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The history of DHs and their plight in 2009
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From Hank Aaron to Cal Pickering

February 06, 2009 (updated Feb. 13).

 

The biggest story of this baseball winter is very similar to last winter’s tale.  Nobody is buying superstar DHs (or outfielders best suited for DH). Barry Bonds was still the best hitter in baseball with an astonishing O+S of 1.045 in 2007, but not one team was willing to put up with his baggage for a chance of having close to that kind of impact. This year, Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn are two weak fielding outfielders who hit well enough to have a big impact for any team in baseball. Both had fairly typical seasons last year with Manny – always one of the A.L.’s best hitters finishing with his O+S at 1.031 after his incredible 1.232 final months with the Dodgers. Dunn hit .898 for the Reds and Snakes. We are in February now and they are still not signed. (Feb.12 update: Dunn was just signed to a pitiful (for him) contract considering his hitting prowess. This Joe Sheehan article from Baseball Prospectus tells the incredible story.)

 

Don’t you remember reading within the last few years that the DH is the highest paid position in baseball? Perhaps, owners read the same thing and said collectively, enough of that! I don’t know, but this earlier Joe Sheehan BP article strongly suggests how badly most A.L. teams are underutilizing their DH slots.

 

There is justification for wanting to keep your DH spot open to allow veterans to ease their way back into a line-up after an injury, or giving a star a mini-rest. That, perhaps, excuses the Rangers who used mostly Milton Bradley, the Yankees who worked in Matsui, Damon, and Giambi, and possibly the Angels who let Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero share the job.

 

When you look at it team by team, every team could have benefited from a Barry Bonds, but no team was crying out for improvement at the position except for Seattle who started with Jose Vidro. Somehow, little Seattle just didn’t seem like a fitting home for Barry Bonds. Now, they want a place to give their young catcher full time at bats: Jeff Clement, who should do much better than Vidro. He’s no Manny, but Seattle probably wouldn’t be going very far even if they had Manny, so they might as well develop Clement.

 

Actually, the Orioles are another team that should have been excused because they are in building mode, but completely fumbled the opportunity to find some younger player who would have been nearly as productive as Kevin Millar. He wouldn’t have to have been a first-baseman. They could have dragged Cal Pickering off his couch, put him at DH and had Aubrey Huff play first. However, the advantages of having Huff as your DH is that you can rest any corner infielder or outfielder there and have Huff take his place on the field.

 

Finally, this winter, the Orioles did purge Millar and added 24 year old Felix Pie to their outfield. This moves Huff to first and Luke Scott to DH, which is under-utilizing the DH. The O’s would be much stronger to have Scott be the fourth outfielder (easy because either Pie or Jones can play center) and Caesar Izturis’s pinch hitter. That would open up DH for Manny or Dunn. Instead they added Ty Wigginton, which adds even more depth and flexibility, no more extra impact than you could get by combining a couple of these hitters into a platoon. In a division with possibly the top three teams in baseball, that isn’t going to matter much. Consider that Baltimore has a rotation Jeremy Guthrie and a bunch of AAA arms. However, a bunch of their AA and High A arms are among the liveliest in those leagues. I don’t think they are quite ready yet, but if they were and the O’s signed the next Manny to DH (and found a good upgrade for Mora at third), they could be the new Rays. Well, that’s giving Orioles fans something to dream about.

 

Many teams already had a big enough DH bat and undoubtedly felt an aging legally restrained Bonds wouldn’t be worth the difference. Hafner, Ortiz, Thomas, and Sheffield each had very disappointing seasons. It looks like Big Hurt is now in Big Retirement, while the others will get another chance this year.

 

As for the others, the Rays have already upgraded from Cliff Floyd to Pat Burrell. Jason Giambi can now be a full time DH as where he belongs by moving back to Oakland. However, that does force potential career DHs Daric Barton and Jack Cust to play on the field.

 

There has been a huge historical reluctance to develop anyone as a career DH, but despite Billy Bean’s manoeuvre this winter, that may be changing. The Blue Jays will likely settle on either Adam Lind or Travis Snider as their DH for life. Billy Butler appears headed for a carer as a DH. Jason Kubel seems to have established himself as principally a DH in his second full season. David Ortiz and Travis Hafner have established careers as full time DHs and they are arguably the first to have done so.  

