Two events recently occurred that appear completely unrelated yet may have a strong connection. Those two events:
1. Shohei Ohtani decided to sign with the Los Angeles Angels.
What brings these two independent transactions together in this column? As you know, the Angels and Yankees both play in the American League. As you also know, the American League utilizes the designated hitter. It’s possible the DH played a key factor -- maybe a decisive factor -- in both moves.
Ohtani wants to hit when he’s not pitching. While some National League teams expressed the willingness to play Ohtani in the outfield -- the Reds, in particular, made a hard sell for the two-way star -- the more realistic and sensible use of Ohtani doesn’t include him chasing fly balls. Even in Japan, he hadn’t played the outfield since 2014.
In Stanton’s case, his contract runs through 2027 if he doesn’t opt out after 2020. If he doesn’t opt out, the ability to move him to a DH role later in his career is perhaps a reason he’s in New York right now rather than in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. The Yankees can not only give him 50 or so starts a year now at DH to rest his legs -- and remember, Stanton has had knee issues in the past -- but in a worst-case scenario, he’s a long-term fit at DH, a scenario the Dodgers couldn’t consider.
Of course, these are unique cases. Ohtani may ultimately end up just pitching (Rays minor leaguer Brendan McKay is also attempting the two-way feat, at least for now). Stanton’s contract and no-trade clause limited his pursuers. Still, this leads to a related question: Does the DH factor give American League teams an advantage in signing or trading for certain types of players, an advantage that helps explain why the AL has won interleague play every season since 2004, including a 160-140 record in 2017?
First, however, it’s important to note that the DH itself is not a reason for the AL’s dominant success in interleague results. I wrote about this in November 2016.
At that time, the AL had a 326-win edge over the NL since 2004. I attributed 14 of those 326 wins to the DH advantage in head-to-head games in AL parks. Other theories didn’t explain the difference. For example, even if you removed the Yankees and Boston Red Sox from the interleague ledger, the AL still owned a 222-win advantage (although those two clubs were plus-22 in 2017, going a combined 31-9, accounting for the AL’s edge all by themselves).
My conclusion for the AL’s dominance: The success of the Yankees and Red Sox in the early part of the last decade pushed the rest of the league to perform better. The NL didn’t have the same level of consistently dominant franchises, so the bar for making the playoffs was essentially lower.
That analysis, however, didn’t address the specific question of whether the DH advantage allowed the AL to acquire older hitters. If a player -- especially a first baseman or corner outfield type -- is available in free agency and signing him requires a deal into his mid-30s (or later), the AL team knows it has the DH option in its back pocket. Maybe this allows AL teams to sign more superstar-type free agents.
I looked at all contracts for position players valued at $125 million or higher, via Cot’s Contracts. This provided a list of 32 contracts, all since 2001:
As it turns out, 20 of the 32 contracts went to AL teams -- seven of those going to the Yankees or Red Sox. Six of the deals did involve an NL player going to an AL team: Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton and Shin-Soo Choo (although Choo had spent most of his career in the AL). Gonzalez and Cabrera signed extensions after trades. Those six are all first basemen or corner outfielders. OK, that fits into our theory. At the same time, however, six players don’t explain 326 wins (and Gonzalez eventually ended up back in the NL anyway).
It’s also interesting that of the 12 NL contracts, nine were teams re-signing a player they already had. The only three huge-money NL deals that involved players changing teams were Jason Heyward, Alfonso Soriano and Jayson Werth. NL teams have clearly been reluctant to go after high-priced free-agent position players. Still, as you peruse the list above, a lot of those contracts ended up being pretty undesirable. Sure, the Detroit Tigers signed Fielder away from the Milwaukee Brewers, but he ended up being worth just 7.0 WAR over five seasons in the AL before being forced into retirement -- 4.7 of that coming in his first season in Detroit. And none of this factors in contracts that aren’t at least $125 million. I think we need to dig deeper.
Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, I went back to 2004 and searched by league for all position players who accumulated at least 2.0 WAR in their age-32 season or older (I didn’t want to count the fringe contributors). The results:
American League: 881.1 WAR (107 players)
National League: 691.9 WAR (109 players)
The AL has extracted far more value from its older position players. While the NL has had 17 players accumulate at least 10 WAR from age 32 on since 2004 (worth 261.2 WAR), the AL has had 29 such players (worth 490.3 WAR).
Here are the top 15 "old" players in each league with at least 10 WAR in that league from age 32 on (plus games started at DH for AL players):
Three of the 15 are or were essentially DHs -- David Ortiz, Jim Thome and Nelson Cruz. Damon ended up getting significant playing time at DH due to his weak arm in the outfield, and A-Rod moved there at the end of his career, when he wasn’t providing much value.
There are other AL players not listed in the top 15 who certainly fit the DH prototype, guys such as Raul Ibanez, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Edwin Encarncion, Paul Konerko, Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui and Victor Martinez who certainly spent large chunks of time at DH.
You’d have to extract their DH WAR from their overall WAR to get a better assessment, but it seems fair to suggest the DH factor may give the AL a competitive edge in signing older players. J.D. Martinez is a good example in this year’s free-agent class. A marginal defender right now in a corner outfield spot, by the end of a six-year contract when he’d be 35, an NL team would be taking the risk that he won’t kill them in the outfield. If he goes to an AL team, they get the value he delivers at age 30 and 31, on top of whatever he delivers as an “old” player.
In 2017, the AL still had the edge in older position players, even though the best two 32-and-older players were in the NL (Joey Votto and Justin Turner). Here are the top 15 in each league:
Of course, none of this analysis factors in economic components such as local TV contracts and payroll, but the NL has had the higher average attendance every season since 2004 (including 3,246 per game in 2017), so I don’t know if the revenue streams in the two leagues are really all that different.
Does this mean NL teams are hurting themselves by not going after more offense-first types while potentially sacrificing defense down the road? I don’t know. I would argue yes. One thing I suggested last offseason was that as teams like the Chicago Cubs and Dodgers turn into consistent powerhouses, it should eventually raise the level of the rest of the NL -- at least, if the rest of the league wishes to compete with the Cubs and Dodgers. So far this offseason, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Brewers, the three teams that made big strides in 2017, haven’t made those kinds of necessary moves.
But maybe an NL team signs Martinez, and Eric Hosmer goes to the San Diego Padres, and Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas go to the Giants, and Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta stay in the NL, and the National League wins interleague play for the first time since 2003. Or maybe we’ll see more of the same.