The Best Players of the Last 50 Years - Part X - Designated HItters

August 16, 2020
Here are the prior entries in the "Dan Marks Era" series, focusing on the greatest players of the last 50 years:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Intro
 
I'm going to do something a little different with this entry on the "best of the last 50 years" series, because designated hitters represent kind of an oddball "position", not just in baseball, but in sports in general. For one thing, they haven't even been around for the full 50 years that have served as the time frame of this series. It's only been 47 years, with the DH having been introduced in the American League in 1973. So, even though I'll still do a ranking at the end, I'm going to deviate from the format I've been using on the other positions in that I'm not going to focus so much on the player profiles, but rather on some fun DH facts and other sidebars and ponderings.
 
First, though, a few thoughts on the designated hitter itself......
 
The DH is a bit of a unique concept in team sports, isn't it? I mean, is there anything else quite like it? It's not just that the DH is a specialist, because there are certainly specialists of various flavors throughout other team sports, but it's a specialist who performs specifically on behalf of a teammate to compensate for that position's distinctive weakness. I'm trying to think of another parallel, and I'm having trouble coming up with one. It's kind of like if the NBA had concluded that centers were so empirically and universally bad at shooting free throws that, whenever they had to go to the line, they could have someone else shoot their free throws on their behalf.  Which, if such a thing existed, might act as a bit of a deterrent against a "Hack-a-Shaq" type of strategy.  
 
So, the DH is kind of a unique concept, but not a new one, nor was it even new when first implemented in 1973. The background of the DH in baseball has its roots going back more than 80 years prior to that. There is an interesting article on SABR.org by Jack Cronin called The Historical Evolution of the Designated Hitter Rule. It's an article well worth reading if you're interested in the full historical evolution of the DH concept, but if you don't want to read the whole thing, one of the key pieces of information that Cronin conveys is that consideration of a designated hitter for the pitcher, or some variation of the concept related to the relative weakness of pitchers' hitting ability (such as a proposal to skip the pitcher's spot in the order all together), can be traced back to at least to the 1890's, and possibly even a little earlier. In fact, the motion to give the option to skip the pitcher's turn in the batting order was only narrowly defeated, by a 7 to 5 vote, in early 1892. In addition, in the early 1900's, Connie Mack was reportedly in favor of the concept of a designated hitter for the pitcher. In the 1920's, NL President John Heydler proposed a "tenth man" concept to address the effect of poor hitting pitchers. The concept of a designated hitter is something that had been brewing for decades before it finally became official for the 1973 AL season.
 
One of interesting charts in Cronin's article summarized the trend in pitchers' batting averages vs. non-pitchers over time. Below is a re-creation (and slightly scaled down version) of that table, looking at the trend by decade since the 1870's. What began as roughly 40-point gap between pitchers and non-pitchers grew to about 50, then about 60, then to 80 and 90 points, and eventually more than a 100 point gap by the 1960's and early 1970's. And even though position player batting averages were in decline as well, pitchers' averages were in free fall. Whereas pitchers had been able to at least manage batting averages in the upper .180's to .200's, by the 1960's and 1970's they were all the way down in the .140's. These trends certainly played a part in the DH eventually being adopted by the AL:
 
Year
-
Year
Pitcher BA
Non-Pitcher BA
Difference
1871
-
1879
.235
.273
.038
1880
-
1889
.208
.257
.049
1890
-
1899
.218
.282
.064
1900
-
1909
.181
.261
.080
1910
-
1919
.180
.263
.083
1920
-
1929
.204
.293
.089
1930
-
1939
.193
.287
.094
1940
-
1949
.177
.268
.091
1950
-
1959
.169
.267
.098
1960
-
1969
.143
.257
.114
1970
-
1972
.147
.257
.110
 
We stand at what I think is a pivotal time in the history of the game regarding the DH. For one thing, this season, which already is unlike any other we've witnessed, is the first one to utilize a universal DH rule. It is present in every game, not just the American League contests, and not just the interleague contests at an AL home park. Every game. 
 
And, for what it's worth, if the figures hold up over the whole season, NL teams will average more runs per game than AL teams for the first time since 1974 (the second season of the DH rule).  Overall, since its introduction in 1973, AL teams have averaged 4.62 runs per game vs. 4.34 for NL teams, or about 6.5% more runs per game.
 