 

It didn’t use to be this way. You may think of Hal McRae and Edgar Martinez as having similar careers as DHs, but Ortiz and Hafner are actually the first players to have, at least, 3000 career Major League Plate Appearances and to play a majority of his games as the DH in each of his seasons of over 350 Plate Appearances.

 

Notable DHs in History:

 

With utter gratitude to Baseball-Reference and The Baseball Cube, here are the players coming closest to career DHs – or players who had the greatest careers as DHs - and a few DHs of historical note. They are listed in roughly chronological order.

 

Frank Robinson & Orlando Cepeda were future Hall of Fame inductees on their last years extending their careers, perhaps, by deigning to be their team’s DHs during the rules’ first year in 1973. Tony Oliva and Tommy Davis were other fading stars extending their time in the flood lights by the new DH rule. Al Kaline and Harmon Killebrew followed this route the next year, then Billy Williams and the biggest star of all: Hank Aaron in 1975. Aaron had the grace to DH his final season for the city where he rose to fame: Milwaukee. Kaline’s last year was with Detroit giving him a 21½ year Major League tenure with the same franchise – a feat which has not been matched since. The interest and supposed added gate attendance these stars drew sealed the DH as an experiment gone right. A complete list of Hall of Fame players who were a regular DH for most of a season are listed below the Paul Molitor comment.

 

Gates Brown - after only one season (’64) as a regular outfielder, the Detroit Tigers labelled Gates as their primary pinch hitter. There he flourished to set the A.L. record for most pinch hits in a career. Naturally when the DH rule came to pass, the 34 year old Brown was the first to be handed the role – where he platooned with a 36 year old Frank Howard. Neither was` outstanding at that point. Howard retired and Brown went back to pinch hitting another year making room for the 39 year old Al Kaline who was Detroit’s DH his final Hall of Fame season. Brown remained with the Tigers organization just long enough to be their hitting coach on the 1984 championship team.

 

Jim Ray Hart had an impressive 9 year run as an extreme all-bat-no-glove thirdbaseman for the Giants ’64-’72. Logically, when the DH rule began, the Yankees purchased him to be their first regular DH. However, that was all he had left.

 

Ron Blomberg carried huge expectations to be the great Jewish star New York never quite had. Sandy Koufax’s super years with the Dodgers came after they moved to Los Angeles. Blomberg was a young (22) studly poor-fielding Yankee rookie first-baseman in 1971. For the next four seasons he hit 43-54% greater than the league average O+S, but was never given more than 350 Plate Appearances in one season - even though the DH rule opened up a job for him in ’73. The Yankees didn’t have anyone blocking him – just the Alou brothers Felipe 38 and Matty 34 both playing out their last full seasons. They traded for Jim Ray Hart shortly after the season started, but he didn’t hit as well as Blomberg and was released the next year. The Yankee skipper then was Ralf Houk.

 

Rico Carty spent 9 years (’64-’72.) with the Braves. He had good to outstanding seasons during that time winning MVP votes in ’69 and ‘70. In 1973, after the Braves traded him, however, Carty was a disaster for all three teams he played for that season: Rangers, Cubs, and Athletics. Late the following season (’74) he come back as the Indians primary DH hitting almost as well as ever. He gave the Indians three more solid years, and then continued well with the A’s and Blue Jays in 1978. His last season and fifth full season as a DH was ’79 at age 39.

 

Willie Horton was Detroit’s left-fielder for 10 years before they made him a full time DH in 1975 – only the third year of the rule. He immediately set a career high in games played (159) and not a single one of them was on the field. He continued as a regular DH for six seasons with six different teams.

