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Is Baseball's Era of Dominant Designated Hitters Coming to an End?

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Is Baseball's Era of Dominant Designated Hitters Coming to an End?
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Get a good look at David Ortiz while you still can.

At 38 going on 39, with his bat beginning to show some cracks and no guaranteed years on his contract after 2015, Ortiz may not be around much longer. That alone is reason enough to get a good look at the great Boston Red Sox slugger, but then there's the notion that he could be the last of a dying species:

The true and dominant designated hitter.

There will still be good DHs after Big Papi is gone, but he could be the last guy we ever see make a career out of excelling at the position.

But first, a note on that first point: We know there will be good DHs after Ortiz is gone because the DH position itself isn't dying. If we use OPS as a measuring stick, Baseball-Reference.com says the league's designated hitters have a .752 OPS, which is 45 points above the league-average OPS of .707.

To this extent, the idea of the DH is still being satisfied. It's supposed to give clubs more offense, and it's still doing so.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Edgar Martinez from 1995 through 2001: .329/.446/.574 with 196 home runs.

If we're comparing what's happening now to the heyday of the DH, however, it's no contest. All the years that the DH position had an OPS of at least .815 happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Take a look back, and it's no wonder why.

Here's another measuring stick statistic: OPS+. It measures offensive production by adjusting for parks and leagues and putting everything on a scale of 100. Anything over 100 is above-average production.

We're going to use a 110 OPS+ as a baseline for "good" hitting and go searching for players who qualified for the batting title while also playing at least 51 percent of their games at DH.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, such players were plentiful in the late '90s. Between 1994 and 1999, there were no fewer than five DHs with an OPS+ over 110 in any given year.

But in 2014? Here's the list of good-hitting DHs in the league as of the All-Star break:

Primary DHs with OPS+ Over 110, 2014
Player Team PA OPS+
Victor Martinez DET 340 166
David Ortiz BOS 395 133
Adam Dunn CWS 324 122

Baseball-Reference.com

That's it. Just three. You have to go back over a decade to 2004 to find the last time there were as few as three good-hitting primary DHs in the league.

Now, what's noteworthy about that is that having as few as three good-hitting DHs was nothing out of the ordinary in 2004. Such players were plentiful in the '90s, but then there was a bit of a lull before things picked up again. Before there were at least four good-hitting DHs nine seasons in a row starting in 2005, 2004 was the fourth season out of five in which there were only three good-hitting primary DHs.

But rather than "one of those things," the modern dearth of good-hitting DHs is more likely a sign of the times. If it feels like clubs aren't allowing one guy to hog the DH spot anymore, that's because they're not.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Victor Martinez became a full-time DH at age 32. It's gone pretty well.

That's reflected in how Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Adam Dunn represent three of only five batting-title qualifiers who have played the majority of their games at DH in 2014. This is after only four in 2013, and that was after there were at least six such players in six of eight seasons between 2005 and 2012.

Rather than a spot to get one hitter at-bats, teams are using the DH as a place to use platoons and give older players half days at the office. You can tell as much by taking a glance at the list of players who have logged at least 100 plate appearances at DH in 2014:

Players With At Least 100 PAs at DH, 2014
Name Team Age PA OPS
David Ortiz BOS 38 381 .843
Billy Butler KCR 28 374 .671
Victor Martinez DET 35 283 .988
Chris Carter HOU 27 264 .800
Adam Dunn CWS 34 224 .843
Nelson Cruz BAL 33 196 .867
Corey Hart SEA 32 173 .554
Carlos Beltran NYY 37 151 .664
David DeJesus TBR 34 149 .941
Shin-Soo Choo TEX 31 138 .743
Alberto Callaspo OAK 31 125 .639
Adam Lind TOR 30 115 .890
Albert Pujols LAA 34 108 1.081
Alfonso Soriano NYY 38 105 .602
Raul Ibanez LAA/KCR 42 105 .500
Kendrys Morales MIN 31 102 .578
John Jaso OAK 30 100 .618

Baseball-Reference.com

The notable platoon players here are Alberto Callaspo, Adam Lind and John Jaso, and also Corey Hart, to a certain extent. After them are older guys. Martinez, Dunn, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus, Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano and Raul Ibanez are all at least 33.