My understanding is that it is likely that, assuming that MLB returns to "normal" for 2021, the usage of DH's will probably go back to the way it had been in the recent past, at least for a year. However, it has been suggested that, when a new collective bargaining agreement goes in for 2022 and beyond, we might well see the universal DH put into place as a permanent measure.
 
My feeling is.....I think it's time. I think we're ready for it. I don't mean "everyone", of course. The universal DH won't have universal acceptance. Many traditionalists will continue to object to it. Nevertheless, I think it's coming, and I think it's coming to stay, and there won't be any turning back. That's my take on it.
 
Hey, I grew up a diehard National League fan. I've been a traditionalist, for lack of a better word, in many respects. For decades, NL fans adhered to the talking points that the NL represented "real" baseball. However,  I have also come to the conclusion that there is considerable merit to the DH. I think we're on the doorstep of a growing and general acceptance. I'm actually surprised that we've gone nearly a half-century with 2 leagues playing under essentially different rules. We have had nearly a quarter century of interleague games where the DH has been used when the AL team hosts. I think this is the year that will tip the scales, and even if it takes another season or so to become permanent, I think the time is upon us, and we'll move forward into a new era. 
 
I'm sure some will be upset. But I think it's time.
 
One Platoon, Two Platoon, Three Platoon, Four
 
Here's a fun little topic to contemplate, while we're on the topic of designated hitters, which, after all, is just a particular type of specialist...
 
The word "platoon" in baseball traditionally has had a pretty specific meaning. It typically implies that two players are sharing a position, normally (but not limited to) splitting time based on how the hitters fare vs. left-handed and right-handed pitchers. When you think of platooning in baseball, you may think of player combinations such as the following:
 
·         Garth Iorg & Rance Mulliniks
·         John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke
·         Hank Bauer & Gene Woodling
·         Joe Collins & Bill Skowron
·         Willie McCovey & Orlando Cepeda
·         Lenny Dykstra & Mookie Wilson
 
But the broader meaning of "platoon" means something a little different in other sports, notably football. In most sports, the same players play both offense and defense, because the action alternates fairly fluidly and uninterrupted between the two. Soccer, basketball, hockey.....yes there are substitutions, but everyone, to some degree, plays both offense and defense, which is dictated by nature of the game itself.  
 
And for many years in its early history, football was the same way. In the early days of football, smaller rosters played a large part in how the game was played, player substitutions were limited, and one-platoon (or "iron man" football) ruled the day. Many of the game's stars from the first half of the 20th century notably excelled on both sides of the ball, including such all time greats as:
 
Jim Thorpe (halfback, defensive back, kicker)
Bronko Nagurski (fullback, defensive lineman)
Red Grange (halfback, defensive back)
Don Hutson (split end, safety, kicker)
Sammy Baugh (quarterback, tailback, defensive back, punter)
 
One-platoon football was prevalent until at least the early 1940's, at which point some teams started to take advantage of the easing of restrictions, and after some back-and-forth developments, the NCAA repealed its restrictions on substitutions in the early 1960's, and the sport continued its evolution into a two-platoon (and even three-platoon, if you consider special teams) type of sport. Chuck Bednarik (linebacker, center), who retired in the early 1960's, was considered the last of the "60-minute" players in the NFL.
 
In today's game, you might see a player occasionally play both sides to some degree - Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders, Troy Brown, and Patrick Peterson come to mind, as does the occasional William "Refrigerator" Perry or Mike Vrabel. But, generally, these types of players are pretty rare and are often considered to be a little gimmicky.  Football is a game of specialists, where the best players on offense face off against the best the other team has to offer on the defensive side.
 
So, I got to wondering.....what if baseball had developed in this regard like football did? What if you had a strict two-platoon baseball team, where you would pit your best 9-man offense against the other team's best 8-man (plus pitcher) defense? And what if you could substitute freely, so that a player could come out of the game and then re-enter later? What if you could swap defensive players depending on who was coming to bat?  What if you could start Max Scherzer for a couple of innings at the beginning, take him out for a while, and then bring him back later in the game to close?
 
I mean, it's not practical in other sports, like soccer, hockey, or basketball, because the transition from offense to defense and back to offense is continuous, fluid, and ongoing. Baseball and football have some general similarity in that the flow of action has some natural, built-in transitions and stoppages.
 
