Dodgers Well Staffed for Possible Universal DH in 2020

Dodgers Well Staffed for Possible Universal DH in 2020

The rumor mill was working overtime last week as the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and the owners briefly appeared to be making real progress toward a deal that would result in a 2020 season of between 60 and 70 games, progress since brought to a screaming halt by the positive COVID-19 tests of players on at least 10 teams. That extremely abbreviated schedule, the shortest since 1878, the third year of National League play, isn’t the only novel feature the proposed season was likely to have. According to last week’s rumors, such a deal could include admitting six more teams to the playoffs this year, adds on uniforms, and universal use of the designated hitter both this season and next.

The purpose of those first two items is to increase revenue. Under normal circumstances, I’d be vehemently against both uniform ads and expanded playoffs. However, given that the regular season would be shortened almost to the point of irrelevance, it’s actually logical to expand the playoff field as a countermeasure. Doing so also gets the abbreviated 2020 season closer to what I think would be the second-best solution: eliminating the regular season entirely in favor of a World Baseball Classic-style tournament that could be played over the course of no more than two months. (The best solution, of course, would be scrapping the season altogether out of concern for public safety because we’re in the middle of a pandemic which is getting worse, not better, in the United States, but why let the deaths of thousands of people be the enemy of the good?). Uniform ads, much like the chest placement of the Nike swoosh, remain anathema, but we have seen them before when MLB teams have played regular season games overseas.

The most compelling of these potential changes is the universal DH, as the two-year term would appear to set up the potential for a permanent change in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, due to arrive after the 2021 season. The reason for the change now is the likelihood of a single-season geographic realignment that would, one assumes temporarily, eliminate the league distinctions by, for example, grouping all of the west-coast teams into a single division, regardless of their traditional league affiliations.

As Howard has discussed in this space already, the Dodgers are well prepared to add a designated hitter, as they have one of the deepest rosters in the majors, particularly with regard to hitters. What I wanted to know was how the Dodgers’ potential benefit compared to that of the other 14 National League teams.

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The most important consideration in any roster change is always what is being replaced. Trading for Nolan Arenado is a very different thing if you’re finally moving on from Maikel Franco at third base than if you already have Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, or Anthony Rendon at the position. Moving from pitchers hitting to the designated hitter is closer to replacing Squints Palledorous with Domingo Santana, for every team, but some teams’ pitchers are more Scotty Smalls and some are more Ham Porter.

In 2019, the Dodgers actually had the second-most-productive group of hitting pitchers in the National League, trailing only the Mets. Setting the average pitcher at 100, the Mets’ pitchers posted a 172 sOPS angainst the Dodgers’ 146 mark. Of course, if you put the average hitter at 100, the Mets’ mark was a mere 15 OPS+ and the Dodgers’ was exactly zero. Still, as a group, and as pitchers, the Dodgers pitchers could hit.

Look closer, however, and you will see that the two best-hitting Dodgers pitchers of 2019 are now ex-Dodgers: Kenta Maeda (43 OPS+ in 61 plate appearances), now a Twin, and Hyun-jin Ryu (21 OPS+ in 67 PA), now a Blue Jay. Replacing those two are longtime American Leaguer David Price (career -40 OPS+, yes negative, in 53 PA) and fellow lefty Alex Wood (-34 OPS+ career in 276 PA). Swap out Maeda and Ryu for 50 representative at-bats each from Price and Wood, and the Dodgers’ pitchers’ batting line drops from .158/.194/.202 to .121/.160/.144, closer to the bottom half of the NL in terms of pitcher plate production.

If that all seems like squabbling over scraps, you’re right. Pitchers, as a group, are not major-league-quality hitters and it’s insane that we subject fans to more than 5,000 plate appearances by them annually. The 15 OPS+ the Mets pitchers put up last year isn’t going to significantly diminish the advantage they’ll gain from being able to have Dominic Smith’s or Yoenis Céspedes’s bat in the lineup every day. Similarly, whether the Dodgers’ pitchers would have put up a combined zero OPS+ or a -20 OPS+, it will still be a huge advantage to be able to send a legitimate major-league hitter to the plate in their stead without having to remove them from the game. Still, it’s worth noting that whatever relative prowess the Dodgers’ pitchers might have had at the plate—and they have a long tradition of good-hitting pitchers from Don Newcombe (85 OPS+ career) to Don Drysdale (29 career home runs) to Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, and Zack Greinke (85 OPS+ as a Dodger)—it is gone. Walker Buehler had a -25 OPS+ last year. Clayton Kershaw was at -35. Ross Stripling was a relative beast with a 4 OPS+. Dustin May went 1-for-11 with a single and four strikeouts.

As for the quality of the Dodgers’ potential designated hitters, their deep bench offers a surfeit of candidates, many of whom would otherwise be vying for playing time in left field. Specifically, Joc Pederson, Edwin Ríos, and Matt Beaty from the left side and A.J. Pollock, Chris Taylor, and Kiké Hernández from the right. One of those six will be in left field every night, most often Pederson. That still leaves an abundance of capable bats for the Dodgers to choose from and plenty of candidates for a platoon at the position if no single player claims it.

Howard is particularly keen on Ríos, a career .295/.348/.539 hitter in the minors who crushed in his first 56 major-league plate appearances last year (.277/.393/.617). Ríos is obviously compelling, and his lack of a viable defensive position makes him a natural fit at DH, but he’s already 26, and his strikeout rates (typically around one-third of his plate appearances), and strikeout-to-walk ratios (typically about 4:1) are a concern.

Looking at things from the other side of the ball, the Dodgers’ worst fielders last year were Pollock and Justin Turner, both of whom have proven fragile, and the latter of whom is now 35 and in his walk year. Pollock would be a great fit as the short side of a platoon with a lefty like Ríos or Beaty. Turner’s declining glove, meanwhile, could motivate the Dodgers to give Max Muncy more starts at third base, possibly even going as far as to enact a complex platoon with Muncy at first, Turner at third, and Pollock at DH against lefties, but Turner at DH, Muncy and third, and Beaty at first against righties. All of the above would leave Taylor and Hernández free to continue to serve as overqualified multi-position utility players without locking either into the DH spot.

The Dodgers aren’t the only NL team primed to take advantage of the DH, however. The Mets have the lefty Smith and righty Céspedes. The Braves could move off-season addition Marcell Ozuna to DH to keep Ender Inciarte’s glove in center and still have fellow righty Adam Duvall available off the bench. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an NL team that doesn’t have compelling DH option. Even the Marlins have new addition Matt Joyce. The Pirates have José Osuna. The Giants have offseason signees Hunter Pence and Wilmer Flores.

Still, the Dodgers depth is a huge advantage. Every NL team may have an obvious choice or two for DH, but none can boast the range of options available to the Dodgers. That advantage would be more significant over a full 162-game season, but it should still prevent them from falling to replacement level at a position where even that would be an upgrade over having to watch pitchers hit.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.