Since the American League implemented the DH in 1973, it has been the most notable difference between the two leagues. That difference won’t exist in 2020. As part of MLB’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DH is coming to the National League. The rule should help players adjust to an abnormal schedule in which they will play 60 games in 66 days. Pitchers won’t have to worry about pulling a hamstring at the plate or taking batting practice as they try to ramp up to game speed, and managers can use the DH to buy position players extra rest and ease them into the shortened season.
Whatever your feelings on the DH—it’s bad, but undoubtedly the right call for this year—the change will have a tangible effect on National League gameplay, from limiting the amount of pinch hitting to freeing up pitchers to go deeper into games. For AL teams that built their rosters knowing they had that extra spot, the DH creates an advantage in interleague matchups, which play an outsized role in the 2020 schedule. AL designated hitters accumulated 23.8 WAR last year, as whoppers like Nelson Cruz and Yordan Álvarez inhabited the role full time. NL teams are now surveying their rosters and adjusting their lineups on the fly, and will have a hard time replicating that production. Replacing the pitcher with a ninth hitter will benefit every offense, but which ones will benefit the most? We’ve divided the National League teams into three tiers, based on how well they are positioned to take advantage of the universal DH.
The Rich Get Richer
Adding an extra bat to lineups that haven’t been constructed with a DH in mind disproportionately benefits teams with lots of good players already. It can remedy positional logjams, buy rest for a team’s regulars, and allow managers to hunt for the best lineup combinations and matchups. Additionally, replacing the pitchers’ spot with a hitter has a compounding effect; less outs from the nine hole creates more at-bats for everybody else. The squads in this category boast depth, and the DH imbues their managers with more flexibility and options for how to best utilize it. As far as problems go, too many good players is pretty far down the list, but the DH provides a solution nonetheless.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The 2018 Dodgers were the most positionally fluid team of all time; the 2019 version similarly embraced defensive versatility. Adding a DH will give manager Dave Roberts even more player combinations to tinker with. With Mookie Betts in the fold and expected full seasons from top prospect Gavin Lux, Will Smith, and Matt Beaty, it was fair to wonder how Roberts would find playing time for his cavalcade of sluggers. That extra lineup spot will make the juggling act a lot simpler, and make his offense even more dangerous than his league-leading unit from last year. Roberts has a bevy of options, and he will use them all, likely to great effect. Expect Max Muncy, Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Kiké Hernández, A.J. Pollock, Beaty, and more to see time at DH for L.A.
St. Louis Cardinals
For what seems like the 10th season in a row, the Cardinals have more outfielders than they can realistically use. In years past, they’ve had to trade quality players from that surplus and have struggled to find ABs for promising youngsters. The DH introduces a new solution for manager Mike Shildt, who can install the 34-year-old Matt Carpenter at DH and move 2019 rookie standout Tommy Edman to third base. This would keep Carpenter, who’s a three-time All-Star and only one year removed from mashing 36 home runs, in the lineup and open up a spot in the outfield for Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, or even—especially?—top prospect Dylan Carlson, who hit 26 home runs and stole 20 bases across two minor league levels last year, and clocks in as Baseball Prospectus’s no. 18 overall prospect.
Left fielder Jesse Winker had a 113 wRC+ last year but was in just the third percentile defensively, according to Baseball Savant’s defensive outs above average metric. Right fielder Nick Castellanos bashed his way to a 121 wRC+ but similarly saw his overall value sapped by his lack of defensive acumen (fourth percentile). (Glass half full: Both are great DH options. Glass half empty: Both are great DH options.) Add in Nick Senzel, Shogo Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, and third baseman turned second baseman Mike Moustakas, and you can see why Reds president of baseball operations Dick Williams said of the new DH rule, “From a competitive standpoint, advantage Reds.”
The reigning champs re-signed Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick, added Eric Thames and Starlin Castro, and have third-base prospect Carter Kieboom waiting in the wings. Even after Zimmerman’s announcement that he will opt out of the season, the team is flushed with depth. Penciling a DH into the lineup every day will help manager Dave Martinez distribute at-bats and find rest for one of the oldest rosters in the NL. Kendrick, 37, is coming off his best season in more than a decade (to say nothing of his World Series heroics) and will likely get the lion’s share of opportunities, but Thames and Asdrúbal Cabrera should see time as well.
Improve the Defense, a.k.a Problem-Solving
Sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one. For this group of teams, the DH represents a logical solution for a miscast slugger or an easier workload for older players or those recovering from injury. The candidates in this section leap off the lineup card: Stars aging past their primes, defensively challenged players, and overqualified bench guys feature prominently. Managers can improve their teams’ offense and defense by sliding them to DH and sending a more capable defender out to the field.
