The MLB players & owners finally came to their senses and their lockout was settled amicably by March 2022. Opening Day was moved back only one week to April 7, with many doubleheaders to come this summer. The big story of the MLB season is the universal DH and the deadened baseball. I like both.
Slugging percentage has been quelled, and in many ways this unofficially ends (or at least suppresses) the steroid era. Owners now have the power to unilaterally manipulate the baseball as the players get stronger. That’s easier than moving the fences back in all 30 MLB parks.
Once again you have to be a true slugger to go opposite-field upper deck, and that’s the way it should be. I’m going to commend both sides, players & owners because it appears each side actually listened to the other. They both found a way to respect the game and move it forward for the fans. Analytics have been a HUGE part of this. Online criticism & commentary gets noticed when the money is this big. It certainly wasn’t the haters in the fake sports media that led the charge for this improvement. All they do is blabber & rant.
Less than two months into the 2022 MLB season I’m christening this the Universal DH era, as this rule change has radically impacted the game in a good way, which is refreshing. Pitchers no longer have to take batting practice, work on bunting, learn batter signs, and ultimately stand in a batter’s box and try to execute.
That’s one less place for them to get injured. The bases are another, as pitchers now don’t have to concern themselves with running the bases, unless they volunteer to be a pinch runner for their manager in need. It creates a completely different dynamic for them to channel themselves and stay healthier.
That’s a LOT off of their workload, as now they can concentrate exclusively on being a pitcher on the mound. Look at how pitchers have done in 2022 by comparing the slashline batting stats from the past five seasons this one inclusive. You would think that with pitchers not batting, the slash lines for MLB hitters would go up, since starters no longer drag down the league average. But it’s the opposite.
MLB BA OBP SLG
2022 .238 .309 .383 (thru May 27)
2021 .244 .317 .411
2020 .245 .322 .418 (60 game season, universal DH)
2019 .252 .323 .435
2018 .248 .318 .409
BA is down 6-8 percentage points, OBP is down 8-12 percentage points, and SLG% is down at least 30-40 points. This gives pitchers a chance again. Another thing that has helped pitchers is K-zone technology, which hold umpires accountable. It’s harder than ever to be a good MLB pitcher, or even an average one. Fielding, holding runners, avoiding sign detection, umpire performance, etc, are all measured by MLB front offices, scouts & fans*.
* To be honest, much of the fan interest in analytics is fueled by gambling promoted by ESPN, etc. This gambling addiction explosion started with fantasy sports, and was accelerated when ESPN began broadcasting Texas Hold ‘Em poker, promoting it as a mainstream sport, but I digress.
This analysis of the universal DH rule impacting MLB pitching mostly applies to starters, as relievers don’t hit as a rule, but they had to as they developed. All these distractions of being an incompetent batter are now gone at the highest professional level, so the rules for developing pitchers now change everywhere. It’s more specialized, and you have to commit to a position earlier now. MLB is a global game, with a re-codified international draft, Japanese League transfers, etc.
Now the rules are the same in the AL & NL for the first time in MLB since 1972. That makes sense. This allows pitchers to hang around longer, which is good since they don’t grow on trees. The universal DH also makes the game much easier for the manager in the dugout. No longer will a manager have to consider taking out a strong pitcher with a few innings left, for a pinch hitter. This helps the bullpens of all 30 teams, and keeps relievers healthier. Fans, players & owners like that. It took a lockout that threatened the entire 2022 season for owners & players to get this done.
The idea is that pitchers have needed a break ever since José Canseco. The newly expanded post-season, with a third Wildcard is fine too. The two teams with the best records in each league get byes, while the best-of-three play-in series are entirely at the field of the teams with the better record, or tie breaker winner.
That respects the 162-game season, which hasn’t really happened since 1993, the last season before MLB adopted the Wildcard. Expansion in the 1960’s ushered in the pennant race era from 1969-1993, where you had to win your division (East & West in each league), to get into the post-season. This set up two 7-game league championship series to determine the World Series match-up. It was cruel & elegant. But MLB expansion (Marlins-Rockies, then Diamondbacks-Devil Rays) necessitated a third (Central) division in each league, and thus the Wildcard was stillborn in 1994.
Big-spending franchises that were previously shut out (Red Sox, Giants, Cubs) by perennial powerhouses like the Yankees/Dodgers, benefited from the Wildcard system. It began in 1994, but that season was cancelled by MLB commissioner Bud Selig after his owner colleagues provoked a player’s strike, which denied the owners of their coveted post-season television, attendance and merchandising revenues. The 1994-95 MLB players’ strike was a bitter dispute that dragged on too long. Opening Day wasn’t until Tuesday, April 25, 1995 for the Dodgers-Marlins, and the next day for everyone else.
