For people who write about baseball, the All-Star break offers at least two things: (1) an intraseasonal oasis in which one can examine and address baseball topics over the span of a day or two without worrying that the otherwise constant barrage of new baseball events occurring that might, for example, mess up the performance numbers on which a writer had founded his or her baseball writing and (2) a probably countervailing force in the form of significant public interviews with the sport’s leaders addressing the sport’s Big Topics Of The Day.
Regarding the latter, Commissioner Rob Manfred kicked things off this morning with an appearance on Dan Patrick’s radio show. Here are my notes of the highlights:
People love to talk about the designated hitter and whether the National League will adopt it, and Manfred’s mention of the subject this morning predictably reignited the “conversation”:
I suspect that those on the fence or without a considered opinion on the subject may have found prodding from recent articles like this one Ben Lindbergh published last month illustrating the historically poor offensive numbers from current pitchers. What many of these conversants don’t do is think about this conversation from the DH side, however. There really is no doubt that a designated hitter is going to bat better than a pitcher, but the nature of the DH position is changing, both in terms of the players who are filling that role and their performance levels.
Regarding the union’s particular partiality to the DH, are David Ortiz-types really the players finding extra PAs as designated hitters? Take a look. FanGraphs identifies twelve qualified batters as designated hitters this season:
Most of them are younger than thirty-five; indeed, of the seven younger DHs, Evan Gattis, at thirty-one, is the oldest, and, although he’s big and burly, I don’t think he’s what the union had in mind when referring to “more jobs for veteran hitters.” Victor Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Albert Pujols, Edwin Encarnacion? Sure, sure, sure, sure. But J.D. Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton? J.D. has played about sixty-percent of his games this season as DH, but that’s more a result of Boston’s especially stacked outfield, which is where Martinez otherwise plays– not first base, like traditional DHs. (That he played just four-percent of his games in 2017 at DH reinforces this point.) The same reasoning applies to Stanton. Even Shin-Soo Choo, who has been DH’ing with some frequency since last season, still is viewed predominantly as an outfielder, where he played the vast majority of his games as recently as 2016.
Further, there’s evidence suggesting that designated hitters have not been performing well of late 1) relative to themselves or 2) other non-pitchers. First, a table of the top 100 DH seasons, ranked by wRC+, with all seasons since 2010 highlighted. The relatively low and, in some cases, unusual (e.g., J.D. Martinez’s current season) placement of these seasons runs against what one might have expected in the context of the recent offensive environment.
But all of these are really good seasons. The comparison of DHs to all hitters since 1973 (the year of the introduction of the designated hitter) shows that, by wOBA, DHs almost always have been better than the leaguewide (excluding pitchers) wOBA, though by varying degrees.
As that graph illustrates, last season was the first since 1999 and second ever that non-DH, non-pitchers hit better than DHs. It wouldn’t surprise me if we might end up in that position again this year were we to exclude non-traditional designated hitters like J.D. Martinez and Stanton.
That’s not how all teams are using the position anymore, though, so I don’t know that it’s as simple as limiting an analysis like the one this started out to be to the Pujolses and Victor Martinezes of the baseball world. It does raise a question for the union, though, and the sport in general: if, in an age when plenty of players at all ages hit for plenty of power and strike out plenty, what are the consequences of the availability of the DH slot in American League lineups? I don’t think it’s going to be used to preserve jobs that wouldn’t already exist for older guys like Ortiz anymore. Additionally, in a sport with specifically limited rosters, does it make sense for the union to preserve jobs for relatively younger hitters at the direct expense of jobs for relief pitchers, for example?
Whenever league powers consider significant changes, my hope remains that they make those changes from informed positions and keep in mind that, for a sport with a reputation for being slow, it sure can change quickly.