 

Hal McRae spent his first four seasons with Cincinnati – just before the dawn of the DH rule. Even after he was traded to Kansas City, the Royals played him mostly in the outfield in both ’73 and ’75. He did have more at bats than any other Royal as a DH during that inaugural DH year of 1973, but the Royals didn’t employ a regular DH. He led the team with only 37 games at the new position. In ’75, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew was released by the Minnesota - the franchise he played his entire career for – and a team that had always had Killebrew on it - and came to Kansas City for one last year as a DH. After that, McRae was Kansas City’s principle DH for the next ten+ years. That stretch of DHing has only been passed by Harold Baines. Although, Baines DHed for various teams.  Only Edgar Martinez has ever had a DH tenure with one club comparable to McRae’s.

 

Cliff Johnson was a catcher and first-baseman who could also fill in leftfield. After 3½ seasons with the Astros, he was traded to the American League in 1977 at the age of 27 where he primarily DHed for another 7½ - five of them with over 350 PA.

 

Don Baylor, after five seasons as an Orioles outfielder, in ’76 was traded to Oakland for Reggie Jackson, where he gradually started playing more and more DH. When Baylor won the MVP in 1979 for California, he played 65 games at DH, although, had played 102 games at DH the season before. Starting in 1981, Baylor essentially became a full time DH amassing a total of 8 seasons of over 350 PA as a DH.

 

Dick Davis – does anyone remember him? He came up with Molitor in ‘78 playing DH and OF. In ’79 and ’80, he made it over the 350+ PA mark, then faded back into utter obscurity.

 

Randy Johnson - that’s Randall Stuart Johnson not Randal David Big Unit Johnson - got a short shot as the Twins DH in '82 after a call-up with the ChiSox in '80. Final tally: DH: 71 games, OF: 3, 1B: 1, At Bats: 254.

 

Andre Thornton, when not injured, spent the first half of his career ‘74-’79 as Cleveland’s firstbaseman and the last half ’81-’86 as their DH. In five of those DH seasons he had over 350 PA.

 

Ken Phelps spent most of his prime in AAA. Reaching Omaha at age 24 in 1979, his O+S was .885. The next year it was .988. The Royals tried him a few games at first-base, but never gave him a real shot. In 1981, he hit 1.148 at Omaha. In 1982, the Expos traded a fading 39 year old reliever to give him a try, but decided his fielding was so horrible, they had no room for him. They gave him 10 pinch-hitting situations without his ever taking the field. Back in AAA, he hit 1.175. So, Seattle purchased him, but in 1983, they only played him in 50 games: 22 at first, 19 at DH, and 9 purely pinch hitting jobs. It was a career high, but hardly enough for a 28 year old player who was now hitting 1.209 in AAA.  Phelps finally established himself as Seattle’s DH vs. right-handed pitchers in 1984 hitting .899. Phelp’s career was stalled again in ’85 due to injury. In '86, he was required to play more games at first-base than DH. That was followed by two more years as a highly productive platoon DH.

 

Dave Kingman was born to be a DH, but he was a National Leaguer except for the last three years of his career (’84-’86 ages 35-37). Those were his three seasons with the most Plate Appearances – and they were almost exclusively as a DH.

 

Larry Sheets has the unusual distinction of coming up as a regular DH (’85 & ’86 with the Orioles), then moved off for a year, only to come back and play about half DH and half outfield the rest of his career.

 

Brian Downing played in the Majors for 20 seasons and played more games at DH than any other position. However, his career totals are split pretty closely into thirds: DH, LF, and C. His DH years were his last 6: 1987-1992. Downing burns in my mind as the first player to hit way better than anyone imagined thanks to his secret exercise regimen. Looking back at his record, though, his rise wasn’t all that miraculous. His batting averages were quite low during his early years, but the walks were always there. The power showed up before the batting average rose. We were focused on the wrong numbers back then. 1979 seemed like an unbelievable leap forward, going from a .255 Batting Average to .326, but it was fuelled by a .350 BA/BiP. That inflated his O+S to .880. His rise in ’77 to an .804 O+S was more significant, but it seemed a fluke due to a lack of AB and his ’78 BA/BiP of .274 which brought his O+S back down to .688. After ’79, Downing’s O+S was usually in the mid-to-low .800s.

 

Joey Meyer (not to be confused with either Dan Meyer) at age 26 in 1988 had his one shot with a season of over 350 PA. He played two-thirds of those games for the Brewers as a DH.

