Image credit: JD Martinez (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
The DH is coming to the National League in 2020, probably on a permanent basis. The universal DH is a major win for players and also conveys advantages to fantasy players.
In a typical 162-game season, the universal DH will transfer roughly 600 plate appearances per NL team from pitchers and pinch-hitters to players appearing as the DH.* Multiply those 600 PAs by 15 NL clubs and that creates 9,000 PAs across the game for position players to receive regular batting reps.
The associated boost in playing time will allow NL players to accumulate statistics to help them make a case for continued playing time, to say nothing of building value for arbitration and free agency.
What’s more, having the DH in both leagues doubles the free agent appeal for bat-only veterans such as Nelson Cruz and J.D. Martinez. While baseball fans disagree on the merits of the DH, everybody can agree that no market restriction exists for players at other positions or in other roles like it does for DH types.
Now let’s examine the impact the universal DH will have in fantasy leagues.
The value of AL starting pitchers increases relative to NL starters
Because AL lineups feature a DH, they are markedly stronger than NL lineups.
National League starting pitchers face the opposing pitcher an average of twice per start. Those opposing NL pitchers made an out 85% of the time in 2019, compared with 67% of the time by AL DHs. Pitchers also struck out much more frequently (43% to 25%) than DHs and impacted the ball much less frequently (.329 OPS to .786).
As a result of not regularly facing a DH, NL starting pitchers tend to have shinier statistics. Right off the top, they are guaranteed to face a “mark,” i.e. the opposing pitcher, at least twice a game. Even No. 8 hitters can be intentionally walked with two outs and first base open to draw a favorable matchup against the pitcher.
Here is how starters in each league performed in 2019:
The DH penalty for AL starters relative to NL ones last year was 0.43 runs per nine innings. That may not seem like much but adds up over time. This is the reason why many owners have wisely favored NL starters when speculating on pitchers.
NL starting pitchers faced between one and two additional batters per start, which makes sense given the the DH penalty faced by AL starters and the Rays’ liberal use an opener strategy that skews starter totals. In other words, don’t expect NL starters to receive an innings boost this year because of the DH.
Pitchers in both leagues last year pitched a comparable number of innings per start (about five) and netted a comparable number of wins per start.
The value of NL position players increases relative to AL position players
The biggest winners from the adoption of the universal DH are National League position players, especially strong hitters who may be lacking in defensive skill or the versatility to avoid duplicating an already occupied position. BA national writer Kyle Glaser highlighted 10 such player examples this spring.
Last season there were 134 American League players who batted at least 300 times, compared with 126 in the NL. Over the past five years the average number of marginal 300-plate appearance AL players is seven per season.
This is good news for veterans looking to extend careers, rookies trying to get a foot in the door and also potentially for catchers who can hit. Hard-hitting backstops could conceivably get into the lineup more often at DH for day games after night games.
However, I expected the playing time boost for AL players to be more dramatic. It’s possible that NL players are more likely to be in the lineup daily even without a DH precisely because NL managers have to cover for having a pitcher in the lineup.
The potential for more two-way players
Bringing the DH to the National League could facilitate the development of additional two-way players. Two-way players can pitch on rotation and then regularly serve as his club’s DH without being exposed to additional injury risk from a defensive position.
That is the primary reason why the Angels are able to deploy Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player and the Rays have the option of doing the same with Brendan McKay.
Positional flexibility might be restricted
Many fantasy players are hesitant to fill their team’s DH spot with a pure DH who is not eligible at other positions—think Nelson Cruz or Khris Davis today or David Ortiz, Edgar Martinez or Travis Hafner from yesteryear—because it restricts roster flexibility.
But in truth, the dedicated full-time DH is more myth than reality. Most major league teams cycle different players into the DH spot both to distribute rest days to regulars and defensive reps to reserves. In reality, the only full-time DHs are accomplished veteran sluggers such as Cruz, who would be a lineup fixture regardless of position.
One concern of bringing the DH to the National League is that it could encourage teams to transition bat-first players to permanent DH status. Young, defensively-challenged sluggers such as Pete Alonso, Rhys Hoskins or Kyle Schwarber could be candidates.
It’s impossible to say one way or the other what will happen in a world where some players, even those in their primes, could conceivably be shielded entirely from ever taking the field.
Reduce the stigma surrounding the DH
Even as the 50-year anniversary of the AL adding the DH approaches, baseball fans do not exhibit universal acceptance of a universal DH. Not even after Paul Molitor, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez spent the majority of Hall of Fame careers at DH, while other players such as Jim Thome, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield used the DH to extend HOF careers.
Having the DH in both leagues could remove the stigma associated with the DH. Opponents of the DH like to say that a DH plays only half the game—and they’re right. But the beauty of advanced metrics such as wins above replacement is that WAR accounts for this fact by crediting DHs with no defensive value and by applying a steep positional adjustment.
* National League teams already accrue roughly 45 annual DH plate appearances during interleague games in American League parks.
^ The walk rate for National League starters is artificially higher because of intentional walks issued to No. 8 hitters. I counted IBBs in this calculation because all walks count against a pitcher’s WHIP. Removing IBBs lowers NL starters to a walk rate of 7.4%, compared with 7.5% for AL starters.