The designated hitter is coming to the National League this season, marking the first time baseball’s Senior Circuit will fail to see pitchers put up their collective .120/.120/.120 line. That should tell you where my opinion stands on the matter.
Because this rule change was rather abrupt (and may only be for the 2020 season regardless), teams in the National League did not get the opportunity to construct their roster accordingly. They did not go into an offseason where they could target specific free agents to serve as their DH. Rather, they have to deal with the players currently on their roster, unless they want to make a last-ditch effort to fill this role now that transactions are unfrozen. Either way, as a result, they are left at a significant disadvantage when compared to their American League counterparts.
At a minimum, this quirk gives NL teams some options. For a team like the Dodgers, which seemingly has an entire roster full of starting-caliber bats, flexibility is added. For the Nationals, Howie Kendrick has an opportunity to play more often. For the Mets, this could mean a return of Yoenis Cespedes for the first time since 2018.
When each team sits down to consider plans for their DH slot in 2020, one important question will need to be asked: Should we make the DH position a permanent starting spot, à la J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox, or should we rotate the position to allow players de facto “days off” while keeping their bats in the lineup?
Considering what I said above about NL teams’ inability to plan for this shift in the rules, the general answer is pretty clearly the latter: Use the DH as a rest spot. But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s consider what exactly makes this the obvious answer.
Baseball is going to look different this year for a host of reasons, but one change that was coming — pandemic or not — was the three-batter minimum rule for pitchers.
Officially implemented at last year’s Winter Meetings in San Diego, pitchers who enter games this season will be required to face a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions due to injury or illness. The rationale behind this change is to limit the number of mid-inning pitching changes, in hopes of shortening the length of games. Critics ripped the rule change for eliminating strategy, while others pointed out that baseball’s strategy would be merely different.
“I think it’s good for baseball,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo told Forbes in February. “It’ll keep the game moving. It’ll possibly create a little more offense. You’re going to be able to stack your lineup a certain way to get the matchup you want to get. There’s more creativity and strategy to it and I always like that.”
Part of the new creativity is to evaluate relievers’ performance against batters of both handedness. Dominant pitchers such as Kirby Yates will hardly be impacted — Yates allowed a .245 wOBA against lefties versus a .208 wOBA against righties — but left-handed one out guys (LOOGYs) could become a thing of the past. Unless, of course, they can actually get out batters of both handedness.
Soon after Mike Trout broke into the league, he put up the best 60-game stretch of his career thus far. On Aug. 6, 2012, Trout completed a 60-game stretch that saw him produce a whopping 5.6 WAR, a figure that would have ranked as the 17th-highest full-season total in 2019. From May 28 to Aug. 6, Trout hit .368/.431/.644, homered 15 times, stole 28 bases and played his usually-solid defense in center field.
The WAR leaders during that roughly two-month stretch looked like this:
Trout was more than two wins better than the player who produced the fourth-most WAR during this period, one in which the Angels went 35-26, a record that would likely earn them a postseason spot in 2020. (Note: In this time, the Angels played 61 games, but Trout only appeared in 60.)
It’s not just Trout, either. In 2015, Bryce Harper had a 60-game stretch where he produced 4.9 WAR. In 2018, Mookie Betts had a 60-game stretch of 5.1 WAR. Last year, Cody Bellinger put up a 60-game stretch where he was worth 4.4 WAR. Christian Yelich, too, can join in on this party — he had a 60-game stretch from the end of 2018 through the beginning of 2019 that saw him produce 5.8 WAR.
All of this is to say one thing: The 2020 baseball season is going to be unlike any other. But we already knew this. What we don’t know, however, is which players (if any) are going to put the team on their back by putting up scorching numbers in such a short period of time.
Given the current state of negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, it still remains to be seen whether we’ll have baseball in 2020. With Friday’s news of eight positive COVID-19 tests at the Phillies’ spring training complex, we’re reminded that 2020 baseball may hinge less on the “when and where” than it does on the “how.”
With the constant stalemates and the associated swings in optimism for a baseball season, I’ve thought about what I could possibly write. It can be difficult to develop article ideas for a sport that remains sidelined, but longer-term research questions that I have had remain unsolved. So, baseball or not, I’m going to continue to attempt to answer them.
That’s what brings me back to 2019. Last year, an incredible 6,776 home runs were hit league wide. That figure broke the old record — set just two years prior — by 671. It’s more than 1,000 additional home runs than the season that sits in third place — 2000, which witnessed 5,693. It’s almost certainly the baseball that has driven this upswing (pun fully intended), though an increased focus on hitting more fly balls has likely contributed as well.
This got me thinking though: Were home runs less important last season? Thirty home runs used to be a milestone; in 2019, nearly 40 percent of qualified hitters eclipsed that mark, those as good as Mike Trout (180 wRC+) to as bad as Rougned Odor (77 wRC+). Thirty home runs seemingly meant very little.
But, for every home run hit, there was a home run surrendered. Trout went yard 45 times last season. Three of those came off of Ariel Jurado. Lance Lynn, Mike Fiers, Mike Leake and Aaron Sanchez allowed two each. That means that nearly one-quarter of Trout's 2019 home runs can be accounted for through just five pitchers.
On a macro level, this begs the question: How does home run differential factor into a team’s success? If home runs were so prevalent in 2019, then teams who both hit a lot of them and surrendered few likely did well overall, one would think.
After running the results, they did better than I ever would have expected.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said on Wednesday that “we're going to play baseball in 2020." He claimed he was saying so with “100 percent" certainty. And, given the March agreement between the league and the MLBPA, he’s right that a baseball season can be played.
In the worst-case scenario — the one in which MLB and the MLBPA do not come to terms on an economic agreement to start baseball — Manfred has the ability to unilaterally institute a season at prorated salaries. This would certainly result in a short, sprint-like season, since ownership seems unwilling to play even a half-season at prorated dollars. Reports have indicated that this scenario would put the 2020 season somewhere in the realm of 50 games, with some saying that 48 would be the magic number.
The response to this has been underwhelming. Baseball fans in the replies on Twitter seem unenthused about the idea of a 48-game season — would it even be worth it to play at that point?
That got me thinking — what exactly defines a baseball season as legitimate? The long answer probably has to do something with psychology, the definition of the word legitimacy and the ability (or lack thereof) of humans to accept a part of a whole as equal to the whole.