 

Harold Baines at 19 was a AA shortstop in the White Sox system. The next year he blew away AAA as an outfielder. Then in 1980 he began his Major League journey of 22 seasons. In 1987 at age 27, Baines began what would prove to be the longest career of any regular DH. At the age of 40 in 1999 he was still producing an O+S (.920) 35% higher than the league average in 486 Plate Appearances. However, no one wants to hold onto an old DH. No matter how well Baines hit those first ten years of our Scoresheet League (’91-’00), nobody would protect him. He can’t keep doing it!? In real life Baines changed teams 9 times as a DH, retiring after his third stint with the team he started from: Chicago.

 

Chilli Davis from ’82 to ’87 was a speedy outfielder with the Giants – not a typical sort of player you would expect to end up as a DH. The Angels signed him as a free agent and immediately moved him from center to right-field. That coincided with his Stolen Base rate dropping from 16 for 25 to 9 for 19. The next year he played more DH than OF. The Twins signed him next and made him a DH permanently. He would change teams several more times including a four year stint with the Angels, but always as a consistent well producing DH. Davis ended up with only 14 fewer games at DH in his career then all his outfield games combined: 1170 to 1184. He is 4th on the all-time list of 350+ PA seasons as primarily a DH.

 

Sam Horn was an inconsistent slugger in both the Majors and Minors. His peak probably came in 1987 when his O+S was 1.038 at Pawtucket and .945 in his 46 game first trial with Boston. He was 24. The next year those numbers dropped to .712 and .520. It is no wonder he was up and down with Boston ’87-’89, then Baltimore ’90-’92. In ’93, he appeared to be having a good year hitting .961 in AAA, but Cleveland only gave him 36 trips to the plate. He hit even better for the Pittsburgh and Texas AAA affiliates in ’94, but they gave him even less playing time in The Show. Sadly, at 31, that was the end of his professional career.

 

Kevin Maas was hailed as the next big thing in New York’s Yankeeland with the first-baseman’s 21 HR and high walk total in only 254 AB his rookie season. He was made their DH the following year and managed to hit only 23 HR playing the whole season. From there, it only got worse. He ended up with only 1448 Plate Appearances his entire MLB career. It was somewhat a repeat of the Ron Blomberg story two decades later, except Blomberg actually managed to continue hitting. He just wasn’t given a fair chance.

 

Paul Molitor - If most people are like me, this Hall of Famer is remembered as a second-baseman turned third-baseman with some DHing at the tail end of his career. However, he actually played about as many games at DH as second-base and third-base combined! He also played over 50 games each at first, short, and outfield – mainly centerfield. He was gradually phased into the DH role thanks to his proneness for injury beginning around his 9th season, ending up there primarily for good from his 14th year to his 21st (1998).

 

Seasons of 350+ PA of primarily DHing extending Hall of Famers’ counting stats:

 

            8          Paul Molitor

4          Reggie Jackson

4          Eddie Murray

3          George Brett

3          Carl Yastrzemski

2          Jim Rice

2          Frank Robinson

2          Billy Williams

2          Dave Winfield

1          Hank Aaron

1          Orlando Cepeda

1          Al Kaline

1          Harmon Killebrew

 

Dave Winfield deserves a mention in DH lore, because never before has a player drawn the crowd into being the 10th player (or 11th counting the DH) the way Winfield did when he came to Toronto as their DH in 1992. After having tallied a Hall of Fame career as a right-fielder for the Padres, Yankees, and briefly the Angels, Winfield signed with the Blue Jays knowing he would likely be moved to DH. At least, the Jays were defending champions of the A.L. East where Winfield had an opportunity to obliterate his reputation as “Mr. May” - the nickname George Steinbrenner derisively gave him in comparison to “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson. Unlike Winfield, Reggie had some excellent World Series for the Yankees. Toronto fans are notoriously quiet – especially in baseball. As the Jays were struggling around mid-season, Winfield told a local reporter that he wished the fans would get more vocal – that would create some needed “synergy” with the team. Appreciative, perhaps, of not being talked down to, the fans took up the challenge and for the rest of the season and a year or two beyond, Toronto suddenly became a baseball town with boisterous cheering at the Skydome. The team synergized with the fans and went on to win the World Championship (extending the boundaries of  “World”  to Canada). Winfield had an .868 O+S for the season, hit two homers against Oakland in the play-offs, and added 3 more RBI in the World Series. A local paper in Toronto re-nicknamed Winfield the “Designated Polysyballist”.

