Answering the Universal DH Question and MLB's Other Hotly Contested Debates

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2019

Answering the Universal DH Question and MLB's Other Hotly Contested Debates

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    There is no shortage of hotly contested debates around Major League Baseball right now.

    The implementation of a universal designated hitter, the use of robot umpires and the manipulation of service time of rising minor leaguers remain talking points.

    On an individual basis, the Cody Bellinger vs. Christian Yelich argument will be put to the test when it comes time to vote for the National League MVP, while the New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros bout for American League supremacy could be decided in the American League Championship Series.

    Ahead, we break down those and a handful of other notable debates.

Has Bryce Harper Been Worth It?

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    A massive contract comes with a certain level of expectations.

    In the case of Bryce Harper and the 13-year, $330 million deal he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies this offseason, that level seems to be insurmountable.

    With anything short of an MVP for Harper and a World Series appearance by the Phillies, this season will be deemed a disappointment in Philadelphia.

    But let's look at it from a purely statistical standpoint.

    The 26-year-old is hitting .254/.373/.497 for a 122 OPS+ with 31 doubles, 27 home runs, 92 RBI and 77 runs. With a 133 OPS+ last year and a 139 OPS+ for his career heading into the 2019 season, Harper has been below-average by his standards.

    He's still been worth 2.7 WAR, however, and that would leave him somewhere around 3.4 WAR at the end of the season.

    Based on the idea that 1.0 WAR is worth $8 million, Harper is worth about $27.2 million in market value.

    The annual salary cap hit of his contract is $25.4 million, so if he does wind up at 3.4 WAR, his on-field value will have exceeded his payroll hit.

    Go ahead and present casual fans with that logical argument, and it will almost certainly land.

    Answer: He's been worth it...so far.

Splitting the Rays Between Tampa Bay and Montreal?

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Montreal Rays?

    It's an idea that is apparently being explored, as Jeff Passan of ESPN offered the following details in June:

    "The Rays have received permission from Major League Baseball's executive council to explore a plan in which they would play home games in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal, commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday.

    "While the plan is in its nascent stages, the Rays have embraced the two-city solution as the most feasible to saving baseball in the Tampa Bay area after years of failed attempts to build a new stadium in the region, sources said.

    "Under the plan, the Rays would play early season home games in the Tampa Bay area and the remainder of the year in Montreal, with both cities getting new stadiums, sources said. The number of home games each city would receive has not been determined, sources said."

    There are terrible plans, and then there is whatever this is.

    The Rays already can't fill their stadium. They're averaging 15,002 fans per game, which tops only the Miami Marlins (10,065) among all 30 clubs.

    How would the few loyal fans they do have feel anything but betrayed if their team were taken away from them for part of the season?

    And on the flip side, while Montreal already has an MLB fanbase from the Expos days, how quickly would those supporters buy in to a team they would see only for an abridged season?

    From the players' standpoint, the two-city split would make it awfully tough on families, and recruiting free agents for that sort of travel schedule could prove tricky for the front office.

    There are far too many hurdles for this to be anything but a bad idea.

    Answer: Not happening.

Where Will Gerrit Cole Wind Up?

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    Few starting pitchers in recent memory as good as Gerrit Cole have hit the open market.

    Greg Maddux to the Atlanta Braves. Randy Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Jon Lester to the Chicago Cubs. Max Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

    Cole falls into that category of elite starters in their prime who shook up the landscape during the offseason.

    The 28-year-old finished fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting last year, posting a 2.88 ERA and 1.03 WHIP with 276 strikeouts in 200.1 innings during his first season with the Houston Astros.

    He's been even better this year, logging an AL-best 2.75 ERA and 0.95 WHIP with 238 strikeouts in 163.2 innings with a career-high 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

    The Astros' acquisition of Zack Greinke at the trade deadline no doubt improved the team for 2019, but it also gave them a contingency plan for Cole's upcoming free agency and might have been an indication they are ready to let him walk.

    After all, Houston waved goodbye to Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton without batting an eye this offseason.

    So where will Cole land?

    Buster Olney of ESPN named the Phillies, Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees as three teams that could be in the driver's seat.

    Answer: Cole, a Newport Beach, California, native and UCLA product, signs with the Angels.

Where Will Anthony Rendon Wind Up?