By the way, ere's a theoretical question - if baseball were a two-platoon sport, what would the resulting impact on runs per game be? Would runs per game go up, go down, or stay about the same? My gut says that offense would have a net increase, but I'm positive about that.
 
Take it a step further....what if there were no fixed batting order? Sounds crazy, I know. The batting order concept, of everyone being forced to take "a turn", is pretty exclusive to baseball, at least among major U.S. team sports. After all, there's nothing in basketball that says that players have to take turns shooting, nor in football do players have to take turns running or receiving the ball. The batting order is such a key part of baseball and dictates so much of what we have come to know. It's also one of the reasons that it's difficult for a single player to dominate to the degree that, say, a Lebron James or a Michael Jordan can in basketball. Mike Trout, as great as he is, can only take his next turn at bat after the other 8 hitters in the lineup have taken their turns.
 
But what if you could keep sending the same player back up to bat? What if, for example, you're the Angels and you lead off with Trout, and he makes an out, but you could send him right back up there? And you would only have to send someone else up if (a) you chose to try someone else to give him a break, or (b) he was successful in getting on base and you had to send someone else up there?   And what would that do to salaries? I would expect that, if the game were structured around this kind of premise, baseball superstars would have a greater ability to dominate than they do now, and salaries would follow in kind by being even more slanted to the superstars.
 
I'd better stop before I drive myself crazy with such flights of fancy, but it's kind of interesting to speculate on how the sport might have been different by changing a few underlying premises. My gut reaction is that I wouldn't like it, because one of the appealing things about baseball is that you have to balance the pros and cons of a player's skill set in making lineup decisions, and if you adjust during the game, you can't go back and forth with unlimited substitutions. You can start the defensive whiz, but you have to live with his bat, at least until you decide you have to hit for him, and then he's gone for the rest of the game. Or, you can play the better hitter first, try to get a lead, and then try to protect it by bringing in the better defender. You can play the hulking, slugging left fielder, but have to put up with his weak glove and sloth-like movement on the base paths as a trade-off.   And your decisions on the lineup, once you've made them, are final. You can't take a player out and send him back in later. Having to make these kind of decisions are, I think, one of the types of things that appeal to many baseball fans.     
 
Anyway....something to ponder about how the sport might have looked very different with a few key changes in how the rules were set up.
 
The Best Designated Hitters of the Last 50 (47) Years
 
My first decision point was, who should be considered as a DH in this evaluation? It can be a little tricky, because relatively few players would be considered "career" designated hitters. There are many instances of players starting out at a regular position only to become a DH later in their careers once they become too much of a defensive liability.
 
So let's start with some basic criteria. Now, for most positions, 1,000 games is not a long career. For example, there are 125 players who have played at least 1,000 games at second base. At shortstop, the figure is 135 players. Catchers? 122. Third base is 112. In the outfield, left/center/right come in at 84/114/84. First base comes in at a whopping 144.
 
For designated hitters? The total is only 9. That's right....."nine times!" (my nod to Ferris Bueller fans, thank you very much, Mr. Rooney).   
 
Now, some of that is due to the fact that designated hitters haven't been around as long, and the totals at other positions reflect the entire span of baseball history, while designated hitters have only been around for 47. But, that's the minor factor, because if that were the primary driver, and the rates were the same as at other positions, we'd probably have seen 30-50 designated hitters reach 1,000 games over that span. The fact is that most players just don't accumulate that many appearances at DH for their full career. They usually spend significant portions spent elsewhere.
 
For the record, here are the 9 players who have logged 1,000 or more games at DH
 
Player
Games at DH
David Ortiz
2,029
Harold Baines
1,643
Hal McRae
1,426
Frank Thomas
1,310
Don Baylor
1,287
Paul Molitor
1,174
Chili Davis
1,160
Edgar Martinez
1,043
Travis Hafner
1,043
 
Of those, the player who was a DH for the highest % of his total appearances was Hafner. Hafner only played 72 as a non-DH, making him about 94% DH. All of the others had at least a couple of hundred appearances elsewhere.  Even Ortiz had 278 games at 1B, and Martinez had over 500 at third base.
 
All of the above are in consideration for my DH rankings except for Frank Thomas, who I had already ranked among the first basemen. I could have very well considered him here, but my guideline on the previous positions has been to only designate one position to rank a player at. For example, I ranked Alex Rodriguez at shortstop, but not at third base, although he could have been considered for both. Thomas actually accumulated more games at DH than first base, but his better years were mostly at first base, so ultimately I decided to just leave him there, and to exclude him from the DH listing.
 
