Commentary

Role of the DH changing in today's game

The days of a big slugger being a team's sole designated hitter mostly thing of the past

Originally Published: January 12, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The Texas Rangers' signing of free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre makes Michael Young the team's designated hitter, a logical move given how much better Beltre is than Young defensively at third base.

[+] EnlargeMichael Young
Kim Klement/US PresswireMichael Young was the Rangers' regular third baseman last season, but in 2011 he's expected to become the team's primary designated hitter.

And yet, it just doesn't look or seem right. Young is 34, healthy, durable and athletic, yet he'll be a DH in 2011. It is rare, if not unprecedented, that a player with that many career games at shortstop (788), second base (416) and third base (293) has moved been moved to DH at such a young age. But in its 38th year of existence, the DH isn't what it used to be. It's a position that continues to evolve and could undergo significant change in the coming years.

In 1973, the first year of the DH, eight players were used in 100 games at DH: Frank Robinson, Tony Oliva, Orlando Cepeda, Tommy Davis, Alex Johnson, Deron Johnson, Gates Brown and Jim Ray Hart. All eight fit essentially the same profile: good hitters nearing the end of their careers, most of them done as defensive players. In 1991, 11 players were used in 100 games at DH. But in the past 12 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has not been one season in which half the teams had a 100-game DH. Last season, five players were used in 100 games at DH: David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Travis Hafner, Hideki Matsui and Adam Lind. In 2009, there were only four, the same number in 2008.

The trend is for teams to rotate their DH between several players. In 2010, every American League team used at least 10 players for at least one game at DH. Ten teams used at least 15 different players at DH. The Yankees used 16 DHs. They didn't have even a 50-game DH but used four players for at least 20 games and seven players for at least 10. The White Sox had no 50-game DH; they had four players with at least 20 and eight with at least 10 games.

"The days of the old-time DH are pretty much over,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Now the role is more about creating matchups and for giving a guy a day off. It keeps more guys active and gets them more at-bats. When I was with the White Sox, Greg Luzinski was the DH. He was it. But teams are moving away from having one big, strong guy as DH.''

Teams rotate the DH in today's game for several reasons. A more versatile roster is necessary given that most teams use a 12-man pitching staff, and some even have 13 pitchers on their roster. With fewer position players available on the bench, teams are reluctant to have a player on the roster who can't play defense, la Harold Baines in the final few years of his career. In the post-steroids era, there has been a noticeable shift toward pitching and defense, sometimes leaving a non-defender off the roster. In this era, players aren't playing as long as they did, say, 10 years ago, meaning fewer 40-year-old DH types. Now, Young is a DH at 34, the Yankees' Jorge Posada, 38, likely will move from behind the plate to DH and Adam Dunn, 31, likely will end a rotating DH for the White Sox and be their DH for 100 games or so.

Leyland will have many options at DH in 2011. The Tigers signed free agent Victor Martinez to a four-year, $52 million deal because they needed another banger, but he can catch when he's not the DH. Outfielder Magglio Ordonez was re-signed, but he has had ankle injuries, so using him at DH here and there will, in theory, keep him healthier. Leyland also can give first baseman Miguel Cabrera a day off by letting him take four at-bats as the DH.

"Having that versatility on the roster is very important, it's beneficial to a manager,'' Leyland said. "In our league, the more two-way players you have, the better. It's that simple.''

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, "It's all tied to the pitching. We used to break camp with nine or 10. Now it's 12. If you have a tiebreaker late in a game, run all the defenders out there you can.''

With all this rotating, the value of a DH isn't as great. It is mid-January, but Guerrero doesn't have a job even though he had 115 RBIs last year for the American League-champion Rangers. Jim Thome, who led the AL in slugging percentage during the second half of last season, doesn't have a job. (The Rangers and Twins are pursuing him.) With the rotating DH, the position isn't as productive as it used to be. In 2010, the DH (not counting the NL DH in interleague games) batted .252, slugged .426, had an on-base percentage of .332 and averaged 22 home runs and 83 RBIs. Those were the lowest numbers by the DH in any year in this century. Offensive numbers were down in 2010, but compare them to 2006, when the DH hit .264, slugged .470, had an on-base of .348 and averaged 28 homers and 94 RBIs.

Jim Leyland The days of the old-time DH are pretty much over. Now the role is more about creating matchups and for giving a guy a day off. It keeps more guys active and gets them more at-bats.

-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland

So, if the DH isn't producing as it once did, and if it isn't keeping as many highly paid, aging former superstar players in the game, and there is an increased emphasis on defense in today's game, it makes you wonder: Why is there still a DH? Why does it even remain a position when the greatest DH ever, Edgar Martinez, got only 32.9 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame in his second year on the ballot? When one of the best DHs ever, Baines, will be dropped from the 2011 ballot after failing to receive the necessary 5 percent of votes even though he finished his career with 2,866 hits, 384 homers and 1,628 RBIs?

Will players who got a lot of at-bats at DH be affected in future voting for the Hall of Fame? Martinez is one of only 20 players in history with a .300 average (.312), a .400 on-base percentage (.418) and a .500 slugging percentage (.515), yet he is getting only one out of three votes for the Hall of Fame. Clearly, he lost votes because he didn't play defense; he made 71 percent of his starts as a DH. Baines made 59 percent of his starts at DH; Hall of Famer Paul Molitor made 44 percent of his starts at DH. In 2014, Frank Thomas will become eligible for the Hall. He likely will make it on the first ballot because he also is a .300/.400/.500 guy, but he hit 521 home runs and had almost 500 more RBIs than Martinez. But 57 percent of Thomas' starts were as a DH, and he wasn't a very good defensive player. You wonder how much that will work against him with the voters. Molitor is the only Hall of Famer with more than 25 percent of his games at DH: Jim Rice made 25 percent of his starts, Reggie Jackson 22 percent and Eddie Murray 19 percent.

There is a growing discontent within baseball about having a DH in one league and not in the other. It puts the American League at a decided disadvantage in interleague play (even though there is no correlation in wins and losses) by losing the DH, and having pitchers batting, in National League parks. Major League Baseball changed the rule last year in the All-Star Game by allowing the DH to be used by both teams even if the game is played in a NL park, and there are those within the game who believe that, sooner rather than later, MLB will unify the DH rule and either have it in both leagues or get rid of it. But that issue must be collectively bargained with the players' association, and there is nothing to suggest, at least at this time, that the MLBPA will agree to get rid of the DH or that the NL will adopt it.

And so, for at least 2011, the DH isn't going anywhere. But where is it going? It has been a confusing issue since it was introduced 38 years ago, and it remains a confusing topic today. Just ask Michael Young.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.