Should the Cubs use Nick Madrigal as a designated hitter?

A recent article in athleticism (subscription required) by Sahadev Sharma suggested in passing that the Chicago Cubs should use Nick Madrigal as their designated hitter. “It’s… unorthodox,” is the radio montage of my first reaction. But upon closer examination, it’s quite an intriguing idea. Like Sharma, I guess universal DH is coming to the new CBA.

Nick Madrigal is, as Cubbies Crib recently observed, “a unicorn”. In the Age of the Three True Results, Madrigal avoids these results like vampires avoid running water. Throughout his professional career, he’s had a 0.6 percent homerun rate, a 6.4 percent walk rate and a 4.4 percent strikeout rate. During his brief time in the majors, he kept the same homer rate, while the BB rate is down a bit (4.6%) and the K rate is up (7.4%).

To put these numbers into perspective, home and walk rates are typical of the early era of the dead balloon. To find an equivalent to his K rate in a professional career, we have to go back to 1899, before the National League adopted the foul rule. Even his strikeout rate in the major leagues would have been better than the 1900s average. If he shows up for work in 2022 with baggy pants and a small glove, we’ll have to suspect he’s a time traveler.

Madrigal is therefore not a stereotypical DH candidate. Madrigal’s major league ISO is 0.089, an extremely rare number for a designated hitter. Since the adoption of DH by the American League in 1973, there have been 293 qualifying seasons in DH. Of these, in just six, batters had an ISO of 0.089 or less. Five of them involved players in their 30s; the sixth was Mitchell Page’s disastrous plunge into worthlessness at the age of 27. Most DH seasons involve the kind of solid wedge power output you’d expect; these guys are the 155 in the baseball world.

But it’s not always bad to be atypical. Thanks to excellent contact qualities, Madrigal visits the base quite regularly. His career OBP is .358; compare that to last season’s league OBP of 0.317. In miners, Madrigal hit baseline at a rate of 0.371. He has a wRC + career of 113 which would have put him right in the middle of DH qualifying last season.

And perhaps most useful of all, Madrigal will work on the cheap. Under the CBA which just expired, Madrigal would have been eligible for arbitration in 2023 and free agency in 2027. These dates may move a little, but probably not a lot. His lack of power can lower his arbitration salary, so he could be very affordable for several years.

The designated hitter is a strange roster phenomenon: a player who occupies a full non-pitching spot while playing only half the game (the offensive half) at most. This seems like a position where teams would find it especially useful to save money, but DHs are, on average, the highest paid players in the game. By one measure, they are also the most overvalued.

Chicago Cubs: Nick Madrigal would definitely be a single designated hitter

There are probably termites in this wood. Contrary, say the lifters, the DH universe is not cluttered with minimum wage list ballast that would lower the average. Designated hitters tend to be older, and therefore better paid in a system that is still (for now, at least) skewed toward seniority. But DH seems to be a position where teams can particularly insist that the occupant is either very good or very cheap.

During his brief career in the major leagues, Madrigal, by most field indicators, has not been excellent with the glove in second place. He played very few other positions during his academic or professional days. So making him the Cubs’ main DH might be an innovative solution.

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If the Cubs intend to compete quickly, they can put the money they don’t pay expensive DH to better use it. And if the Cubs take the dreaded “step back”, Madrigal can deliver profitable race creation at the top while the front office figures the rest of the lineup. May be The unicorn is leaving will be the great baseball movie of the next decade.

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