Between Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and the newly signed Avisaíl García, Milwaukee’s outfield appears to be set. Ryan Braun is noticeably absent from that list, as García’s signing seemed to portend a move to first base—or even the bench—for the longtime Brewer. Braun can still hit—he posted a 117 wRC+ last year—but his outfield defense, which was never particularly good, worsened in his age-35 season. The DH is a boon for manager Craig Counsell, who can keep his slugger in the lineup without relying on his defense. Counsell also said that he will use the DH to limit the strain on Yelich, who is returning from a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2019 campaign.
Atlanta had a case for being in the above category, but Freddie Freeman may not be ready for Opening Day after testing positive for COVID-19, and Nick Markakis has opted out. That leaves manager Brian Snitker with fewer options than anticipated. Power-hitting sophomore Austin Riley is a strong DH candidate, and free-agent addition Marcell Ozuna could also see opportunities, especially now that Atlanta has signed Yasiel Puig. Ozuna has struggled defensively and has been limited by shoulder injuries, and a 60-plus-game stint at DH may be just what he needs to return to Silver Slugger form at the plate.
During his MLB career, Kyle Schwarber’s defense has been up and down, but mostly down. Last year, the former catcher finished tied for sixth worst among all outfielders in outs above average, according to Statcast data. While he would seem to be a natural fit for the DH, the Cubs don’t have an obvious replacement in left field; outfielder Steven Souza Jr. doesn’t grade much better than Schwarber, so utilityman Ian Happ could see more regular time in the outfield. The bet here is that the Cubs will want to see if Schwarber can extract even more production from his bat when he can focus on hitting almost exclusively.
New York Mets
Implementing the DH actually strips the Mets of one of their advantages, however marginal. In 2019, Jacob deGrom and the Mets pitching staff produced more offensive value than any other in the National League. Pitchers’ hitting performance is inherently tough to project, but the Mets will go from getting the most production out of the nine hole to … whatever Yoenis Céspedes, Dominic Smith, and J.D. Davis can manage relative to the other names on this list. Céspedes, in particular, could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new rule. Due to a series of injuries, he has only 478 plate appearances since the start of 2017. The DH offers him a chance to ease back into play with less risk of reinjury, and offers the Mets a tantalizing power solution at the position.
After making the All-Star team in 2017, Jake Lamb missed most of the past two years due to injury. When he was healthy during that stretch, he wasn’t all that productive. The D-Backs replaced him at third base with switch-hitting slugger Eduardo Escobar, but the DH represents a new lease on life in the desert for Lamb, who posted a 133 wRC+ against right-handed pitching in his last full season. Should he falter, Arizona can turn to Kevin Cron, a homegrown first baseman who thumped six home runs in a 39-game cup of coffee last year.
Jay Bruce has spent most of his career in the NL, and the DH couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. Like so many others in this section, the slow-footed left fielder was slated for a bench role in 2020, but could now see more playing time than he or the Phillies envisioned. Whether that is good news for Philly remains to be seen (and probably depends on the juice content of the ball, as Bruce posted by far the highest isolated power number of his career in 2019). Joe Girardi can also use the DH to ease Andrew McCutchen back into action as he returns from a torn ACL or spell J.T. Realmuto, who has said he wants to play all 60 games.
Too Little Too Late
Every lineup on this list stands to improve with a DH. But the teams in this category need a bit more help than that. Without depth or quality backups primed to shoulder 200-plus at-bats, adding a DH is like slapping a Band-Aid on a torn UCL. It won’t hurt, but it won’t make a big difference, either.
San Diego Padres
The Padres outfield is crowded, and the DH could be a welcoming spot for Wil Myers, Josh Naylor, and even Tommy Pham. A more creative (and possibly more impactful approach) for manager Jayce Tingler would be to give young catcher Francisco Mejía some run at DH and keep pitch-framing god Austin Hedges behind the dish.
Garrett Cooper, Jesús Aguilar, and Matt Joyce are fine DH options, and the Marlins offense will be better off with all three in the lineup. Better off is the operative phrase here, though, and it’s still not very good. FanGraphs projects the Marlins position players to accumulate just 4.0 WAR during the entire 60-game season, which is the fourth lowest in all of baseball and just 0.7 WAR ahead of Mike Trout.
Coors field is a DH haven! The Rockies should look to acquire a quad-A DH-type from an American League team and let that thin Colorado air go to work. As it stands—especially after Ian Desmond’s decision to forgo the season—Daniel Murphy is likely to get the bulk of the opportunities, though a Matt Kemp resurgence or Sam Hilliard emergence would be the most fun outcomes.
San Francisco Giants
When you’re having trouble filling eight lineup slots, a ninth is less of an advantage. The Giants can move Hunter Pence off the field and find more opportunities for Pablo Sandoval (who posted a 110 wRC+ last year in limited ABs!), but the needle doesn’t even begin to budge.
Pirates manager Derek Shelton told ESPN that he plans to use a DH-by-committee approach because he learned from his time as a hitting coach in the AL that it’s not easy for position players to adjust to DHing. His reverence for the position is appreciated; I just hope he isn’t disillusioned after penciling in José Osuna and Colin Moran for 60 games.