Last year, in the truncated 60-game COVID season, Rob Manfred implemented a universal DH, something a lot of fans have been wanting to see for years. For at least that year, teams no longer put their pitcher up to the plate to sacrifice bunt or strikeout. Sure, we lost the occasional “pitchers who rake” highlight, but what was gained?
Strikeouts went down as a result. In 2019, teams struck out 8.81 times a game, the most in a season ever. In 2020, that number dropped to 8.68. Now, that is the second most of all-time, but there are a couple of things to consider here. First, the ability of pitchers to get strikeouts across the league is increasingly high. If you’re not striking out batters, you’re slipping down the totem pole. Second, hitters have become increasingly more boom (home run) or bust (strikeout).
Interestingly enough, runs per game were down in 2020 compared to 2019. The ball was allegedly juiced in 2019, leading to an offensive explosion. 4.83 runs a game were scored in 2019, which then dropped to 4.65 in 2019. This is interesting because baseball is getting increasingly more offensive and moving away from the defense. Pitching duels are rare and shootouts are common. Add to that the fact that no pitchers hit in 2020 and it becomes even more interesting.
It’s possible that the shortened season and weird schedule and COVID-related delays and cancellations altered teams’ performance. To know the full effect of a universal DH, Manfred will need to try it in a full season.
Designated hitters hit 353 home runs in 2020. In 2019, pitchers hit 24 across a full season. Manfred really wants to increase fan awareness, and well, home runs are a big way of doing that. Pitchers in 2019 were incredibly bad at the plate. The best hitting pitching staff belonged to the Oakland Athletics: their pitchers posted a 65 wRC+ (weighted runs created), which is well below the league average of 100. Only two teams had lower production from their DH spots last year. 12 teams saw above-average production from that spot. The offense tends to be better when pitchers don’t hit.
A key argument against a universal DH is the removal of strategy. A pitcher comes up to hit in the 7th inning of a 1-0 lead. He’s been dealing all game long. There are two outs and men on second and third. This is a really big spot. Does the manager pinch-hit to try and get runs, or leave in the pitcher who’s been throwing a gem? Strategy!
Well, if it’s a strategy you want, Manfred has introduced a new rule that provides the game with strategy. Pitchers must face three batters minimum in an appearance. It becomes more difficult to matchup lefty pitchers with lefty hitters and uses pitchers situationally when you know they have to face three hitters, not just the one you need them for. There’s your strategy.
A universal DH would also benefit the World Series. Now, when the American League champion visits the National League champion, they’re forced to sit out one of their better hitters and sometimes sacrifice defense for a pitcher who hasn’t hit a baseball since high school. On the other hand, when the NL champ visits the AL champ, they get the added benefit of putting in a better hitter than they’ve been playing with all year. Doesn’t seem too equal now, does it?
Manfred’s 60-game DH experiment had mixed results. Larger sample sizes are always better when determining whether something is good, bad, or indifferent. For now, Manfred has opted to return to the rule change between leagues. Time will tell if he decides to give it a full trial run, implement it, or abandon it altogether.