The fact that both players & owners cooperated to settle their differences (for now), and play ball brings a measure of hope to die-hard fans. They say “hope springs eternal” in baseball, but much of that is naive. Baseball is big business, just like all professional sports everywhere. Championships are won in the off-season, like when the Dodgers acquired RF Mookie Betts. Or when the Nationals let RF Bryce Harper & manager Dusty Baker go, and signed free agent LHP Patrick Corbin and brought in Dave Martinez to manage their dugout in 2019.
On the other end, there’s no hope for the Pirates or Reds in 2022. The Cubs are now almost finished dumping assets for prospects, and will be done by the 2022 trade deadline. The Rockies & Diamondbacks have no chance in the stacked NL West. The Giants, after a swan song for Buster Posey’s final season in his Hall-of Fame career, succumbed to the Dodgers in 2021, and that was that.
The Giants still spend a ton to remain respectable, which is okay, but it’s not enough to win without another HOF-er. Ever since LF Barry Bonds was retired by MLB in 2007-08, the Giants have focused on pitching, drafting & development. That’s how they won 3 WS, 2010, 2012 & 2014, one as a Wildcard. They finished 6 GB the Dodgers in 2014, won the NL West by 8 games in 2012, and by 2 games in 2010. The Diamondbacks won the NL West in 2011. There was much more inter-divisional balance back then.
Now it’s the haves & have-nots. The Brewers are the “haves” in the NL Central as long as their pitching holds up. The universal DH helps Craig Counsell manage his rotation, and gives them a better chance in the post-season where pitching matters most. The Brewers have never won a WS. I predict the Brewers or the Padres are going to be the next MLB team to lose their virginity, so to speak.
The Milwaukee Brewers have the formula with pitching and developing it internally. They get the best out of their starters and keep them relatively healthy. Can they keep it going? The LF Christian Yelich extension cripples the Brewers financially, and they really can’t afford it. His back is injured and this has sapped his power. The Brewers are paying him $26M per season through 2028, with a $6.5M buyout.
That’s why I favor the Padres in this quest to be World Series christened. The Padres have more payroll, and they need it against the Dodgers. People who don’t follow the NL West don’t fully appreciate how the Dodgers win. They have the most talent & money. They draft & develop. They’ve had an international presence since forever. If you’re bad, or even borderline, the Dodgers don’t just beat you, they punish you. It’s demoralizing if you’re trying to develop young players with fragile psyches.
It’s why Padres GM AJ Preller had to trade young LHP Eric Lauer to the Brewers for more experience & consistency in RHP Zach Davies in 2020. After one good season, Davies was flipped to the Cubs for RHP Hu Darvish. The Padres need frontline championship starters who can face the Dodgers. That, and Coors Field with Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, etc, can blow-up a LOT of young pitchers.
That was a real possibility for Eric Lauer (above), so his brilliant GM did the right thing by trading him to a NL competitor for maximum value. The NL Central works better for Eric Lauer, so the trade benefits everyone, both teams, AND all the players involved. That’s rare, and therefore noteworthy.
It is instructive to note that the Brewers & Padres have made many recent deals with the Rays which have benefited all sides. See: SS Willy Adames, 2B/UT Jake Croenenworth, OF Manny Margot, RHP Drew Rasmussen, etc. This is a NL round-up, but I will throw-in that the Rays are a really smart organization, so GM’s need to know what they’re doing when dealing with them, otherwise the Rays swindle the other side even when they are dumping. The Rays are always dumping. Baseball Reference has the Rays around $75M for 2022, which is bottom-five (or close, it’s murky) in MLB payroll again.
The Cardinals are an organization that knows what they are doing, so they will hang around and probably snatch a Wildcard in 2022. This is a franchise that benefits from post-season expansion. This is the final MLB season for 1B/DH Albert Pujols, C Yadier Molina & RHP Adam Wainwright, so the Cardinals are in it to win it for sure.
The NL East is the murkiest division in the senior circuit. I have never believed in this version of the Phillies, as they have too many holes. The Nationals are rebuilding, and made a HUGE mistake re-signing RHP Stephen Strasburg to that crazy extension. He basically hasn’t pitched since, due to injuries, and that was the obvious risk. That may cost them LF Juan Soto.