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    While the Washington Nationals have maintained an open dialogue with upcoming free agent Anthony Rendon, all signs point to the star third baseman dipping his toes into the free-agent waters.

    The 29-year-old is in the midst of a career year, and he will be the top bat on the market, especially if J.D. Martinez decides not to opt out of his contract with the Boston Red Sox.

    Marcell Ozuna, Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal, Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Didi Gregorius represent the best of the rest among free-agent hitters.

    Rendon is hitting .329/.407/.617 with 35 doubles, 29 home runs and 104 RBI en route to 5.3 WAR, and he has seemingly shaken the injury-prone label that plagued him early in his career.

    A reunion with the Nationals is a distinct possibility, especially considering the team reportedly made an offer north of 10 years and $300 million in an effort to keep Bryce Harper, according to MLB analyst Jim Bowden.

    In other words, the money is there if they want to make a push to re-sign Rendon.

    Otherwise, the Angels, Phillies, New York Mets and Texas Rangers are among the deep-pocketed teams that could stand to upgrade at the hot corner.

    Answer: Rendon re-signs with the Nationals on a six-year, $200 million deal, eclipsing the annual value of Nolan Arenado's eight-year, $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies.

Robot Umpires?

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    Robot umpires made their debut in July during the independent Atlantic League All-Star Game, and while the technology is still being refined, that was a big step.

    "This is an exciting night for MLB, the Atlantic League, baseball generally," MLB senior vice president of economics and operations Morgan Sword told reporters. "This idea has been around for a long time, and it's the first time it's been brought to life in a comprehensive way."

    MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred sounded confident while talking about the future implementation of robot umpires in the majors:

    "We need to see how it works, first in the Atlantic League and then probably other places, meaning other parts of minor league baseball, before it comes to Major League Baseball. Kind of gets back to the question that I was asked earlier about the baseball. We hear all the time from players: Why don't we have an electronic strike zone, why don't we have an electronic strike zone? We try to be responsive to those sorts of expressions of concern. We have spent a lot of time and money on the technology. It's not just to address player concerns. It obviously has broadcasting uses. That same technology can be used in our broadcast, which has value to our fans. But we feel it's incumbent upon us — people that play the game raised this as something that could make the game better. We kind of feel it's incumbent on us to figure out whether we could make it work. And that's what we're doing."

    Players seem to be split on the idea, with those on each side featured in an article by B/R's Scott Miller in July.

    How long before this is more than just a hypothetical?

    We shall see.

    Answer: No robot umpires on the horizon, at least not until the technology improves.

Mike Trout vs. The Field

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    In terms of individual performance, Mike Trout has once again been the premiere player in the AL.

    The two-time MVP leads the league in on-base percentage (.437), slugging (.648), OPS (1.085), OPS+ (183) and home runs (42), with those 42 long balls already representing a career-high. His 8.0 WAR also leads all players.

    The Angels, however, are once again an afterthought in the postseason picture with a 63-70 record. They are 22.5 games back in the AL West and 13.5 back for the second AL wild-card spot.

    There is still a contingent of the voter base that feels the MVP winner should come from a playoff-bound team, and that may have kept Trout from adding more hardware to his trophy room in years past.

    The thing is, he's been so much better than the AL field this year that it's harder to make that case.

    His biggest competition might be Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu, who is hitting .331/.378/.531 with 27 doubles, 22 home runs, 87 RBI and 90 runs while helping an injury-plagued team into a tie for the best record in the AL with the Astros.

    His 139 OPS+ and 5.1 WAR don't come remotely close to the numbers Trout has posted, though.

    Answer: Mike Trout wins AL MVP.

Christian Yelich vs. Cody Bellinger

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    It looks like the NL MVP race will come down to who has a better September.

    Will Christian Yelich become the first back-to-back NL winner since Albert Pujols in 2008 and 2009, or will Cody Bellinger be the first Los Angeles Dodgers position player since Kirk Gibson in 1988 to take home the hardware?

    Each has authored an impressive stat line:

    • Yelich: .329/.421/.678, 41 HR, 89 RBI, 91 R, 25 SB, 6.1 WAR
    • Bellinger: .312/.409/.654, 42 HR, 100 RBI, 101 R, 11 SB, 7.9 WAR

    Yelich, however, has been better since the All-Star break:

    • Yelich: .329/.394/.614, 10 HR, 22 RBI, 25 R, 6 SB
    • Bellinger: .255/.354/.567, 12 HR, 29 RBI, 31 R, 3 SB

    If you'll recall, Yelich hit an absurd .370/.508/.804 with 10 home runs, 34 RBI and seven steals down the stretch last year to push ahead of Cubs shortstop Javier Baez in the MVP race and help the Brewers claim the NL Central title.