 

Edgar Martinez had three and a half seasons as the Mariners’ primary third-baseman, then two more with on and off duty there. Then in 1995, they took away his mitt and he became an insanely good hitter. Imagine a .479 OBA and a .628 Slg.A several years before Barry Bonds took hitting to an even more unimaginable level. Edgar went on to keep his OBA above .400 for 9 years in a row. He racked up enough DH seasons to be no. 3 on the all-time list, but when discussing the all-time greatest DH, David Ortiz is Edgar’s only rival.

 

Jose Canseco won the Rookie of the Year award in 1986 for Oakland during his age 21 season. His peak came at ages 23 to 26. At 29, now with Texas after an essentially lost season due to injury, Canseco became a journeyman DH, where he played respectably but in gradual decline for 7 teams over his last 8 seasons. Of course, he is rightfully remembered more as a right-fielder, but he is 9th on the all-time list of enduring DHs.

 

Troy Neel established himself as a solid hitter his first full season in ’93 at age 27 playing mostly DH. He followed that up respectably playing mostly first-base, but his season was cut short by the strike. As I recall, he fled to Japan in ’95 - never returning to MLB.

 

Geronimo Berroa spent parts of four seasons in the N.L. with three different teams before Oakland found a home for him at DH in 1994 at age 29. Berroa comes close to 3000 PA (2825) and comes close to being a career DH. In ’96 he played 156 games and managed to play a few more of them in right-field than DH.

 

Bob Hamelin from ’94 to ’97 was a DH, then a first-baseman for the newly National Leagued Brewers in ‘98.

 

Joe Vitiello came up as a DH and occasional firstbaseman competing with Hamelin on the Royals (’95). However, he never quite hit well enough for the position, so he was sent down only to be called up for emergency fill in at first-base or an outfield corner. Total MLB PA = 791.

 

Frank Thomas’s prime years – his first full seven ending in 1997 - were as a first-baseman – on a course set towards the Hall of Fame. Then the Big Hurt’s nickname took on a more direct meaning. Since then, he has been primarily a DH, which puts him tied for 5th on the list of most seasons as a regular DH. His MLB career appears to be over.

 

Brad Fullmer was to be the first-baseman of the Expos’ future after hitting .921 on their AA team at age 22 in 1997.  He couldn’t get his O+S over .800 the next two seasons in Montréal, despite hitting .993 during a AAA demotion. So, he was traded up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Toronto where he had more success as a DH. Two years later he was hitting even better for the Angels. Then an injury ended his effectiveness during his 4th season as a DH. Texas gave him more than a reasonable shot the following year to no avail.

 

David Ortiz reached Minnesota for a brief call-up as a 21 year old in 1997 after plugging mid .900 O+S in both the Florida State and Eastern Leagues. He just missed 350 PA for Minnesota the following year. In 1999, Ortiz remained stuck in the minors despite a 1.002 O+S. Tom Kelly found no room for him despite the feeble hitters he employed at first-base and the outfield corners. Marty Cordova was the DH who could have played one of those outfield positions. You almost can’t blame them, however, as Ortiz went hitless in the 20 MLB AB he was given that year. The Twins finished 63-97. Finally, Minnesota gave Ortiz a regular DH gig in 2000. However, after three years, they remained unimpressed with his .339 OBA and .500 Slugging and released him. Boston scooped him up, increased his playing time to every day and he became the best hitter in the American League. His O+S increased each year for the next five years from .961 to 1.067. He finished in the top 5 for MVP in each of those seasons. He is probably passing Edgar Martinez as the greatest DH ever.

 

Aubrey Huff has been a Major Leaguer for eight seasons starting in 2001. His primary position was DH in his 2nd year and in his two most recent years. Over his career, his time has been closely split between 3B (361 G), DH (352), RF (237 + 8 LF), and 1B (227). This year, Huff’s first-base game total has a good chance to move up just past the other three position totals making the split even closer.

