The Evolution of the Designated Hitter in Cleveland
By Bob Toth
The Cleveland Indians have had a productive offseason. While they have acquired outfielder Nick Swisher and infielder Mark Reynolds via free agency, Trevor Bauer as a rotation piece of the future, and Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw to further solidify the bullpen, one position on the team has gone noticeably unfilled – the spot of the designated hitter.
There has been plenty of speculation on who the team would look to fill the role with. Could the team bring back veteran Travis Hafner on a performance-based contract, hoping he could finally stay healthy long enough to contribute for a full season? What about another return of Jim Thome to the roster, the 42-year-old slugger who seems unwilling to allow the Indians to begin construction of his eventual statue near Heritage Park at Progressive Field? Could the team look outside of those familiar faces and sign a Delmon Young, Carlos Lee, or Carlos Pena type of player on a similar short-term deal on the cheap, sacrificing hits, strikeouts, or age for a defensively limited or incapable player with a little pop?
A greater likelihood may be that Cleveland does not acquire a DH at all.
It would hardly be a new trend. The regular DH has gradually become a relic over the last several years.
The American League affords teams the luxury of carrying a player whose sole benefit to a club may be hitting for power with little defensive ability. These players can maintain the DH role or, as needed, provide an extra late-inning pinch hit performance or two.
But with the expansion of interleague play throughout the entire 2013 schedule, it may be significantly harder to carry such a player on the 25-man roster.
Consider the last few seasons in Cleveland with Hafner slotted in as the regular designated hitter.
Hafner hit the disabled list for the first time in 2012 on May 30th with a sore right knee. The injury forced him to miss a nine-game road trip through Detroit, St. Louis, and Cincinnati in the beginning of June. He missed another interleague road trip series in late June in Houston.
Had he been on the active roster for these series, he would have been relegated to the role of pinch-hitter. It would have left the Manny Acta-led ballclub light one position player or even an extra reliever on the roster. The lack of consistent at bats and live pitching could have impacted Hafner at the plate. He was batting .242 at the time of his injury with six home runs and 23 runs batted in through 39 games played. He finished the season with a .228 average with 12 home runs and 34 RBI in just 25 more games.
In 2011, Hafner appeared in seven of nine consecutive road interleague games. He had two hits in five at bats and only appeared as a pinch hitter. The Indians were 4-5 on the road trip, but 2-5 in games that Pronk appeared in. In another injury-shortened season, Hafner contributed a .280 batting average, 13 homers, and 57 runs driven in.
In the 2010 season, Hafner again made no appearances in the field and was limited in a nine-game interleague road trip to just six plate appearances. He was hitless in five at bats, reaching base just once on a hit by pitch. The team was 1-5 with him in the lineup and 2-7 overall on the trip.
Hafner has not appeared in the field in a major league game since 2007. He put on the first baseman’s glove for eleven appearances that season, four games in 2006, just one game in 2005, and another 11 games in 2004. He split his 2003 season with Cleveland almost evenly with 40 starts at first and 42 starts at DH. That season’s defensive participation accounted for more than half of his career starts on the right side of the diamond.
The blame for the Indians having more losses on the road during interleague series over the last several seasons cannot be blamed just on Hafner’s absence from the lineup, due to his inability to field a position, but losing his bat for three to four plate appearances in each of those games could not have helped matters much. Losing a once-feared bat from the middle of the order hurts everyone else in the lineup. Some players may have been pitched differently with the protection of Hafner’s bat, even with a depleted power supply.
Such is the disadvantage of having a pure designated hitter on the roster. Having a full-time DH is actually becoming the dinosaur of the league, or at least rapidly becoming an endangered specie. Other teams are able to utilize their DH’s in other positions on the ballclub when needed, which would be the case for interleague series or when another player may need a day off from the field but could still be capable of swinging the bat.
Last season, of the 14 American League teams, only two employed a full-time designated hitter for more than 100 games of the 162 game schedule.
Billy Butler held down the position in Kansas City for a league-high 138 appearances. He played an additional 20 times at first base for the Royals. He enjoyed career-high numbers in most offensive categories and was rewarded with an All-Star Game appearance. In five of the Royals’ nine interleague games on the road, he appeared in five games at first base and another three as a pinch hitter. The Royals paid him $8 million for his efforts.
