MLB at the All-Star Break Reveals One Big Hit—the Universal DH

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Major League Baseball has reached Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, this year at Dodger Stadium, and the biggest hit among the rule changes put in place after the lockout has been the universal designated hitter.

Bringing the DH to the National League has allowed Albert Pujols to finish his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and his teammate Paul Goldschmidt, almost 35, to get off his feet at first base for a few games.

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“Sure, it was a big help,” said Pujols, who was added to the NL All-Star squad this year as a legacy pick, along with Miguel Cabrera in the American League. “Not just me. It helps a lot of other players by opening jobs for them and gave me the opportunity to go back to St. Louis.”

And Pujols has taken full advantage of that opportunity. On Monday night, he powered his way into the semifinals of the Home Run Derby, where he lost by one long-ball to Juan Soto, the flavor of the moment and eventual champion.

When the lockout ended after 99 days on March 9, the new Basic Agreement created 15 new spots for hitters in the NL, but the labor deal came too late for those 15 teams to build their rosters around that position. However, that will change with a full offseason to consider structuring lineups with a standard DH, as most AL teams have done since the advent of the rule in 1973.

The flip side is that pitchers no longer frequent the batter’s box or the base paths, limiting the possibility of injuries.

“Anything we can do for pitchers is a good thing for the game,” agent Scott Boras said Monday in an interview. “Our game is really in need of making sure that we have enough arms to handle the innings at the highest competitive level. So, keeping them off the field is a very, very important thing for their health.”

The 15 new NL hitters will ultimately lead to offensive players receiving more money. In 2021, the average salary for the DH in the AL was $13.4 million. Before the universal DH, NL owners hit pitchers and often used the DH roster spot for a minimum-salaried position player, which this year comes to $700,000. That’s over.

Pujols, at 42, is earning $2.5 million this season, which will be his last of 22. He’s played in 53 games—37 of them as the DH—and is hitting .215, well below his lifetime batting average of .296. He has 685 career home runs, which currently ranks fifth all-time, but injuries and the 60-game 2020 season, abbreviated because of COVID-19, will probably keep him from becoming the fourth player in MLB history to reach the 700-homer plateau.

“It gave me a chance to play another year,” Pujols said. “I enjoyed the role I had last year [mostly pinch-hitting] for the Dodgers. I’m glad I had this opportunity, so I took it.”

Even though this season is far from his best—he’s below zero in WAR and at 94, is well under the OPS-plus average dividing line of 100—there’s no love lost for Pujols. After hitting 10 homers in three first-round minutes in Monday night’s Derby, Pujols was swarmed on the field by his fellow, mostly younger All-Stars in what amounted to a group hug. He went on to hit three more in a bonus 30-second session.

“It was awesome,” Pujols said after absorbing the affection from “a new generation.”

Pujols, the No. 8-seed, defeated No. 1-seed Kyle Schwarber in the opening round before bowing out to Soto. He hit 35 homers in all—not bad for an old man in baseball longevity.

Goldschmidt, one of the senior members of that generation himself, said he “loves” the new DH rule, which was utilized for health and safety reasons in 2020, but not last season as the owners and union sparred over a new agreement.

The way the Cardinals distribute DH games among various players is typical of the way most NL teams are doing it this season. The San Diego Padres, who acquired Luke Voit from the New York Yankees during spring training, have played him 60 games and given him 257 plate appearance as the DH. That should be more the norm in the NL next season.

Goldschmidt, the starting first baseman for the NL All-Star team, has started 14 of his 90 games as the DH, and his offensive numbers are fantastic this year. He’s slashing along at .330/.414/.590 with a 1.004 OPS and a 186 OPS-plus.

He’s in the third year of a five-year, $120 million contract. And after Pujols retires, he could earn another contract as a first baseman/DH.

“But that’s pretty far away,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about that yet.”

The point is, the new rule gives him that chance, as well as protect pitchers.

“I like the DH,” said Freddie Freeman, a late add to the NL All-Star team from the Dodgers, for whom he’s started every one of their 90 games at first base. “Being from the NL, it’s kind of different. But it’s better. I played against Jacob deGrom twice when he swung and had to come out of the game. I don’t think anyone wants to see that.”

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