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Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls; It Tolls for the NL DH

Depending on the news outlet, the designated hitter coming to the National League is either a foregone conclusion, or something that will never, ever happen.  Regardless of which outcome is true, it’s still a fine idea to think about, and it’s also fun to try to identify which current 2016 teams might most benefit from the inclusion of a DH spot on their roster.

To create a manageable list of names, I searched for player-seasons since 2013 that resulted in an offensive runs above average (Off) value of 25 or greater, a defensive runs above average (Def) value of -5 runs or less, and filtered for National League teams.  My thinking was that by FanGraphs’ own rule of thumb, 25 Off is a notch below great, and -5 Def is starting to make its way into the poor range.  The results are as follows:

Player Qualifying Seasons
Paul Goldschmidt 4
Freddie Freeman 3
Joey Votto 3
Jayson Werth 2
Andrew McCutchen 1

This is interesting for a couple reasons.  The first of which is that this once again proves that the answer to pretty much any question about baseball can be “Joey Votto.”  The second of which is that most of the names on this list are generally thought to be acceptable, sometimes even exceptional, fielders.

Andrew McCutchen’s lone appearance on this list is somewhat of an outlier: a -8.6 in 2014.  He’s been below average defensively in the past, but this is his low water mark for the past five years, going beyond the lower boundary of my arbitrary cutoff of 2013.  I think that we can ignore this for another reason: his bat doesn’t play at DH going forward at 2016 levels of production, rendering his inclusion moot for this purpose.  His contract extends to 2017 with an option for 2018, so I doubt we’ll see NL DH at bats for McCutchen on the Pirates before then.

Jayson Werth shows up twice, but outside of his defensively tremendous 2008 season, I don’t think that anyone would put him in the company of elite defenders.  Like McCutchen, Werth also is only under contract until the end of the 2017 season, which would qualify him for a maximum of one year of Nationals DH service.  I think that he can be dismissed from the list.

In his first full season with the Braves in 2011, Freddie Freeman was a disaster at first base (-23.6).  He was better in his second year with a -13 Def.  He’s gotten better over the intervening years, with his high water defensive mark coming in 2015 with -3.9 Def.  He has gone from an awful defender to a below-average defender, and playing for a Braves team that won’t be good for a couple years will probably stay at first even with the inclusion of a DH spot.  But, being that he is under contract until 2021, should the DH rule be put into effect, we may see him getting meaningful at bats as a DH before the end of the decade.

Signed through 2018 with a club option for 2019, Paul Goldschmidt’s defensive rating seems to be a victim of positional adjustment more than anything.  His worst defensive performance was -11.5 Def in 2012, his first full season in the MLB.  Since then his performance has been within the run adjustment for his position, outside of this current season.  He is on pace to have a truly bad defensive year in 2016.  But, he’s not even the most eligible DH candidate on his own team.  The Diamondbacks would likely be better served putting Yasmany Tomas at DH and let Goldschmidt continue to play most days in the field.

The third first baseman on the list is Joey Votto.  Like Goldschmidt, he is penalized heavily for being a first baseman.  But, dissimilar to Goldschmidt, he is on the wrong side of 30 and signed to an immensely long and expensive contract.  Of all the teams with players on this list, the Reds might be one of the best-positioned to take advantage of the DH immediately.  Outside of a magnificently terrible start to 2016, Votto has shown that he is still an offensive juggernaut, with a skillset that doesn’t seem to be deteriorating at all.  His defense, on the other hand, peaked in an injury-shortened 2012 season and has gotten progressively worse in each full season he’s played since.  For the 2016 season he’s performed at his worst in the field, with a -13.6 Def.  He accounts for 100% of the Reds’ currently committed payroll for 2021, and is still signed for two more years beyond that.

I’m sure there are more teams that would benefit from the addition of the DH, and I’m sure there are teams that would acquire other talent to man their DH positions.  Realistically, I think that most teams would end up using the DH much the same way as it’s been used in the AL for decades: as an extension of a hitting career, and a half day off for players while still keeping their bats in the lineup.  But, among the teams that met the criteria laid out above, I think that the Reds would be the team most suited to immediately improve through the designated hitter.