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Who killed the DH?

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Was 2017 a one-year blip, or a sign of a downward trend?

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MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

On May 30, Michael Salfino published a piece for FiveThirtyEight titled, “Who Needs A DH? The NL Is Outhitting The AL, Somehow.” The piece noted that through the first two months of the season — despite the fact that, you know, pitchers have to hit in the National League — the Senior Circuit was outstriping the Junior Circuit by a five-point OPS edge (.739 for the NL; .734 for the AL).

Salfino included a chart that showed this would have been the first time since the inception of the designated hitter in 1973 that the NL would have outhit the AL (the two tied with an OPS of .681 in 1976).

The American League has had a stranglehold on the title of “Most Offensive League” since 1973, which makes perfect sense, given that (again) they get to replace the pitcher with a hitter of their choice. Since 1973, the AL has posted a .262/.328/.419 slash line, compared to .257/.326/.408 for the NL. That’s a five-point wRC+ gap.

Now, the American League ended up bouncing back by the end of the season to restore order to offensive supremacy in baseball. In fact, by the end of the season, they once again had a five-point wRC+ advantage over the NL. That’s the beauty of baseball — the season is long enough that the numbers typically track back to the mean.

However, it is interesting to note just how the AL made up that ground. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of how batters fared in 2017:

Position-by-position stats for 2017

Position BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Positional adjustment
Position BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Positional adjustment
C 0.245 0.315 0.406 0.309 89 12.5
1B 0.261 0.343 0.472 0.345 113 -12.5
2B 0.263 0.329 0.409 0.317 94 2.5
SS 0.260 0.315 0.407 0.309 88 7.5
3B 0.256 0.330 0.438 0.328 102 2.5
RF 0.256 0.332 0.443 0.330 103 -7.5
CF 0.262 0.333 0.426 0.326 101 2.5
LF 0.261 0.331 0.431 0.326 100 -7.5
DH 0.248 0.320 0.434 0.322 99 -17.5

I included the FanGraphs WAR positional adjustments to give a feel for where hitting is most expected from. The general thought is that if a player is at a tougher defensive position, then there can be a little leeway on just how strong the hitter is.

(Quick baseball history sidenote: It’s interesting that, throughout baseball history, second base and third base have alternated just how much has been expected from the position offensively. Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins were offensive juggernauts in an age when third baseman were mostly slap hitters. Now, third base is seen as a position for the likes of Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, etc. while second base is more often filled with less-powerful hitters like Dee Gordon or even Robinson Cano. FanGraphs WAR has the two at the same level for positional adjustment, but personally: it seems like historical baseball may have been of the right mind — third base seems a lot harder to field than second, with the exception of the pivot in the double play, so it would make sense to expect less hitting from third basemen.)

Nearly each part of the chart lines up. Catcher is the most challenging defensive position, and it had the lowest wRC+. First base is the easiest on-field position, and it had the highest wRC+. Second base and shortstop are up-the-middle positions that are thought to be of high defensive value; they finished with the second- and third-lowest wRC+ totals. Right field, again: easy defensive position, second-highest wRC+.

[Stephen A. Smith voice] How-evah, there is one position that stands out: DH. The position that is dinged the most by defensive value (which makes sense, considering a player doesn’t actually play defense as a DH) ended up with the fourth-lowest wRC+ across the whole sport in 2017. As a whole, designated hitters hit below-league average in 2017. Every outfield spot and both corner infield spots contributed more to their teams with their bats than the position that is quite literally designed to contribute with the bat.

How rare is that? Here’s the wRC+ for DHs in each season this millennium:

Before 2017, the collective DH wRC+ had dropped below 105 only twice this century, and, both of those times, it was still comfortably above 100 (104 in 2004 and 104 in 2009).

The last time there was a significant drop in DH production (2008-2010), there was kvetching, as Dave Cameron penned a piece entitled “Is the DH Dying?” for FanGraphs. He lamented how teams were planning to use the DH as more of a utility spot to give position players days off, or to give their roster some added flexibility. Of course, in 2011, DHs contributed to the tune of a 111 wRC+, and 2015-2016 was the best two-year stretch for DHs since 2002-2003.

Now, this is where we’ll get to the name that smart readers may have been thinking of since Jump Street: David Ortiz. Two thousand seventeen was the first year since the early 2000s that Big Papi wasn’t helping to contribute to the offensive firepower from the DH position.

It may seem crazy to think that one player could have that big an impact, but remember: this is one position in one league. There are only 15 DHs in baseball, so losing one who had a wRC+ of 147 during his 14 years in a Red Sox uniform is massive. His wRC+ was 164 in 2016; that alone explains a decent portion of the drop off from 2016 to 2017.

Now it doesn’t explain all of it, and a quick glimpse at the 2017 DH leaderboard is enough to give plenty of AL teams worries. Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion are the only two hitters who produced any real value from the DH position in 2017, the rest of the league used the position in the manner Cameron threw out in 2010 (Rays, Yankees, etc.), or simply had limited production from the spot (Angels, Orioles, etc.).

So what’s the final conclusion? It does seem as though the league is a bit lacking in terms of pure DHs right now, but given that we are one year removed from one of the best DH seasons on record, it isn’t broken. One big breakout could change that — If I put Shohei Ohtani’s name here, do you think I can boost my SEO numbers a bit? — and one year hardly a trend makes.

But in the ongoing discussion as to whether to DH should be eliminated, or whether it should be brought to both leagues, it’s interesting to keep an eye on the actual production from the position.

Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.