Detroit’s Young appeared in 118 games at DH for the Tigers. He also started 31 games in left field. Young’s season splits showed that he was actually more productive at the plate when playing in the field. He batted .300 in those starts and averaged a home run every 22 at bats, while batting .260 playing DH and averaging a home run every 35 at bats. He made $6.75 million on the season.
Hafner’s 62 games at DH were good for tenth highest in the league. Undoubtedly, his numbers were restricted by injury. But unlike the other players before him on the list, he played no games in the field. He did so, sitting on the bench when not running the bases, while making $13 million, more than every player on that list except Dunn ($14 milllion) and Ortiz ($14.575 million).
There were a total of 209 American League players who logged game time as the designated hitter. Of these players, only five – Hafner, Thome of Baltimore, Brad Eldred of Detroit, Luis Jimenez of Seattle, and Alexi Amarista of Los Angeles – failed to appear in the field.
Thome logged 28 games with the Orioles, and played 27 games at DH and one as just a pinch hitter. Eldred batted .188 in 17 designated hitting plate appearances. Jimenez appeared in seven games after a September call up and started four games at DH and played in three others as a pinch hitter. Amarista’s appearance is more based on a technicality – he pinch-ran for Morales and scored in the eighth inning of a 5-0 Angels victory on April 6th and remained the DH of record for the final half-inning, without logging a single at bat.
Having players who can throw on a glove and play some defense on occasion gives a roster a certain extra layer of flexibility. When a guy is incapable of doing that, whether it is due to skill, age, or injury, it can handcuff a team’s bench and limit options throughout the season.
The 2011 season was quite the opposite of last season. The 2012 season seemed to buck the age-old trend of putting aging, slowed players in the DH spot as a last resort to sending them out to pasture.
Seven players that season toppled the 100 games played mark at DH, and three more played in at least one-half of their teams’ total games for the season in the position. Most were oft-injured or older players nearing the end of their careers. Half of them were not even on an active roster by the end of the following season.
Butler was the youngest player on the list and the only one under 30 years of age. He led the AL again with 142 games at DH. Vladimir Guerrero, at 36 years old, made all 137 of his starts at DH for the Orioles in what would appear to be the last season in his big league career.
Boston’s Ortiz spent 136 of his 138 starts in the DH spot for the Red Sox. Former teammate (and failed Cleveland experiment) Johnny Damon logged 135 games in the same spot for the Rays.
Victor Martinez (Detroit), Hideki Matsui (Oakland), and Bobby Abreu (Los Angeles) all exceeded 100 games at DH with their respective clubs. Hafner was ninth overall on the list with 85 starts. He outearned each player above him on the games played list, making $13 million to Ortiz’s $12.5 million.
Just 20 players appeared in 20 games or more at DH during this season. Thirty-two different players accomplished the same in 2012.
The 2010 season was similar to 2011, as five players (Ortiz, Guerrero, Adam Lind, Matsui, and Hafner) all exceeded 100 games played, with four more players playing in at least half of their team’s games at DH. Minnesota and Tampa Bay fell just below the cutoff point, nearly making eleven of 14 teams to employ consistent DH’s.
As teams look to cut costs and find creative new ways to balance budgets, smaller market clubs may no longer find it cost effective to employ one-dimensional, older players, unless they can get that player at a reasonable cost or with some level of versatility.
Oakland split their DH spot in 2012 amongst Jonny Gomes (53 starts), Seth Smith (50 starts), and Yoenis Cespedes (26 starts). All three also logged significant playing time in the outfield for the A’s.
Minnesota played Ryan Doumit (48 games), Joe Mauer (42 games), Justin Morneau (34 games), and Josh Willingham (25 games) in their DH spot. Each of the four saw consistent action at other positions as well.
If the Indians were to add another bat, last year’s trends would certainly seem to indicate it would not be a player that the team would intend to utilize strictly as a designated hitter, as they have done with Hafner since 2004.
With the current roster makeup, it is reasonable to think that the team would opt to carry an additional fielder, giving Terry Francona the opportunity to rest defensively one of his usual starting eight fielders while still keeping his bat in the lineup. This would allow the lineup to remain effective while keeping his players fresh and healthy.
Reynolds and Swisher could benefit similarly on a regular basis as well.
The team would not be handcuffed by a player unable to contribute at the same level as so many of his teammates. They may actually relish the opportunity to have increased roster flexibility created by not carrying the burden of Hafner or another similar player’s limitations on the bench.
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