Who else beyond the ones above are in the running to be considered? I performed a couple of other data pulls that were more generous in their selection criteria. I did one that pulled in all players with more than 300 games at DH, and another one that stipulated that the player had to have 30%or more of their appearances be at DH. Cross-referencing those two lists (so that a player had to meet both criteria) yielded 44 names. All 9 of the above made that listing, but it also brought in the names below (listed on order of total career games, not just games at DH):
 
Jim Thome
Brian Downing
Willie Horton
Victor Martinez
Edwin Encarnacion
Jose Canseco
Nelson Cruz
Rico Carty
Oscar Gamble
Andre Thornton
Cecil Fielder
Mike Sweeney
Richie Zisk
Billy Butler
Cliff Johnson
Kendrys Morales
Adam Lind
Hideki Matsui
Mike Easler
Jason Kubel
Khris Davis
Luke Scott
Ron Kittle
Brad Fullmer
Lamar Johnson
Geronimo Berroa
Ken Phelps
Larry Sheets
Evan Gattis
Reggie Jefferson
Mitchell Page
Jack Cust
Glenn Adams
Erubiel Durazo
Josh Phelps
 
So, that gives us 44 names. I'm eliminating Frank Thomas, as already mentioned above. Of the remaining ones, I also eliminated Jim Thome, Cecil Fielder, Jose Canseco, Mike Sweeney, Andre Thornton, and Nelson Cruz because they were all evaluated and included in other position rankings (most of them didn't make the top 25 at those other positions, but they were included in the evaluations).
 
And then.....I had a change of heart on Nelson Cruz. In looking at him more closely, even though I had already evaluated him in RF, I decided I should classify him as a DH. He currently has 185 more appearances in RF vs. DH, but his better years have been at DH, and, even with a short season this year, Cruz will probably eventually end up with more career games at DH than RF if he just plays a couple of more seasons, which I think is likely since he's still hitting so well. So, I decided to include him here.
 
I'll do a simple ranking at the end, but I'm going to dispense with the player-by-player profiles that I featured at the other positions. Instead, I'd like to do some "fun facts" about designated hitters over the years.
 
1973 - The Beginning
 
OK, everybody knows that Ron Blomberg of the Yankees was the first player to appear as a DH in a regular season game. But who were the others? Courtesy of Baseball Almanac, here are the first DH's for all 12 AL teams that inaugural season:
 
Team
Name
Date
Baltimore Orioles
Terry Crowley
4/6/1973
Boston Red Sox
Orlando Cepeda
4/6/1973
California Angels
Tommy McCraw
4/6/1973
Chicago White Sox
Mike Andrews
4/7/1973
Cleveland Indians
John Ellis
4/7/1973
Detroit Tigers
Gates Brown
4/7/1973
Kansas City Royals
Ed Kirkpatrick
4/6/1973
Milwaukee Brewers
Ollie Brown
4/6/1973
Minnesota Twins
Tony Oliva
4/6/1973
New York Yankees
Ron Blomberg
4/6/1973
Oakland Athletics
Billy North
4/6/1973
Texas Rangers
Rico Carty
4/7/1973
 
North is essentially the oddball out of that group, as he was more of a speedy center fielder type, whereas most of the others were first base or corner outfield types except for Andrews (who was primarily a second baseman), although it is true that Ellis and Kirkpatrick logged significant time at catcher in addition to their other duties. North only DH'd 6 times in total that season, all in the first couple of weeks, as Billy Conigliaro and Angel Mangual handled center field most of the time during that stretch. By late April, though, the A's committed to North in center field and he gave them a nice little 5-year run as their regular at that position.
 
Who was the most successful DH in that first season? There were 4 DH's (which I defined as players who had at least 50% of their games at DH that year) who happened to hit exactly 20 more home runs that year - Oscar Gamble, Carlos May, Orlando Cepeda, and Deron JohnsonTony Oliva had a decent year - 16 HR's, 92 RBI, .291/.345/.410. Ron Blomberg ended up hitting .329. Tommy Davis hit .306 with 89 RBI, and Alex Johnson hit .287 with 68 RBI. Frank Howard, Gates Brown, and Jim Ray Hart were other big names who logged significant time at DH.
 
