Today’s collective bargaining agreement officially introduced the designated hitter to the National League, tweets Mark Feinsand of MLB.com. That’s certainly not a surprise, as the universal DH had been one of the earlier principles for MLB and the Players Association to settle.
The union has sought a universal DH for quite some time, with more possibility for aging or defensively-limited players to have regular roles. AL teams have increasingly used the position as a quasi-rest day for regular players rather than committing to a true full-time DH, but six players (Nelson Cruz, Shohei Ohtani, J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton, Franmil Reyes and Yordan Álvarez) tallied at least 400 plate appearances in the role last season.
Cruz, in particular, could be the most immediate beneficiary of the universal DH’s implementation. He’s a free agent but is unlikely to see much, if any, time in the field next year. The universal DH opens up the opportunity for NL teams that may have otherwise been wary to bid on Cruz. Other bat-first free agents like Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler could also see their respective leaguewide demand propped up a bit.
The league, meanwhile, embraced the universal DH as a means of aiding offense. The sport’s ever-increasing strikeout rate has drawn plenty of consternation. The leaguewide strikeout percentage ticked upwards every year between 2005 and 2020, setting an all-time record each season. Last year finally marked a stop to the record-breaking streak, as the strikeout rate marginally slipped from 23.4% to 23.2%. That’s perhaps a bit encouraging, but last year’s number still checked in almost seven percentage points above 2005’s 16.4% mark.
Pitchers aren’t the only culprit for the decrease in balls in play, but they’ve had real issues making contact. Last year, pitcher-hitters fanned at a 44.2% clip. Overall, they hit .110/.150/.142 across 4,830 plate appearances. That’s ghastly production, even by the historically low standards at the position. Their five highest all-time strikeout rates have come in the last five years of pitcher hitting. Four of the five lowest pitcher-hitters’ wRC+ (which compares their overall offensive output to that season’s league average marks) have come since 2017. However one wants to explain that trend — improved leaguewide velocities, specialization that leads to less practice for pitcher hitting, etc. — pitchers were putting up less of a fight at the plate than ever before.
The development figures to receive varying reception from fans of Senior Circuit teams (although many likely considered it an inevitability some time ago). Aside from its implementation as a pandemic protocol in the shortened 2020 season, the NL has never had the position. Most MLBTR readers, however, seem to favor its introduction. In a December poll, 62% of respondents expressed support for an NL DH; 26% were against the possibility, while 12% were generally apathetic.
The universal DH is the only official on-field rules change for 2022, but two recent pandemic protocols did not survive the CBA. Jesse Rogers of ESPN reports (on Twitter) that the nine-inning doubleheader returns, as do standard rules for extra innings. The “ghost runner” provision has been scrapped.
The seven-inning doubleheaders and the extra-innings runner proved divisive provisions among baseball fans in their two years in place. They’d been implemented as part of the COVID-19 protocols, with both provisions designed to lessen player workloads during seasons that could be massively impacted by virus-related postponements. Those concerns aren’t expected to be as prominent in 2022, and it seems neither party was motivated enough to agree to implement them permanently. The league may look to reinstitute those rules at some point down the line, but they won’t be in effect for the upcoming season at the very least.
As part of the CBA, a rules committee will be created in 2023, Feinsand tweets. That committee — a group of four active players, six league appointees and an MLB umpire — will have the authority to implement an on-rules change within 45 days of recommending it to the MLBPA. Previously, the league had to wait one year between asking the union’s approval on a rules change and having the right to implement it in the event the MLBPA refused a bilateral agreement.
MLB technically no longer has sole authority to implement those changes, though its appointees will outnumber the player reps on the rules committee. That probably gives the league de facto control over rules, and it’s expected the league will try to implement three in particular — the implementation of a pitch clock, limits on defensive shifting, and larger bases — for the 2023 campaign. Feinsand suggests the automatic strike zone could also be a topic of discussion at that point, although that’ll become clearer next offseason.