Red Sox: Impact of DH potentially coming to National League


How would the Boston Red Sox be affected if the National League were to adopt the designated hitter?

Major League Baseball continues to evolve under the leadership of Commissioner Rob Manfred, which much to the dismay of many old school hardliners may result in a drastic change for the National League.

According to Newsday’s David Lennon, Manfred revealed at the MLB owner’s meeting on Thursday that the idea of the designated hitter coming to the NL was “gaining momentum.” With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on Dec. 31, 2016, negotiations for a new CBA could include expansion of the DH role to the senior circuit.

While there would likely be a fair amount of public outcry against this proposed change from those that appreciate the intricacies of the chess match NL managers play when faced with the challenges of having their pitchers hit, the change makes too much sense not to happen.

While a few select pitchers are capable of holding their own at the plate, they typically represent an easy out at the bottom of the order. Last season NL pitchers produced a collective .133 average and .330 OPS, compared to a .228 average and .624 OPS for the average No. 9 hitter in an American League lineup. In other words, while most AL teams have a weak hitter bringing up the rear of their lineup, their worst hitter is still far superior to almost any NL pitcher.

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Not only would taking the bat out of the pitcher’s hands avoid the snooze-fest that their turn in the order often represents, it also avoids more opportunities for pitchers to injure themselves. St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright tearing his Achilles running out a pop-up last season would be one prominent example, while Boston Red Sox fans remember the time Clay Buchholz pulled a hamstring running to second base in San Francisco, sending him to the disabled list for about a month back in 2010.

You may be thinking that since the Red Sox reside in the AL then this change wouldn’t have much of an affect on fans here in Boston, but you would be wrong.

Interleague play dictates that the Red Sox still have to take several trips to National League ballparks every year, where they are faced with the dilemma of what to do with longtime DH David Ortiz. Typically Ortiz will spend a game or two at first base, while taking at least one game off in that series. It’s manageable, but regardless of if it’s Ortiz or the team’s regular first baseman that sits, the Red Sox lineup is significantly weaker with one of their pitchers forced to hit instead. The team is constructed with the intent of using the DH as a core piece in the middle of the lineup, which puts them at a disadvantage whenever they play under NL rules.

If the DH ever comes to the NL then it won’t be until 2017 at the earliest, which is after Ortiz’s swan song season. While this potential rule change will never affect Ortiz, the Red Sox will face a similar dilemma with his replacement – likely to be the defensively challenged Hanley Ramirez. If the DH is incorporated into both leagues then Boston won’t need to be concerned about giving Ramirez a glove and sending him out on the field again after this year.

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It would also become more likely that the Red Sox would no longer need to worry about Ramirez at all after this year, as adding the DH to the NL would increase his trade value by virtue of adding more potential suitors. If Ramirez’s bat wakes up this season to return to anything resembling his previous form he could become appealing to a lot of teams, especially with only two years remaining on his deal after this season. No NL team will touch him now knowing he’s such a liability in the field at this stage of his career, but they may be more willing to bite if they could use him as a DH.

The short-term outlook of the DH being brought to the NL appears to be favorable to the Red Sox, but what about in the long term? After Ortiz retires they will presumably use Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval in that role, but at some point down the line they are going to need to shop for another bat intended to become the team’s primary DH. One-dimensional players that provide no value outside of what they produce at the plate typically don’t make top of the market money, as evidenced by the fact that Ortiz topped out at $16 million per year despite being arguably the best DH in history. However, if NL teams need to start looking for those types of bats as well, the increased market competition could drive up the price.

Baseball fans are notoriously fickle about making changes to the game that mess with tradition, but in recent years we have seen examples of MLB becoming more innovative. With the addition of instant replay and the home-plate collision rule having been implemented with great success, perhaps the game is ready to evolve again.

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There are still a lot of hurdles to navigate before MLB can implement a change this drastic, but the words of the Commissioner make it sound as if it’s closer than ever to happening. If it does happen then residing in the AL won’t prevent the Red Sox from feeling the ramifications of this change.