    The MVP race is tight once again, and the Brewers have some work to do in the playoff picture with a 4.5-game divisional deficit.

    Could we see a repeat of 2018?

    Answer: Christian Yelich wins NL MVP.

Houston Astros vs. New York Yankees

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    Three teams have been in a tier of their own throughout the season.

    In the NL, the Dodgers are the team to beat and hold a 20-game lead in the NL West and a six-game lead over the Braves for the best record, and they can spend the final month coasting.

    In the AL, the Astros and Yankees have been "1" and "1A" all year.

    They sport identical 85-47 records, and while the Astros won the season series 4-3, it was with a narrow plus-two run differential that only further illustrates how close these two teams are.

    Let's take a closer look at the numbers:

    Offense

    • HOU: .274 BA, .837 OPS, 222 HR, 5.5 RPG
    • NYY: .272 BA, .832 OPS, 241 HR, 5.8 RPG

    Pitching

    • HOU: 3.69 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 36/52 SV
    • NYY: 4.47 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 48/70 SV

    The Yankees have done a tremendous job of overcoming injuries, while the Astros made some dramatic changes at the trade deadline with the additions of Zack Greinke and Aaron Sanchez to their starting rotation.

    Starting pitching could determine this potential ALCS matchup, and the Astros have a clear upper hand. A playoff rotation fronted by Greinke, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will be awfully tough to counter, especially if Luis Severino proves to be a nonfactor for the Yankees.

    Answer: Astros.

The Service Time Conundrum

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    In September, the Toronto Blue Jays front office tried in vain to convince fans that uberprospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was not ready for the big leagues—even though he finished with a .381/.437/.636 batting line that included stellar numbers at Triple-A.

    On the South Side of Chicago, it was the same song and dance with the Chicago White Sox brass and slugging outfielder Eloy Jimenez.

    But under the arbitration system, it makes perfect sense for non-contending teams to leave their best young players in the minors as long as possible so they have more control over those players later in their careers when the team is presumably ready to contend again.

    That mindset, while justifiable from a financial standpoint, might be the single biggest issue plaguing Major League Baseball right now.

    In the NBA, No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson will be one of the biggest stories in the league this year. He's been the talk of the sport since he first took the court at Duke.

    In the NFL, Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray already ranks 21st leaguewide in licensed merchandise sales, according to NFLPA.com.

    Those leagues give their rising stars platforms from day one, while MLB is structured in such a way that it benefits teams to keep their up-and-coming talent riding buses in the minors.

    The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire after the 2021 season, and this topic will be one of the central issues during negotiations.

    Expect to see the current system overhauled prior to the 2022 campaign.

    Answer: Change is coming.

Universal Designated Hitter?

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    The DH rule was adopted by the AL in 1973.

    In the years since, it has been a constant source of debate, with baseball purists calling for a return to old-school rules and realists calling for a universal DH rule because of, among other things, the injury risks associated with high-priced pitchers running the bases.

    So what's the right answer?

    For every Madison Bumgarner with his 18 career home runs, there are dozens of pitchers who have no business stepping foot in a batter's box.

    This year, pitchers are hitting a combined .128/.162/.163 with a 42.8 percent strikeout rate. Not an automatic out—but awfully close.

    Meanwhile, as the price of starting pitching continues to climb, front offices continue to cringe every time one of their multimillion dollar investments has to run the bases.

    At the same time, the market for aging power hitters has run dry in recent years, and adopting a universal DH would open 15 more spots for veteran sluggers to continue their careers as everyday players.

    It might also create earlier opportunities for guys such as Dan Vogelbach and Christian Walker, who spent additional time in the minors because of limited defensive profiles.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, versatile utility players who have carved out niches in the NL might have a harder time finding work. Would someone like Daniel Descalso land the two-year, $5 million deal he did in December in a league that used the universal DH?

    All things considered, the positives outweigh the negatives, so don't be surprised if the DH rule migrates to NL ballparks soon.

    Answer: Universal DH within five years.

            

    All stats accurate through Monday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.