May 26, 2020 - Sports

A universal designated hitter is likely coming to the MLB

Data: Baseball Reference; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios
Data: Baseball Reference; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

If baseball returns in 2020, odds are that the shortened season will include the adoption of a universal designated hitter.

Why it matters: Bringing the DH to the National League is one of baseball's longest-running arguments, but it's been hewing towards adoption for years, and its inclusion-out-of-necessity in 2020 could end the debate.

The backdrop: Since as far back as the early 20th century, debates have raged regarding how to keep pitchers out of the batter's box.

  • In 1973, it was finally put to a vote. It passed in the American League, but the NL — which had outscored the AL in seven of the previous eight seasons, and didn't feel a need to boost offense — rejected it.
  • From 1973 to 1975, the AL used a DH in all games except for the World Series; from 1976 to 1985, they used it in every other World Series; and finally, in 1986, they landed on the rules-of-the-home-ballpark version we have today.

Arguments for the universal DH: The chart above highlights the most obvious reason why pitchers should no longer hit: they're not very good at it. In 2019, pitchers mustered a measly .322 OPS, significantly lower than league average (.758) and DH average (.782).

  • Pitchers are also far more likely to hurt themselves performing a skill they so rarely practice (sometimes, they even hurt themselves while practicing it).
  • Plus, the universal DH would open 15 starting slots for bat-first players, a boon for aging sluggers who would otherwise be fighting for a spot in the minors or accepting a pittance to be the last man on the bench.

Arguments against it: The fact that the DH only exists in the AL is part of baseball's quirkiness and charm, and as any NL fan will tell you, not having one in the lineup has a profound impact on the game.

  • The strategies required to manage a team without a DH are more complex. Pinch hitting, double switching, sacrifice bunts — small ball is less likely to survive if pitchers are barred from the batter's box.
  • Plus, there's something viscerally enjoyable about seeing someone succeed when you least expect it. Especially Bartolo Colón.

What to watch: The current CBA expires after the 2021 season, and it's long been expected that a universal DH will be part of the new deal. So, if the 2020 season happens, we could get a glimpse of the future. And even if it doesn't, the fact that a universal DH was on the table has elevated the debate to new heights.

Go deeper: This year’s baseball season hinges on a battle between owners and players

Go deeper