Setting aside the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, this is the first full MLB season that has featured the universal designated hitter.
Clearly, this has been a significant plus for National League clubs. In 2021, NL pitchers slashed a woeful .110/.149/.140, with 14 home runs and a 44.1% strikeout rate. In ’22, NL designated hitters have slashed a sensational (relatively speaking) .233/.315/.389 with 81 homers and a 23.9% K-rate. That makes DH the NL’s fourth-most-productive lineup spot this season.
But of course, that production is not evenly distributed. Now that we’re more than six weeks into the Universal DH Era, let’s take a look at each of the 15 NL clubs and see which ones are deriving the greatest benefit from the extra bat in their lineups.
All numbers are through Sunday’s games. The player listed as the primary DH for each club is the one with the most starts in that spot.
1. Phillies (Primary DH: Bryce Harper)
Imagine if this had been 2021. In that alternate reality, the Phillies would be spending a significant chunk of their schedule without Harper, who sustained a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in mid-April and likely won’t play the field again until late July, at the earliest.
That would have been a loss that the team with the NL’s longest postseason drought absolutely could not afford. It’s still a blow, in that Philly already had too many subpar defensive players to fill one DH spot, but at least Harper’s bat is still in the lineup. That’s a huge win for the universal DH as the reigning NL MVP continues to mash while his elbow heals.
2. Cardinals (Primary DH: Albert Pujols)
This is partly about sentimentality, in that the arrival of the universal DH helped pave the way for Pujols’ return to St. Louis. But it’s also about production. The Cardinals have the third-best park-adjusted DH production in the NL, despite the struggles of new arrival Corey Dickerson. That’s because Pujols has continued his end-of-career renaissance (.884 OPS, four homers at DH), and also because first-year manager Oliver Marmol has used the spot to rest the legs of star infielders Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. Those two have combined for seven starts and an .808 slugging percentage in that role.
3. Braves (Primary DH: Marcell Ozuna)
This placement is not at all about Ozuna, who has a .535 OPS in 15 starts as a DH. Rather, it’s about Ronald Acuña Jr. The Braves have been able to carefully work the 24-year-old superstar back into the lineup in his return from a major knee injury, without making him play the field every day. Acuña had logged eight of his 15 starts as a DH through Sunday, batting .323/.447/.419 in those games.
4. Pirates (Primary DH: Daniel Vogelbach)
It’s been a struggle for the Pirates offensively (26th in MLB in OPS), but things would be considerably bleaker without Vogelbach. An under-the-radar free-agent acquisition, Vogelbach has yet to put on a glove this season, making all 31 of his starts as a DH and posting a well-above-average 130 OPS+.
5. Mets (Primary DH: J.D. Davis)
Davis has been only OK so far, although his expected stats (per Statcast) suggest that he has deserved much better. The bulk of the Mets’ DH production actually has come from Pete Alonso, who has started 12 games there and slashed .298/.365/.702 with five homers and 16 RBIs. With Alonso (-10 career Outs Above Average) in that role, the Mets can also bolster their infield defense with Dominic Smith at first base.
6. Cubs (Primary DH: Frank Schwindel)
Most of the team’s top DH options have not performed especially well so far, but Willson Contreras is the exception, slashing .387/.472/.774 with three homers in nine games. Just the fact that manager David Ross can keep Contreras’ bat in the lineup while giving him a break from catching is huge. Contreras has been in the lineup for 34 of the Cubs’ first 40 games, producing at a career-high level and ranking among the MLB leaders in hard-hit rate.
7. Dodgers (Primary DH: Justin Turner)
In theory, the Dodgers should be higher on this list, considering all of the offensive talent that exists on their versatile roster. It just hasn’t really clicked yet. Turner, Edwin Ríos and Max Muncy have combined to start all but three of the team’s games at DH, but only Ríos has raked there (.926 OPS, four homers, 12 RBIs in 11 games). Turner’s bat has perked up over the past two weeks, however, and taking the defensive load off him still could pay dividends late in the season.
8. Rockies (Primary DH: Connor Joe)
Joe has been a nice story for the Rockies in 2022, ranking second on the team in hits (41) and first in walks (19) while starting games at first base, left field, right field and DH. The latter has been his most frequent spot (16 starts). Also notable is that Charlie Blackmon has started 12 games as a DH, and his OPS is more than 100 points higher there than as a right fielder.
9. Brewers (Primary DH: Andrew McCutchen)
Milwaukee signed McCutchen over the offseason and has used the 35-year-old much more as a DH (22 starts) than as an outfielder (six). The result has been roughly league-average numbers. The extra lineup spot will become more valuable for the Brewers if Keston Hiura sticks in his latest MLB stint and gives the club another bat to fit into the lineup.
10. Giants (Primary DH: Wilmer Flores)
It should be no surprise that the Giants have mixed things up quite a bit here in their search for favorable matchups, starting nine different players at DH. Flores, Darin Ruf and Joc Pederson have combined for 31 starts, although Tommy La Stella also made three last week in his return from the IL and could be more of a force moving forward.
11. Reds (Primary DH: Mike Moustakas)
In a year when not much has gone right for the Reds, DH has been one of their two most productive positions offensively. That’s thanks in large part to Moustakas and Tyler Naquin, who have combined for 22 starts there. Moustakas has bounced back and forth between third base and DH, putting up much better numbers at the latter spot (.342/.460/.415) as he looks to put a rough 2021 behind him.
12. Padres (Primary DH: Luke Voit)
San Diego acquiring Voit in March to fill this role made a lot of sense, but it hasn’t really paid off yet, between his early struggles and a stint on the IL. However, Voit has looked more like himself since returning to the lineup on May 10, and picking up Robinson Canó could help as well.
13. Marlins (Primary DH: Garrett Cooper)
Cooper and Jesús Aguilar both have been above-average hitters in 2022 -- just not when in the lineup at DH. The two right-handed sluggers have split time there and at first base, but both have generated an OPS more than 300 points higher at first. That could just be a small-sample fluke, but for now, it’s keeping Miami near the bottom of this list.
14. Nationals (Primary DH: Nelson Cruz)
When the universal DH was instituted, it cleared a path for an NL team to sign Cruz, the seemingly ageless slugger who had barely played the field since 2016. The Nats pounced on that opportunity. Cruz has started 38 of the team’s 42 games at DH, but so far, it looks like this might be the year that Father Time finally catches up to the 41-year-old (.579 OPS). Or maybe not -- he’s hitting .319/.385/.468 over his past 13 games.
15. D-backs (Primary DH: Seth Beer)
Going by park-adjusted wRC+, D-backs DHs have the sixth-worst offensive production of any unit on any MLB team this season. (Arizona catchers are also fourth on that list). It’s been pretty much all downhill after Beer’s hot start, which included a walk-off homer on Opening Day. Notably, rookie Cooper Hummel has made nine DH starts and gone 2-for-31 (.065) with no extra-base hits.