Over the past few weeks, we’ve covered a series of issues that figure to be key areas of dispute in collective bargaining talks. In early stages of negotiations, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association presented varying proposals regarding such things as playoff expansion, the service time structure and the competitive balance tax.
Today’s collective bargaining issue seems, on the surface, as though it should be easier to solve. Expanding the designated hither to the National League seems to have appeal to both parties. The union would welcome the creation of 15 bat-only positions that might expand the market for defensively-limited players and aging stars. As many teams have prioritized constructing rosters with defensive flexibility, the market has devalued non-elite corner bats in free agency and arbitration. A universal DH wouldn’t reverse that trend entirely, but it should be of some benefit to offense-first players.
The league, meanwhile, seems likely to embrace the universal DH as a means of aiding offense. The sport’s ever-increasing strikeout rate has drawn plenty of consternation. The league-wide strikeout percentage ticked upwards every year between 2005 and 2020, setting an all-time record each season. Last year finally marked a stop to the record-breaking streak, as the strikeout rate marginally slipped from 23.4% to 23.2%. That’s perhaps a bit encouraging, but last year’s number still checked in almost seven percentage points above 2005’s 16.4% mark.
Pitchers aren’t the only culprit for the decrease in balls in play, but they’ve had real issues making contact. Last year, pitcher-hitters fanned at a 44.2% clip. Overall, they hit .110/.150/.142 across 4,830 plate appearances. That’s ghastly production, even by the historically low standards at the position. Their five highest all-time strikeout rates have come in the last five years of pitcher hitting. Four of the five lowest pitcher-hitters’ wRC+ (which compares their overall offensive output to that season’s league average marks) have come since 2017. However one wants to explain that trend — improved league-wide velocities, specialization that leads to less practice for pitcher hitting, etc. — pitchers are putting up less of a fight at the plate than ever before.
Just as the universal DH won’t alone reinvigorate the market for defensively limited sluggers, it’s not going to erase the game’s strikeout prevalence. Position players already take up the vast majority of at-bats, and they’re striking out a lot. MLB and the union agreed to a universal DH for the 2020 shortened season, and the league still broke its all-time strikeout record. Yet the elimination of pitcher hitting would no doubt have some positive boost on offense that should appeal to those in the league offices.
Given its seemingly mutually beneficial nature, many expect the universal DH to be a part of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. That said, it was widely expected the NL DH would be in play for 2021 as well, seeing as the parties had agreed to implement it the year before as part of the pandemic protocols. That didn’t wind up happening. The league, reasoning that the players had greater incentive to embrace the universal DH, reportedly sought to tie its introduction to agreement from the union to expand the postseason field (a key revenue generator for MLB). The MLBPA viewed that as an unequal tradeoff and ultimately, neither the universal DH nor playoff expansion were put in place last season.
The potential introduction of a universal DH figures to again come up in discussions once the sides reengage on CBA talks in the coming weeks. If implemented, it’ll no doubt be a divisive provision for viewers. From a fan perspective, the DH is largely an aesthetic question. Some will point to pitcher-hitters’ woeful numbers as evidence that their continued hitting is an anachronism. Others would view the universal DH as a blow to the game’s tradition. In a December poll, 62% of MLBTR respondents expressed support for an NL DH; 26% were against the possibility, while 12% were generally apathetic on the issue.
There have been some creative ways floated to perhaps reduce pitcher-hitting while maintaining an increased amount of late-game strategy. Jayson Stark of the Athletic is among those to have floated the idea of tying the DH to that game’s starting pitcher, such that a team forfeits their DH whenever they remove their starter from the game. It’s theoretically possible the league and union consider such an idea, although it seems they’d have more straightforward interest in simply adding the DH to the NL in its current American League format.