The players spurn the universal DH—for now

Marcell Ozuna is just one DH-type player in a tough 2020-21 market with the universal DH still off the table.

No, the Major League Baseball Players Association didn’t shoot themselves in the proverbial foot when they spurned the universal designated hitter this time. They want it, as should every rational baseball fan. But it’s wise to wish they’d spurned it for the best reason.

The owners were willing to let the universal DH remain permanent and not just a 2020 irregular season experiment—if the players would agree to permanently-expanded postseasons. How very big of them. The players told the owners to stuff that trade.

“Both the league and union seem to agree a universal DH is a good idea, in part because pitchers, if prevented from hitting, no longer could get injured swinging for a hit or running the bases,” observes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “But the league, viewing the creation of fifteen DH jobs as an economic gain for the players, wants a tradeoff. It initially suggested enacting the universal DH in exchange for the players agreeing to an expanded postseason for 2021, a concept the union rejected.”

The players know that further expanded postseasons equal further contracted competition for player signings and even trades. They know further expanded postseasons equal the next best thing to a de facto salary cap. They know further expanded postseasons equal more excuses for tanking.

So the players sacrificed something short distance that would mean a little more money in their pockets, in order to prevent something else that might take a lot more money out of players pockets long distance. Enough of the owners exposed themselves, yet again,  as refusing plain common baseball sense on behalf of continuing to make money for themselves regardless of their product’s viability.

Those owners are witless to comprehend the continuing dilution of championship play that postseasons already long expanded brought before last season’s dismal experiment of sixteen-team league postseason entries. How can we expect them to comprehend the value of the permanent universal designated hitter?

They might not be terribly impressed with arguing, well, forget the payroll question a moment and consider the play on the field. You know, the thing you’re selling in the first place. But the players and the game’s real fans should be.

This winter’s snail’s pace free agency market was a drag enough without a small but considerable group of men past their fielding prime but still loaded with hits in their bats augmenting it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s indecisiveness on consecrating the universal DH for all time helps leave those men in limbo and those owners’ teams bereft of fortified real offense.

With the permanent universal DH off the table for one more year at least, players such as Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, and Marcell Ozuna couldn’t draw a bead on their real market values this winter. Among other league-wide dilemmas, the Mets still have to juggle to keep both Pete Alonso and Dominic Smith in the lineup. As MLB Trade Rumors writer Steve Adams noted, “NL teams are left to build a lineup and a roster without knowing whether they’ll have a spot for an extra hitter.” They know now.

According to NBC Sports, six teams including three National League clubs have eyes on Ozuna. “[M]aybe one of the biggest reasons the Braves are balking on [trying to re-sign] Ozuna at the moment,” writes Jake Mastroianni of the FanSided journal Tomahawk Take, “is because his defense was even worse than they thought when they signed him last offseason.” Other NL clubs would feel a lot more comfortable adding him as a DH since Ozuna at best is a replacement-level defender.

The owners need less poison pills and more vision.

Never mind the American League teams playing this market slow enough when they’ve had the DH since the Nixon Administration. You’d think National League owners in need of more men on base or more men to drive in the runs would have stepped up and decided taking every chance to get more runs on the board than the other guys is worth ending the tradition one of their own ancestors wanted to end the year Carnegie Hall opened.

You’d think NL owners would be relieved at last not to have to risk their pitchers’ health on the rare occasions they reach base or their pitchers’ subsequent effectiveness in games during which they reach base, somehow. You’d think the money-conscious owners would want to preserve their seven-figure annual investments in good pitchers by enabling the rule that would let them sign still-useful veteran bats for half that much.

You’d also think those owners would be sick and tired at last of watching Jello bats hogging the number nine lineup slot to hit about .166 over the past century worth of Show baseball. Bad enough the so-called purists also continue whining about not just one of the nebulous sides of “tradition” but the nebulous side of preserving “strategy” that means keeping a batting order spot available for the most automatic out in baseball this side of Mario Mendoza.

Quick: Ask them how swiftly they’d sign a .166-hitting position player even if he could play the field like Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, or Roberto Clemente. According to how many defensive runs saved above their league averages they were, those are the greatest fielders at all non-battery positions in baseball history. All but one of whom could hit a bit. A few of whom could hit a lot.

Want the answer? See you in about a hundred years, if that soon.

Belanger was the worst hitter among the foregoing group of defensive virtuosi. No questions asked. He had 22 intentional walks in his eighteen-season career and nineteen of them came when he batted eighth in the lineup. Guess I have to come right out and say it. Opponents didn’t hand him first base on the house because he was liable to hit a three-run homer and they’d rather have chanced lesser bats doing the clutch hitting.

They put Belanger on so they could rid themselves of the Jim Palmers, Mike Cuellars, Dave McNallys, and Pat Dobsons for side retired. In Year One B.D.H. (1972), that redoubtable Oriole starting rotation hit a death-defying .161 together and—for those who still think strikeouts are worse than hitting into double plays—struck out 151 times between them.

Palmer was the most consistent hitter of the group with a whopping .224 traditional batting average. Unless you’ve got that man who’s a human Electrolux in the field, or unless you’re a tanking masochist, you’re not going to sign .224 hitters for the rest of your batting order or bench any time soon if you can help it.

So why would you insist on keeping a group that hit .166 over the past century in that number nine slot? I say again: you want “strategy,” why wouldn’t you want that spot opened up for a possible second cleanup-type hitter or a possible extra leadoff-type hitter? It’s been tried before and, when you put the right bats in in those roles, it pays off handsomely enough.

I’d rather the players spurned a deal of the universal DH for permanent further expanded postseasons because the already-expanded postseason has already diluted real championship competition. Because they were sick at the sight of even an irregular season sending six second place teams, three third-place teams, one fourth-place team, and two teams with losing records to the championship rounds.

“[I]f the bar to reach the postseason is lowered, some clubs won’t feel as compelled to spend for an extra couple of wins to push themselves over the top,” Adams observes, appropriately. “The margin for error is much greater when nearly half (or even more than half) of the teams in the game qualify for postseason play than it is when only a third of clubs do. That’s especially true when at any given point, there are a handful of teams tanking and actively doing everything they can not to win games.”

Sometimes the players, too, have to remind themselves that the common good of the game is more than just making money for or in it. Maybe while negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement they’ll push for the universal DH for all the right reasons. While they’re at it, maybe they’ll tell the owners and Commissioner Nero not to even think about making it contingent upon what’s good for the owners but bad for baseball.

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