It’s two months until pitchers and catchers are supposed to report to spring training, if all goes according to plan (yeah, right), and Major League Baseball still hasn’t determined whether or not the universal designated hitter will remain in effect for the 2021 season.
The obvious answer is to acknowledge that even with the COVID-19 vaccine coming through, the 2021 season still will be affected by the pandemic. We don’t know yet how long it will take for the vaccine to be widely distributed, for one thing, but even if everyone gets their shots, there still are sure to be knock-on effects from players having had such a disjointed 2020, not to mention any as-yet unknown lingering health concerns for players who did catch coronavirus.
Going to a universal DH increases roster flexibility for all teams, and given the necessity of that, keeping it for 2021 should be a no-brainer, pushing the debate on whether to make it permanent until next year.
But MLB doesn’t want to pull the trigger on going to a full-time DH, even with the idea of revisiting it for 2022, because if they use it in 2021 it will become all the more familiar, and once it’s entrenched as part of baseball more regularly, ownership will lose a bargaining chip that’s been sitting on the edge of the table forever.
The hesitance of management to go where baseball has been tracking for so long is because of the canard that designated hitters get paid big bucks. While it’s true that Nelson Cruz makes more than an additional relief pitcher, the overall impact is negligible. You’re just as likely to see a non-DH Dodgers team with the top payroll in the majors as you are the Yankees, and you’ll still find the American League champion Rays at the bottom of the spending list.
MLB doesn’t give up its myths easily. This is a league that still thinks “competitive balance” is not only real, but desirable, and that shaving a few minutes off the average game time will stop the decades-long drain of young people’s interest in the sport. As if the NFL has really struggled with the Patriots dominating the last two decades and games that stretch longer and longer all the time, to the point that the once-sacred ritual of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. games on Sundays is now games at 1 p.m., 4:05 p.m., and 4:25 p.m., with the TV window closing at 8 Eastern where it once was expected that games would be over by 7.
So, we’re left with this: free agency already opened, the winter meetings already having happened (virtually), and no idea whether half the teams in the majors will have a DH or pitchers who hit in the coming season. It was reported in October that the DH would be AL-only in 2021, subject to bargaining, but it’s still being talked about now, including a zany idea from Rockies manager Bud Black to keep the DH in the game only as long as the starting pitcher is, thereby discouraging openers and preserving late-game National League strategy… which is just different bench players going in the pitcher’s spot.
It’s this close to admitting what we all know, that having pitchers hit is a relic of the days when guys like Bob Gibson grew up hitting and pitching rather than specializing from childhood, that even back then, most pitchers couldn’t hit, and that once Bartolo Colon homered, there was no need for any pitcher to hit ever again because that would never be topped.
The American League knows that it will have the DH, as it has since the position was in 1973 to boost offense. If you’re trying to put together a roster in the National League, though, the league’s present uncertainty is a disaster.
Consider the defending world champion Dodgers. Are they looking for a third baseman to replace free agent superspreader Justin Turner, or can they cast a wider net to find someone who might split time at first base with Max Muncy? Los Angeles wouldn’t be able to slot in another player who’s nominally an outfielder without a DH, but with the DH, they could add another outfield bat and have Cody Bellinger play some first base.
The Mets have Pete Alonso at first base, which means Dom Smith doesn’t play there anymore, but should they be planning to have Smith as their regular left fielder, or as their DH? The difference doesn’t impact whether Steve Cohen opens up his checkbook for George Springer, but does come into play if the Mets do sign Springer, because then it’s a question of whether there’s room for Brandon Nimmo to play every day in left field with Smith as DH, or if it makes more sense to trade Nimmo or Smith.
All over the National League, teams do not have an answer to this question, and they need one. There’s also the case of players like Kyle Schwarber, a natural DH candidate still looking for a job. Baseball’s winters already are slow enough. Not figuring out what the rules are going to be is far more damaging to the game than a lefty reliever coming out of the bullpen to face — gasp — just one hitter.
It would be stupid not to have the universal DH for another season. It’s even stupider to drag out the decision.