 

Josh Phelps was an exciting prospect hitting .941 as a 21 year old catcher in the Florida State League. His defence was so bad, however, he returned there and hit 1.085 until his promotion to AA. The next year he was still in the Southern League hitting .968, when he was given a brief call-up. Then in 2002, he hit 1.038 in Syracuse for half the season forcing the Jays to give him a shot the second half of the season – but only at DH. He was a rousing success hitting .924. Then at age 24 turning 25, something went terribly wrong. His hitting dropped to .828 - just enough to keep his job. The next year it sank to .711 and was traded to Cleveland for a barely warm minor league body. His bat woke up for those last two months hitting .905. He signed with Tampa Bay where he continued to slide hitting only .732 and lost his job. Since then, he has been tossed around to five more organizations with call-ups as a first-baseman/outfielder only under dire circumstances.

 

Erubiel Durazo does fit the criteria of having each of his 350+ PA seasons primarily as a DH with over 2000 PA lifetime. To confess, I unscientifically changed the career limit to 3000 PA in order to make my big proclamation about Ortiz and Hafner without having to include Durazo. Hafner has exactly 3000 PA, Durazo has only 2291.  Durazo had four seasons with Arizona starting in ’99 where he had 185-276 PA each. However, Oakland wisely made him their full time DH in ’03 lasting a couple years until injuries derailed his career.

 

Travis Hafner has played more DH than any other position in each of his major league seasons, although in his first call-up with Cleveland in '03, it was as close as could be with 43 as DH and 42 as 1B. 2007’s 11 games at first-base is his high highest total since then. From 2004 to 2006 ages 27-29, Hafner was one of the most frightening hitters in the league, creeping up his O+S each year from .993 to 1.003 to 1.098. Shoulder surgery this past October will hopefully make Hafner’s steep decline to .837 in ’07, then a pathetic .628 last year seem like just a nightmare.

 

Cal Pickering - listed at 275, was a big target at first-base. However, there must have been some reason this Minor League veteran of 12 seasons, 1028 G, 3614 AB, about 6000 PA and a .948 career O+S was never given more than a 35 game shot in one season in the Majors (K.C. in ‘04). He DHed a little more than he played first, but it’s hard to believe some teams couldn’t have made good use of him. MLB totals: 4 teams (Bal., Cin., Bos., and K.C.) 95 G, 264 AB, 310 PA, .757 O+S.

 

Jason Kubel was the Twins’ top prospect and performed well after his call up as a 22 year old in 2004. However, in the Arizona Fall League he ripped some ligaments in his left knee causing him to miss all of 2005 and was still not fully recovered in 2006. These last two seasons, he has hit just well enough to keep his job which was established last year (’08) as the DH.

 

Billy Butler – despite a career Minor League O+S of .977 including something in the high .960s at AAA, and reaching the majors at 21 (2007), Butler hasn’t managed to finish either of his 360+ PA seasons as mostly a DH for the Royals above .800. In fact, his second try (.724) was worse than the first (.794). Of course, his career will be a colossal disappointment, if he continues in that direction, but at his age, we expect he will figure out major league pitchers soon.

 

Adam Lind / Travis Snider – MLB career game totals so far: Lind: OF=153, DH=30. Snyder: OF=20; DH=4. Who knows? Perhaps, one will be traded and the other will stay in leftfield – or one will be sent back to the Minors and never return.

 

Final Tally:

 

Of the longest lasting regular DHs, here is the quantity of seasons with over 350 Plate Appearances as mostly a DH. Indicated on the right is heir original Major League position. Note that half of them were outfielders:

             12 Harold Baines of

             11 Hal McRae of

             10 Edgar Martinez 3b

               9 Chilli Davis of

               8 David Ortiz 1b

               8 Frank Thomas 1b

               8 Don Baylor of

               8 Paul Molitor 2b

               7 Jose Canseco of

               6 Brian Downing c

               6 Willie Horton of

               5 Rico Carty of

               5 Cliff Johnson c

               5 Andre Thornton 1b

               4 Travis Hafner 1b

John Carter