But, as far as who was actually the most successful DH that first season, I think I'd have to go with the legendary Frank Robinson. Robinson came over to the Angels after the 1972 season in a big trade with the Dodgers. The Dodgers sent Robinson, Billy Grabarkewitz, Bill Singer, Mike Strahler, and a promising young Bobby Valentine to the Angels in exchange for Ken McMullen and Andy Messersmith. Lots of those players had notable success right away - Singer won 20 for the Angels, Messersmith was very effective for the Dodgers, and Valentine was hitting over .300 for about a month before having that horrendous encounter with an outfield fence that altered his career. Robinson was the DH in 127 games, and had his last really good season of his career - 30 HR, 97 RBI, .266/.372/.489 slash line, 151 OPS+, plus he received some MVP mentions (finishing 15th). He's my choice for the best DH of 1973.
 
What have been the best individual DH seasons?
 
Courtesy of baseball-reference.com's StatHead tool, here are a few seasonal bests from the DH community. In order to qualify, a player had to have played DH in at least 50% of his games in a given season.
 
Most Home Runs:
Player
HR
Year
Team
David Ortiz
54
2006
BOS
Jorge Soler
48
2019
KCR
Khris Davis
48
2018
OAK
David Ortiz
47
2005
BOS
Rafael Palmeiro
47
1999
TEX
 
Most RBI:
Player
RBI
Year
Tm
David Ortiz
148
2005
BOS
Rafael Palmeiro
148
1999
TEX
Edgar Martinez
145
2000
SEA
Frank Thomas
143
2000
CHW
David Ortiz
139
2004
BOS
 
Most Runs Scored:
Player
Runs
Year
Team
Paul Molitor
133
1991
MIL
Edgar Martinez
121
1996
SEA
Edgar Martinez
121
1995
SEA
Paul Molitor
121
1993
TOR
David Ortiz
119
2005
BOS
 
Highest Batting Average:
Player
BA
Year
Team
Edgar Martinez
.356
1995
SEA
Paul Molitor
.341
1996
MIN
Paul Molitor
.341
1994
TOR
Edgar Martinez
.337
1999
SEA
Victor Martinez
.335
2014
DET
 
Highest OBP (a.k.a, the Edgar Martinez List):
Player
BA
Year
Team
Edgar Martinez
.479
1995
SEA
Edgar Martinez
.464
1996
SEA
Edgar Martinez
.456
1997
SEA
Frank Thomas
.453
1991
CHW
Edgar Martinez
.447
1999
SEA
 
Most Stolen Bases:
Player
SB
Year
Team
Paul Molitor
31
1992
MIL
Jose Canseco
29
1998
TOR
Gary Sheffield
22
2007
DET
Paul Molitor
22
1993
TOR
Don Baylor
22
1978
CAL
Hal McRae
22
1976
KCR
 
Most Doubles:
Player
2B
Year
Team
Hal McRae
54
1977
KCR
David Ortiz
52
2007
BOS
Edgar Martinez
52
1996
SEA
Edgar Martinez
52
1995
SEA
David Ortiz
48
2016
BOS
 
Most Triples:
Player
SB
Year
Team
Jim Rice
15
1977
BOS
Paul Molitor
13
1991
MIL
Evan Gattis
11
2015
HOU
Hal McRae
11
1977
KCR
Paul Molitor
8
1996
MIN
Hal McRae
8
1982
KCR
 
Highest OPS+ (a.k.a., It helps to have the last name "Martinez"):
Player
OPS+
Year
Team
Edgar Martinez
185
1995
SEA
Travis Hafner
181
2006
CLE
Frank Thomas
180
1991
CHW
J.D. Martinez
173
2018
BOS
Victor Martinez
172
2014
DET
 
Hightest oWAR (Offensive WAR):
Player
OPS+
Year
Team
Frank Thomas
7.4
1991
CHW
Edgar Martinez
7.3
1995
SEA
J.D. Martinez
6.8
2018
BOS
David Ortiz
6.5
2007
BOS
Edgar Martinez
6.5
1996
SEA
 
To try and identify the greatest overall DH seasons, I did a simple average indexing technique across multiple basic categories - oWAR, Runs, RBI, BA, OBP, Slugging, Stolen Bases, Hits, Doubles, and Home Runs) that measured how well a player did across those categories and indexed the results on 100-point scales, and then averaged the results into a "points" figure. Here is my list for the greatest overall DH seasons ever. (Note - Don Baylor's 1979 MVP year does not make the list, as he played more LF than DH that year). 
 