The Marlins are futile, and new GM Kim Ng busted with her first free agent splash in LF Avisail Garcia. Historically speaking, GM’s don’t get many second chances to spend with Marlins ownership. Clearly, the Mets have the divisional edge in payroll. In March, team owner Steve Cohen said the Mets “probably will” go over a $290M payroll for the 2022 season. Spending over that threshold gets taxed by MLB at 80%. Here are the new CBA numbers on the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT):
Tax tier Threshold Tax rate
First $230 million 20%
Second $250 million 32%
Third $270 million 62.5%
Fourth $290 million 80%
It’s hard to determine exactly how much MLB owners are taxed when their franchise goes over the CBT, as it’s formulated by average annual value of all (multi-year) contracts, salary dumps, etc. Suffice to say I see the $270M threshold (3rd tier) as the divider for many MLB owners who don’t want to pay 62.5% tax on anything. 32% is more doable for a MLB owner willing to spend over $250M, but 62.5% bites hard at $270M. Maybe once as a final plunge, otherwise only the wealthiest, most egotistical owners will spend that kind of money. Usually it’s a bad idea that fails, but uncontrollable egos won’t listen to reason.
The Mets signed FA RHP Max Scherzer, and RHP Jacob deGrom isn’t getting any younger, so the Mets are in World Series-or-bust mode in 2022. The Mets finally have an owner who can afford to spend what their fans expect, but health remains an organizational issue they need to solve to compete for a championship again.
The Braves benefited immensely from the Padres collapse in 2021, as AJ Preller only tried for Max Scherzer at the trade deadline and he lost out to the Dodgers who also acquired SS Trea Turner in their deal with the Nationals. No one else available was worth him trading for, so AJ Preller throwing in the towel on 2021 opened up the acquisition market for GM Alex Anthopoulos, who retooled the entire Braves outfield at the deadline at a bargain, which helped them win the WS. The Braves had been languishing for much of the 2021 season, until they got reinforcements who payed-off bigtime, while the Mets collapsed. The Braves would have been buried in the NL West with the Dodgers & Giants in 2021, and through 1993 that’s where the Atlanta Braves were.
As a reminder, the previous two trade deadlines before 2021, Padres GM AJ Preller had gobbled-up much of the best available talent to surround their young phenom SS Fernando Tatis, Jr who was brought up in 2019. Short outings from their starters, inconsistent defense (Tatis, Jr in particular), and injuries derailed the Padres by August 2021. Their off-season began with Preller firing manager Jayce Tingler, and then snatching Bob Melvin from the A’s, who are again in dump mode. AJ Preller double-dipped (again) by also getting LHP Sean Manaea from Oakland, and added FA RHP Nick Martinez from Japan.
The Padres have RHP Mike Clevinger back from his 2nd Tommy John surgery, but it’s still questionable what they will get out of him. He is currently on the IL with a triceps issue. Rookie LHP MacKenzie Gore is the key for the Padres. With LHP Blake Snell, RHP Joe Musgrove & RHP Hu Darvish, the Padres have 7 starters. They are stacking the 4/5 spots in their rotation on normal rest, while being prepared for the doubleheaders to come. An example of stacking would be Nick Martinez going 5 innings, then MacKenzie Gore going 3. This gets the game to their closer, without using regular relievers.
As a note, the Brewers did this very successfully in 2021 with Eric Lauer. It’s a strategy that wins in the post-season. Bullpens are typically chewed-up by October. The trade deadline can bring in reinforcements, but as a rule, managers should stick with starters, and use 4/5 starters as relievers in the post-season.
Pitchers now must face at least 3 batters per relief appearance, and that can be an eternity when a bullpen guy blows up and loses a championship, like the Astros in 2019 to the Nationals in Game 7. RHP Gerrit Cole will never forgive Astros manager AJ Hinch for that, and he shouldn’t. The metrics have been clear on this since Moneyball (2003). As a manager, don’t use your 3rd-or-4th best reliever in an elimination situation, unless that’s all you’ve got. Starters on short rest are always better.
In conclusion, it’s the National League and this DH rule change that’s the story in MLB in 2022. The NL now has the benefit of the DH. The only other year the NL had this was in 2020, the 60-game pandemic shortened season, and it was understood that it was only for that year. It took the 2021-22 lockout with 100 days of posturing and then finally some serious negotiating by the interested parties to get uniform rules which make the game a bit more fair & interesting. As far COVID-19 goes, it’s still with us, and remains a factor in professional sports. It will be until it is eradicated, and it will take a LOT more than a 100-day stand-off between millionaires & billionaires to get that done.