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Let’s talk about the designated hitter in the National League

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Because it’s probably here to stay.

Willson Contreras was the Cubs’ most-used designated hitter in 2020
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Here comes the firestorm, and you know exactly which firestorm I’m talking about: The firestorm from people who say, “The DH is an abomination!” “I’ll never watch baseball again if they put the DH in the National League!” And other similar sayings, I’ve heard them many times before. They don’t need to be repeated again.

In the 60-game sprint of a season we had in 2020 (and in the postseason that is continuing), the designated hitter was installed in the National League for the first time.

Along with some of the other rule changes placed in baseball in this odd year, it’s probably not going away. For those of you still thinking in the manner noted in the first paragraph above, I ask you to read this article published in June when the rule change was announced, which I believe counters the anti-DH arguments quite well.

What I propose to do here is not to make a pro-DH argument; my position on this issue is well-known, and I don’t need to belabor it. Instead, I want to take a look at the statistical results of having the designated hitter in the NL in 2020.

There was still a difference between leagues as to how the DH was deployed. In the American League, where the DH has been used since 1973, several managers tended to use a single player as the DH. Six AL players — Franmil Reyes, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, JD Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion and Shohei Ohtani — started as DH in 40 or more games, two-thirds of the schedule. Of those six, four of them are the stereotypical “aging slugger.” But in the NL, not one player was the DH in that many games. Marcell Ozuna led the NL with 39 games started at DH and only one other player (Jesse Winker) started as the DH in more than half his team’s games (35). Neither of those players can be described as an “aging slugger.” Instead, those are guys who can hit but aren’t great in the field.

Whether that’s random, a function of the shortened season or philosophical differences between leagues remains to be seen.

Willson Contreras led the Cubs with 16 games started at DH. That ranked tied for 12th-most in the NL. Contreras also started 39 games behind the plate (and played two games in which he both caught and was the DH). Thus the DH could be seen, in this case, as a way to keep Willson’s bat in the lineup while giving him a break from the rigors of catching.

Did it work? Maybe. Willson’s splits in 2020:

As catcher: .220/.320/.341 (29-for-132), three home runs, 40 strikeouts
As DH: .298/.431/.561 (17-for-57), four home runs, 17 strikeouts

Those are both likely too small of a sample size to draw any definitive conclusions.

Other Cubs used as a starting DH in 2020 and the number of games:

Victor Caratini: 16
Kyle Schwarber: 8
Jason Kipnis: 6
Jose Martinez: 4
David Bote: 3
Kris Bryant: 2
Josh Phegley: 2
Javier Baez: 1

So much for the old “Kyle Schwarber would be a perfect fulltime DH” meme.

On the whole, though, Cubs DHs in 2020 were terrible. They hit .192/.312./318 (38-for-198) with five home runs and 74 strikeouts. The OPS of .630 was third-worst among NL teams and 25th among all teams, and the 74 strikeouts were fourth-most. I should note that Jose Martinez was 0-for-21 with seven strikeouts as the Cubs DH this year. Take those numbers out and the other Cubs DHs hit .215/.343/.356. That’s still not great, but a .699 team OPS would have ranked 16th among DHs in MLB in 2020, not too far below the MLB average of .723.

Now, was that an aberration, a function of the 60-game season or something else? Overall in the 2020 season, the Cubs’ team OPS of .705 ranked 10th in the NL, and we well know how Cubs hitting disappeared in the postseason, so it might just be that they need to revamp hitting in general, not just at the DH spot.

Overall in MLB this year, designated hitters hit .231/.316/.408. The .724 OPS ranked seventh of the nine positions. Catchers (.706) and second basemen (.692) were worse. But all of those were far better than what pitchers hit in 2019: .128/.159/.163 with strikeouts in 44 percent of their plate appearances.

Since we’ve now seen a (shortened) season with the DH in use for all teams, I believe it’s time to make that permanent. It’s not an “abomination” — the rules of baseball were not decreed by some sort of baseball god in the distant past. Baseball rules are constantly in flux and changing, otherwise we’d still be playing a game where batters could request a specific pitch and pitchers would throw underhand from a box on flat ground 50 feet from home plate. Check out this timeline of baseball rule changes — though the game we love would be recognizable to someone who somehow time-traveled here from 1889 (the year the DH was first proposed!), you’d also have to explain a lot of the changes to said time-traveler. And if you could time-travel 100 years in the future and watch a baseball game, you’d likely find many things familiar but others not, and that’s not an “abomination,” that’s just the way things evolve.

I’m glad I didn’t have to watch pitchers strike out almost half the time they came to bat this year. I’m glad I didn’t see any pitchers injured while running the bases this year, or like Jimmy Nelson three years ago, suffer an injury on the basepaths that pretty much ruined his career. Or as Ryan Dempster told me in an interview last year, pitchers don’t want to be the guys who has to explain to their managers why they have a back or oblique injury by taking 150 extra swings in the batting cage.

Pitchers get paid to pitch and field their positions. I’d be happy seeing them do only that going forward.

Three MLB pitchers came to the plate this season, two in one game (league splits say pitchers had 14 PA this year, but the other 11 went to position players who pitched). On the last day of the season, September 27, the Padres took Austin Nola from the DH role and put him behind the plate after their starting catcher, Jason Castro, had to leave with an injury. That resulted in two pitchers — Tim Hill and Austin Adams — having to bat. Both struck out looking on three pitches, likely on orders from their manager.

The other pitcher who batted in 2020 was Cubs righthander Alec Mills. In the Cubs’ 13-2 loss to the Royals August 6, Victor Caratini started as the DH, but was moved to first base as David Ross pulled some starters out of the blowout. That put the pitcher in the lineup, and the pitcher’s spot came up to bat in the ninth inning. Mills was sent up to bat for Craig Kimbrel, and the result was predictable [VIDEO].

Okay, that wasn’t a strike:

Mills didn’t swing at any of those four pitches, and again for good reason: Why would his manager want him to hurt himself swinging? You can make an argument that he shouldn’t have been sent up there at all — I believe Steven Souza Jr. was available off the bench that night.

But that might be the last time you see a Cubs pitcher batting. Personally, I hope so.

Poll

The universal DH should be kept in 2021 and beyond...

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  • 55%
    Yes
    (253 votes)
  • 32%
    No
    (148 votes)
  • 11%
    Don’t care
    (53 votes)
454 votes total Vote Now