As the back and forth continues over the potential start of the 2020 MLB season, it’s increasingly likely that the designated hitter is coming if baseball resumes.
Universal DH proposed by MLB is expected to be easily approved by players, who long favored idea. It won’t impact finances in ‘20 but could boost pay for select few in ‘21 based on better stats. Teams helped: Dodgers (great depth), Nats (same), Brewers (Braun), Mets (Cespedes?)
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) May 13, 2020
This has, once again, started the tired debate over the DH’s merits. But a more interesting conversation involves the impact this will have on NL teams. Traditionally, they’ve used the DH only when visiting American League ballparks — approximately 10 games per season. Most NL clubs aren’t necessarily built for it and didn’t get to plan for it in the offseason. Sure, they’ll all benefit from removing pitchers from their lineups (Cincinnati pitchers, for example, combined to hit .134/.160/.174 with a -20 wRC+ last year — and that’s with Michael Lorenzen), but there’s a difference between plugging in Nelson Cruz and plugging in Jose Osuna.
Where does that leave the Reds? Seemingly in a pretty good spot compared to other NL teams.
The DH is particularly advantageous for teams with depth, and the Reds undoubtedly fit in that category. Remember all the spring training debates we had about how the team was going to handle the surplus of talent in the outfield? Adding the DH to the equation makes that puzzle easier to solve for manager David Bell. He can now potentially start four players from this group on a given day instead of three: Jesse Winker, Shogo Akiyama, Nick Senzel, Nick Castellanos, Aristides Aquino, and Phillip Ervin.
Aquino and Ervin will certainly benefit a lot from this development, as their at-bats would likely be limited otherwise. It’s also hard to understate how important the DH could be for Senzel. Of the four outfielders aside from Aquino and Ervin, Senzel seemed most likely to take a hit in playing time after the signings of Castellanos and Akiyama. But with a DH at his disposal, Bell can get the former top prospect in the lineup more regularly. With the rosters likely being expanded to as many as 30 players, the DH could give further opportunities to bench guys such as Josh VanMeter, Derek Dietrich, or even Lorenzen. Even Mark Payton and Scott Schebler, who weren’t likely to make the team two months ago, could benefit from the change.
Here’s what the starting outfield/DH combinations could look like in lefty/righty matchups (career wRC+ listed):
Important notes here:
- Senzel was a .300/.367/.488 hitter against righties in the minor leagues, so there’s plenty of optimism that his struggles against them as a rookie were a fluke. There’s certainly evidence that his shoulder injury (which seemingly occurred Aug. 31) and change in batting stance (which looks to have started on Aug. 10 after video review) played a big role in said struggles.
- While we don’t have a wRC+ for him, Akiyama was a .308/.391/.494 hitter against right-handers in Japan last year.
These, of course, are just two possible combinations. Akiyama also hits lefties well, and Aquino had a 108 wRC+ against them in a limited sample last season. Kyle Farmer also hits well against lefties (110 wRC+ in 2019), and Dietrich can crush righties when healthy (111 wRC+).
The DH is also great for load management. Joey Votto isn’t getting any younger, and since playing 162 games in 2017, he has missed some time with injuries over the last two seasons as his production declined. Although he has taken days off the last two years than he did in the past, the DH would let the competitive Votto stay in the lineup while getting periodic breaks from defense.
Speaking of defense, let’s go back to the outfield. We know that’s a potential weakness for the Reds in 2020. Winker and Castellanos rate as two of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, and it’s no certainty that Akiyama, 32, will be as solid in center field as he was during his younger days in Japan. With those three likely to start most games against right-handed pitchers, that could pose obvious issues for the Reds. Penciling Winker or Castellanos into the designated hitter slot, however, mitigates the problem and allows Bell to insert a superior defender (read: any other outfielder on the team).
To illustrate how that could benefit the Reds, the table below shows how much value Castellanos and Winker have lost due to poor defense since 2017 (when Winker debuted and Castellanos moved to the outfield):
Note: If you’re sitting there confused over some of the math, oWAR plus dWAR does not equal total WAR — baserunning and positional adjustments factor in, too.
There are certainly flaws with WAR, dWAR, and defensive metrics in general. But it’s obvious that both players have lost a lot of value due to defense. Minimizing their time in the outfield will maximize their overall value, as both can rake at the plate.
Whether you like the rule or not, the DH really has no downside for the Reds. They don’t have a J.D. Martinez to plug in, but they have depth that could give them an advantage. Most NL teams just aren’t built with extra players they can plug into the lineup and get 400 quality plate appearances out of — at least not to the extent that it makes a significant impact. The Reds, however, are one of the few who can.
FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards, using Winker as the primary DH, projected that the Reds could add nearly a full win above replacement on offense. He also projected the total WAR provided by DHs on every MLB team, and the Reds are second in the NL behind only the Dodgers.
We can certainly debate how this rule creates a disadvantage for NL teams against AL teams, who could build their rosters with the DH in mind. But the Reds are well-positioned compared to many of their NL rivals. The Cincinnati offense was likely to be significantly improved already, but the universal DH could make them one of the most dangerous lineups in the league.
[Photo Credit: Keith Allison]