLBPA simply skip ahead and make the designated hitter permanent in National League baseball?
It won’t be quite so easy, of course. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently said that all rule changes applied only to the 2020 season, so any further changes like a universal DH would have to be settled after another round of negotiation between the league and the players. With the CBA talks looming and the contentious tone of the negotiations prior to the start of the shortened season still lingering, there may be no such thing as an “easy” decision between MLB and the MLBPA these days. It is quite likely that the league will try to gain some concessions from the union in exchange for the universal DH, and given how loathe the players have been to concede any ground to the owners, it may be difficult to find common ground on one relatively small issue without opening the larger can of worms that is the myriad of questions facing the sport in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manfred’s statement about the DH and likelihood of a 2021 rules reset could also be a way of addressing the concerns of National League general managers. As the Padres’ A.J. Preller recently noted in regards to his team’s club option with Mitch Moreland, the Padres are a little unsure about how to proceed with deciding on Moreland or other roster matters until they know whether or not the designated hitter slot will be available. If the rules will revert to their pre-2020 state, Manfred was essentially telling Preller and company to prepare as if there won’t be a DH….until, maybe, there is?
As we get closer to Opening Day 2021, MLB will have a better idea of how (or if) the next season will proceed, whether that manifests in another shortened season, fans in the stands, or many other factors related to the state of the pandemic. It could be that the 2020 rules are re-implemented around, say, early March if it becomes apparent that a normal 162-game schedule isn’t feasible.
But, many player agents and MLBPA members are undoubtedly aware that the lack of a DH spot will mean fewer roster opportunities for players this offseason. Players like Moreland could have their options declined, defensively-challenged veterans will be less in demand, and even some of the bigger-name designated hitters will again see their markets limited to the American League. Like MLBTR’s Steve Adams observed in regards to Nelson Cruz, the slugger’s desire for a two-year contract would be much easier to find if all 30 teams were candidates (at least on paper) to sign Cruz this winter.
With all these factors in mind, do you think the league and the players will work out a deal for a universal DH in 2021, or will the National League get at least one more years of pitchers at the plate? (link to poll for Trade Rumors mobile app users)