There's not much hope of the platoon guys turning into dominant DHs, as they're platoon guys for a reason. When the matchup's not in their favor, they ride the bench.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Because he can still play a solid first base, it may be a couple more years before Albert Pujols becomes a full-time DH.

As for the older guys, we might see a couple of them settle into roles as regular DHs once they can't hack it in the field anymore. Cruz stands out. So does Pujols, who conceded to USA Today's Bob Nightengale last year that he'll probably be a full-time DH eventually.

Thing is, success could be fleeting even if Cruz and Pujols do become full-time DHs eventually. They won't be in the same boat as Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez and, more recently, Dunn and Martinez, who became full-time DHs in their early 30s. Those seasons will be in the rear-view mirror by the time Cruz and Pujols are made into full-time DHs.

This is reflective of the general attitude teams seem to have toward position players these days. Writing for SB Nation, Cee Angi summed it up well:

Teams haven't necessarily lost interest in having a more traditional designated hitter, but in the cost-benefit analysis of home runs vs. players who have two or three tools, the security of having someone who can at least competently stand in the field seems to be winning.

A guy who can hit is a valuable asset, but a guy who can hit and at least hold his own on defense is a more valuable asset. That's due not only to how defensive contributions add to a player's value, but how not having a bat-only player on the roster means an open spot for a more versatile player.

As such, Cruz and Pujols might not be the last guys who won't become DHs until they're safely past their prime years and legitimately have nothing left to offer on defense. The same could happen with Miguel Cabrera, Brian McCann or Prince Fielder. For as much logic as there is in moving a guy to DH to prolong his career, enhanced roster flexibility is a strong incentive to hold off on doing so for as long as possible.

But it doesn't look like teams only have an aversion to making veterans into bat-only players. They also seem to have an aversion to developing bat-only players.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
And now Billy Butler is a bat-only player with a highly questionable bat.

Refer to the table, and you'll notice that the only regular DHs under 30 this year are Billy Butler and Chris Carter. The latter is frankly lucky to be there, as Carter is so ridiculously flawed as a hitter that he likely wouldn't have a job anywhere other than Houston. That leaves Butler as really the only legit major leaguer since Travis Hafner in the mid-2000s to actually be groomed as a bat-only player.

Which very likely isn't an accident.

Angi proposed that the scouting and development process has refined itself to a point where teams are weeding out bat-only players in favor of better athletes in the draft. That seems logical in light of the sheer athleticism of the young players who have come along recently, but there might also be more of an emphasis placed on defensive instruction in the minor leagues.

For example, you can look at how a guy like Mark Trumbo eventually became a pretty good defensive first baseman and how the Los Angeles Angels now face the same challenge with C.J. Cron. Or how Matt Adams, he of the classic DH body, has been turned into a pretty good defensive first baseman in the National League.

And given that AL clubs don't even seem interested in developing bat-only players anymore, it's a good guess NL clubs won't suddenly develop an interest in it ifor when—the DH finally comes to the Senior Circuit.

As such, there's a fair chance we won't see any more Travis Hafners, Chris Carters or Billy Butlers in the future. If we don't, the DH position's transformation into a spot reserved for platoon guys and old guys will be complete. And when it happens, the former will provide only part-time excellence, and the latter will simply provide whatever they have left to give in their post-prime careers.

As such, David Ortiz could be it. He could be the last true, great DH we ever see. He began building his possible Hall of Fame career as a DH back when teams were plenty willing to embrace the idea of giving the DH spot to a single worthy hitter, and that time seems to have passed.

Maybe that's for the best. But if we all lean back and remember the exploits of Ortiz—and Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez before him, and Harold Baines, Don Baylor and Hal McRae before them—we can say this about baseball's era of dominant DHs.

It was fun while it lasted.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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