Rank
Player
Year
Team
Points
R
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
oWAR
1
Edgar Martinez
1995
SEA
79.86
121
29
113
.356
.479
.628
7.3
2
Frank Thomas
2000
CHW
79.25
115
43
143
.328
.436
.625
6.2
3
David Ortiz
2007
BOS
78.13
116
35
117
.332
.445
.621
6.5
4
J.D. Martinez
2018
BOS
77.66
111
43
130
.330
.402
.629
6.8
5
David Ortiz
2005
BOS
76.40
119
47
148
.300
.397
.604
5.4
6
Edgar Martinez
1996
SEA
74.91
121
26
103
.327
.464
.595
6.5
7
David Ortiz
2006
BOS
74.58
115
54
137
.287
.413
.636
5.7
8
Rafael Palmeiro
1999
TEX
74.25
96
47
148
.324
.420
.630
5.1
9
Paul Molitor
1993
TOR
73.86
121
22
111
.332
.402
.509
5.9
10
Edgar Martinez
2000
SEA
72.81
100
37
145
.324
.423
.579
5.7
11
David Ortiz
2004
BOS
71.88
94
41
139
.301
.380
.603
4.3
12
David Ortiz
2016
BOS
71.80
79
38
127
.315
.401
.620
5.1
13
Frank Thomas
1991
CHW
71.70
104
32
109
.318
.453
.553
7.4
14
Jim Rice
1977
BOS
71.21
104
39
114
.320
.376
.593
5.4
15
Travis Hafner
2006
CLE
70.82
100
42
117
.308
.439
.659
5.8
16
Edgar Martinez
1997
SEA
70.64
104
28
108
.330
.456
.554
6.2
17
Manny Ramirez
2001
BOS
69.66
93
41
125
.306
.405
.609
5.2
18
Edgar Martinez
1998
SEA
69.51
86
29
102
.322
.429
.565
5.6
19
Hal McRae
1977
KCR
69.36
104
21
92
.298
.366
.515
4.6
20
Paul Molitor
1991
MIL
68.98
133
17
75
.325
.399
.489
5.4
21
Victor Martinez
2014
DET
68.87
87
32
103
.335
.409
.565
5.9
22
Adam Lind
2009
TOR
68.85
93
35
114
.305
.370
.562
4.6
23
Hal McRae
1982
KCR
68.78
91
27
133
.308
.369
.542
4.3
24
Travis Hafner
2005
CLE
68.38
94
33
108
.305
.408
.595
5.5
25
Aubrey Huff
2008
BAL
68.17
96
32
108
.304
.360
.552
4.2
26
Travis Hafner
2004
CLE
67.41
96
28
109
.311
.410
.583
5.0
27
Edwin Encarnacion
2012
TOR
67.40
93
42
110
.280
.384
.557
5.6
28
Jim Thome
2006
CHW
66.82
108
42
109
.288
.416
.598
4.9
29
Paul Molitor
1996
MIN
66.79
99
9
113
.341
.390
.468
3.5
30
Jorge Soler
2019
KCR
66.74
95
48
117
.265
.354
.569
4.3
 
A summary of the above table, with the number of seasons for each player in the top 30:
Player
Total
David Ortiz
5
Edgar Martinez
5
Travis Hafner
3
Paul Molitor
3
Frank Thomas
2
Hal McRae
2
Aubrey Huff
1
Edwin Encarnacion
1
Manny Ramirez
1
Jim Thome
1
Rafael Palmeiro
1
Jim Rice
1
Victor Martinez
1
Jorge Soler
1
Adam Lind
1
J.D. Martinez
1
 
Nelson Cruz didn't make the top 30, but he had 4 of the next 14.
 
What if you had to field an all-DH roster?
 
This should be fun.....
 
What if you had to make a real, honest-to-goodness, 15-man (position) roster made up only of players who were primarily designated hitters in their careers? Where would everyone play? Who would start, and who would back up? Could you adequately cover every position? Lots of choices for corner spots, but how about up the middle? Again, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm going to exclude players like Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, who I rated at other positions.
 
