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National League Teams Have Success Without Filling For DH Spot

Marcell Ozuna Braves Cooperneillgetty
(Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

We now live in a world flooded with A/B testing.

Whether it’s a headline on a website you visit, a coupon in your inbox or a different way to organize the checkout page on an e-commerce site, A/B testing allows companies to test out real world comparisons and find which works better.

Does adding a “free shipping” tag lead more customers to click buy? Sending half of customers to a page that has the free shipping tag while the other half gets a page without the tag will provide a quick and simple answer to the question. If 20% more customers click when presented with the “free shipping” page, the company can quickly see it makes sense to add the tag across the entire website.

On the Internet, A/B testing is extremely easy to do and provides a quick way to provide a test group and a control group for a hypothesis.

In baseball, it’s a lot tougher to do this kind of bucket testing. But in 2020, MLB ran its own A/B test inadvertently.

In 2020, National League teams learned in mid May that they would be fielding a DH every day for the first time in league history. The free agent market had already wrapped up since teams had gone to spring training in February and March before the coronavirus pandemic shut down baseball. The universal DH decision was not made until MLB and the players’ union came to an agreement on setting ground rules for a pandemic-shortened season.

That meant that teams were largely left without a chance to prepare their rosters to add a DH and instead were forced to simply make due with whoever they already had. On the other hand, the American League had always known it would be fielding a DH every day.

In this inadvertent A/B test, it appears that planning to fill the DH spot was less productive than simply making due with players already in your organization.

The National League’s most productive DH tandem was in Atlanta, where the Braves’ Marcell Ozuna slid from his planned outfield spot to a role as an almost everyday DH. But the NL’s second-most productive DH group came from the Dodgers, who used the spot in the batting order to allow their depth to keep players fresh. The Dodgers used 15 different players at DH, with five of them getting more than 20 plate appearances. None had more than 50 PAs as the DH.

Having to scramble to fill the role didn’t seem to hurt NL teams. Baseball-Reference.com ranks the most productive DHs of 2020 by wins above replacement. The ranking finds that five of the top 10 were NL teams, as were 10 of the top 15. The worst five teams as far as DH production were all American League clubs.

It is a useful illustration of why teams have become more comfortable with adopting the DH. Doing so allows them to use the lineup spot to rotate players in and out of the lineup, rather than handing it over to one dedicated player.

That’s a shift. As recently as five years ago, the DH was the rocking chair of major league rosters, a way for a distinguished veteran to finish his career. Think Victor Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder or David Ortiz.

The numbers are even more stark when looking at players who DH everyday. In 2015, six teams had a player who received 500 or more plate appearances as DH. By 2019, that number had been cut to one.

This shift also creates an adjustment in the negotiations over a universal DH. If bringing the DH to the National League would provide landing spots for a number of high-priced veteran sluggers, it would then provide an appeal to the MLB Players Association. DH has long been a high-priced position. In 2015, seven AL DHs (200 or more PAs at the position) were paid $10 million or more. In 2016, that number of $10 million-plus DHs grew to 10 and it was nine in 2017.

In 2019, that number of $10 million-plus DHs had slid to five and it looks likely to remain at five for 2021.

And that takes away some of the financial benefit of adding the DH in the National League for the MLBPA. Adding a DH to the NL does not add a roster spot, it just changes the potential role of the roster spot. If a team is adding a somewhat expensive free agent to fill that spot, it’s viewed as an economic win by the MLBPA. But if it just means splitting at-bats among players already on the roster, it does not increase player salaries and as such isn’t necessarily a big concession to the MLBPA.

There is a potential longer-term benefit for players from adopting a universal DH however. It replaces nearly 5,000 plate appearances for pitchers with plate appearances by DH’s. That’s opportunities for hitters to earn larger roles and produce statistics that help them earn larger salaries in the future. Also, the rest a player gets from occasionally sliding to DH may help them produce better statistics over the course of the season.

But as far as creating high-paying DH jobs, the trends are working against the vets.

There’s still a chance that MLB and the MLBPA will agree to add the universal DH for 2021. But if last year is any indication, it doesn’t really matter if it’s decided now or a day before the season begins.

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