How much impact has MLB’s universal DH had? Three takeaways from one month without pitchers at the plate

The designated hitter rule, which does not force pitchers to humiliate themselves at plate, is now a constant presence in Major League Baseball. The DH, of course, has been in effect in the American League since 1973, and the National League used it during the COVID-cut 2020 season. And now, thanks to the latest collective agreement, the general DH applies permanently to both leagues.

We bring up this obvious piece of information today because it marks the six-year anniversary of this particularly unlikely lightning strike:

This is retired moundsman Bartolo Colon during his first and only home game in the major leagues. Colon for his career as a hitter had an OPS of .199 – yes, OPS of .199 – so what you see above can be said to be extremely rare. The point is that, as the saying goes, no amount of whimsy on the plate can make up for the miserable experience of watching pitchers do something they weren’t chosen to do and for which they have no special skills.

Colleague, retired miner Cliff Lee, your thoughts?

I agree. As for Mr. Colon, that means his home run happened and it’s forever available to us via the magic of color TV, that it’s okay for pitchers to never bat again — except for the incomparable Shohei Ohtani. You’ll also find that despite the DH’s presence, baseball has continued to survive in the lofty and hallowed circle of seniors, turning ears and eyes to broadcasts and even selling tickets. If archtraditionalists have sworn off the game, they’re too small to notice.

Anyway, let’s take this opportunity to reflect on the first month or so of universal DH as a permanent presence in MLB. We will do this through the timeless framework of half-considered “takeaways”. Let’s continue.

National League DHs are definitely not batting yet

Let’s jump straight to the relevant digits as of Friday morning. Here’s how each NL position this season ranks in terms of OPS on the plate:

First base

.787

third base

.766

left field

.736

right field

.676

second base

.676

midfield

.651

short stop

.650

catcher

.641

Designated thug

.630

As you can see, NL-DHs are struggling so far in 2022. The DH is by definition a “bat only” position, meaning DHs should not hit south of prime defensive positions like shortstop and catcher. But here we are. It’s also worth noting that AL DHs have an OPS of .674 this season, so they’re more in line with expectations.

Of course, the small sample size could be at work – again, we’re only a month into this – and there could be an adjustment period for some NL-DHs when it comes to adapting to the role. After all, an established DH penalty is at work.

Combine NL and AL DHs and their seasonal OPS of .660 would be the lowest ever for the position/role. However, the league as a whole is struggling to produce on offense, largely because of baseball itself. The current MLB OPS of .679, if sustained, will be the lowest since 1972. This league context helps explain some of the DH fights so far.

But it’s still better than what Krugs would have done

Don’t despair too much. Even at current historical lows, DHs are doing a lot more than pitchers have ever done on the plate. In 2021, their last season to impose their batting skills on us, pitchers had an OPS of .293, or less than half of what NL DHs achieved that season. Also, remember that overall crime increased in 2021 compared to this year. Pitchers at their absolute peak, at least in unadjusted terms, posted an OPS of .544 in 1930. Again, that’s a far cry from what NL DHs did for hitters this season in a bad year. The 1930 season, in contrast, was perhaps the best of all time for batsmen.

As dismal as offensive outputs have been in 2022 so far, imagine what they would be like if pitchers were still forced to stand in the box with a tackle on their shoulders. Destroy the thought.

The Sackbunt has become much rarer

Aside from no longer having to watch pitchers take full swings, we no longer have to watch them moaning down obvious sac bunt attempts. The good news is that baseball’s most boring game has largely been vaporized by universal DH. It still happens from time to time, but it’s much less common than it used to be.

This season, for example, the teams laid down burlap 55 times in 762 team games. This results in a sack of Bunt every 13.9 team games. For comparison, last season, MLB had 766 sac bunches, or one every 6.34 team games. Sac Bunts are about half as common now as they were last season when pitchers sauntered to the plate. Consider this another merit of universal DH.

For those of you pining for the NL baseball of yesteryear, take comfort in the knowledge that nothing stops Bartolo Colon from coldly calling teams and asking if they need help with DH. If Ohtani can do it, then you know it.

Leave a Comment