Starting at catcher, there are 2 really good options - Victor Martinez and Brian Downing. Downing was a catcher early in his career before becoming more of a left fielder/DH type. It's close, but I think Downing might have been a little better defensively and was pretty good offensively as well, and this team needs all the help it can get defensively, so I'll go with him as the starter over Martinez.
 
At first base, I'll put David Ortiz, and I'll put Edgar Martinez at 3B.  I think those are easy choices, especially with Thomas and Thome out of the picture.
 
In the outfield, there are lots of good choices. I'll put Harold Baines in RF and Don Baylor in LF. Center field doesn't have a great depth of viable options, but Chili Davis did log over 500 games there in his younger years, so I'll go with him.
 
Middle infield figured to be the toughest as it's hard to find those types of players who end up as DH's, but we can make it work. Paul Molitor was mostly a DH and 3B in his career, but came up as a shortstop and has over 400 games at second base and over 50 at shortstop. Since shortstop is the tougher one to fill on this particular team, I'm going to slot him there. 
 
Second base is also a tough slot, but I'm going to have some fun and go with Hal McRae there. McRae was drafted as a shortstop by the Reds in the 1965 draft and played some second base in the minors. The first 16 games he played in the field in his MLB career were at second base.   However, he suffered a major leg injury playing winter ball before the 1969 season, and that severely limited his speed after that, which, in my opinion, had a definite impact on his career path (he was probably destined to be a center fielder, much like his son Brian later turned out to be). Based on his second base experience, I'll go with him here, although there's another option (as we'll see later) that might be a little more to your liking.
 
As for a true DH on this all-DH team, I'll go with Travis Hafner, since he doesn't have much experience in the field at all.
 
For the bench, Victor Martinez will be the backup catcher. For backup outfielders, I'll go with Nelson Cruz in one slot, and I like Oscar Gamble on this team to provide a nice lefty bat option. Edwin Encarnacion can back up at first and third.
 
That's 13 players. I need at least one more to help back up middle infield to give Molitor and McRae a break. It might be a little bit of a stretch to label him a DH, but Jorge Orta fits the bill. He played more at 2B (688 games) than anywhere else, but his 2nd highest total is at DH (451 games), so I think he'll do. He can also back up at SS (23 career games) in a pinch. And, if you are uncomfortable with McRae starting at second base, you can slot Orta there instead as a more viable alternative.
 
For the last roster spot, there are a couple of options. Cliff Johnson could be a third catcher, and would give another nice power bat off the bench. Rance Mulliniks was primarily a third baseman, but he had over 300 games at DH and can play both 2B and SS if necessary. I think I'll go with Mulliniks....he kind of stretches the DH definition a little, but I like his position flexibility on this team that's already pretty challenged defensively.  
 
Lineup/batting order would look like this:
 
SS Paul Molitor
2B Hal McRae
3B Edgar Martinez
1B David Ortiz
RF Harold Baines
DH Travis Hafner
CF Chili Davis
LF Don Baylor
C Brian Downing
 
Bench:
C Victor Martinez
IF Edwin Encarnacion
IF Jorge Orta
IF Rance Mulliniks
OF Nelson Cruz
OF Oscar Gamble
 
Oh yeah....what do we do for pitchers? How about if we get generous with the criteria? How about if we go with pitchers who are listed with at least 3 appearance as a DH in their careers?
 
First of all, are there any? Yeah, there are a few, mostly on technicalities. As best I can discern, there have been occasional instances where a pitcher pinch-ran for a designated hitter later in a game, which, in essence turns the pitcher into the DH. It happens from time to time, but rarely results in the pitcher ever coming up to bat. 
 
Oh, and for the record....no, I didn't consider players like Wes Ferrell, Don Newcombe, or Bucky Walters. They're outside the scope of this.
 
Anyway, here's who I was able to come up with.
 
Dave Stieb. 5 DH appearances. Was 0 for 2 lifetime. However, he was a pretty decent hitter in college. I'll take him.
 
Tim Hudson. 3 DH appearances in 1999 and 2000, went 1 for 7. Overall, hit .160 in his MLB career. He'll do.
 
Jack Morris. 7 DH appearances. No hits (0 for 1), but scored 4 runs as he was used as a pinch runner several times. I guess he'll do.
 
Blue Moon Odom.   A whopping 12 games listed as DH, and 105 games as a pinch runner. Lifetime .195 hitter with a dozen home runs, plus an all-time great nickname.
 
Top 12 Designated Hitters- Ranking/Points
 
I have David Ortiz as the #1 DH by the methodology I used, which is similar to what I have used in the previous "50 year" articles at other positions. Ortiz was first in both All Star Games and MVP Points, and was 4th or higher in every category.
 
Edgar Martinez would be a lot of people's choices for #1, and, after all, the DH award is named for him. I have him a close second. I have him 1st in WAR7, WAR/162, and Win Shares/162. However, he was only 8th in overall games played, and that hurt him a little.
 
Paul Molitor is my #3, and he was a very different kind of DH than most of the others. Molitor had a lot more stolen bases than any of the other DH candidates, and only Don Baylor even had half as may career steals as Molitor. Molitor is really the only top DH contender who spent most of his career as a leadoff hitter (about 60% of his games were out of the #1 slot). Brian Downing spent a decent amount there as well, but it was closer to 25% of his appearances.
 
Those 3 were head and shoulders above the rest in my book, and then it's a pretty tight cluster from there.   Here are my final rankings of the top 12:
 
Rank
Player
From
To
Total Points
1
David Ortiz
1997
2016
86.3
2
Edgar Martinez
1987
2004
80.9
3
Paul Molitor
1978
1998
76.5
4
Harold Baines
1980
2001
59.7
5
Hal McRae
1968
1987
54.0
6
Don Baylor
1970
1988
53.4
7
Nelson Cruz
2005
2019
52.8
8
Edwin Encarnacion
2005
2019
50.1
9
Chili Davis
1981
1999
48.6
10
Travis Hafner
2002
2013
44.4
11
Brian Downing
1973
1992
43.0
12
Victor Martinez
2002
2018
41.8
 
Next up: Starting Pitchers
 
Thanks for reading.
 
Dan
 
    
 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

Gibbo1224
Hi Dan,

When are you going to get SP done?

Great Read on your choices and like the methods you used.

Thanks,

Mike
1:53 PM Nov 10th
 
Rallymonkey5
He’s only got one partial season in the role, but the best pitcher/DH has to be Shohei Ohtani.
9:34 AM Aug 18th
 
MWeddell
Baseball-reference lists WAA by position, allowing us to look at the best and worst positions for Designated Hitters for the whole American League.

Best seasons were 2002 and 2000 when DHs average 0.1 Wins Above Average, which is an accomplishment considering the positional adjustments. 2002 was led by Jason Giambi and Manny Ramirez. 2000 was led by Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez and was really not at all the same cast of DHs despite being just two years later.

Worst seasons for DHs were 1985 and 2002 with teams averaging 1.3 Wins Below Average from the DHs. 1985 was led by Gorman Thomas, Roy Smalley and Ted Simmons. Al Oliver and Mike Easler were pulling down the average. In 2017, the best DHs were Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion with Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo as the trailers.

You all will have to trust me on this one because I didn't produce a graph or anything systematic, but 2017 was very much of an aberration. In general, DH usage has slightly improved over time with most of the last decade having DH production not far below 0 WAA.​
12:28 AM Aug 18th
 
MWeddell
Thanks for another fun article, Dan. Thanks for getting creative with it this time too.

You know, an article reviewing the best platoon pairings for each team (at least those with a 50+ year history) would be fun sometime too. Even finding out the best among teams that for some reason didn't ever have much platonning would be interesting.
12:09 AM Aug 18th
 
bearbyz
In 1999, Rafael Palmeiro won a gold glove as a DH. Or something like that.
3:43 PM Aug 17th
 
tangotiger
Ohtani
11:54 AM Aug 17th
 
steve161
If the only times you couldn't send Mike Trout up to bat were when he was already on base, he might hit 90 home runs, but they'd all be solo shots. It might be an amusing (if mercifully pointless) exercise to work out a batting order (3-man? 4-man?) that attempted to maximize Trout's PAs with men on base. Start with two high-OBP types, then always bat Trout with two outs and none on? Other possibilities that I'm failing to think of?
5:38 AM Aug 17th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks, Bruce. As always, I appreciate the feedback.

Dan
5:14 PM Aug 16th
 
evanecurb
This has been a fun series in any circumstance, but I especially look forward to the articles because they've been coming in the midst of a pandemic. It's a great time to find something enjoyable to read as an escape from the news, and these are all enjoyable.
3:57 PM Aug 16th
 
 
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