B/R MLB 300: Ranking the Top 5 Designated Hitters of 2016
The next stop on the 2016 Bleacher Report MLB 300 will be brief. It's time to look at the top designated hitters in the league.
Only 15 teams get to use the DH, and relatively few of them have a full-timer at the position. We're only going to look at the top five DHs for 2016. Due to their lack of defensive value, their scores add up to only 80 possible points:
- Hitting: 35 points
- Power: 40 points
- Baserunning: 5 points
Before we move on, here's a reminder that this year's B/R MLB 300 is different from past versions in a key way. Rather than use the events of 2016 to project for 2017, the focus is strictly on 2016. Think of these rankings as year-end report cards.
For more on how the scoring and ranking work, read ahead.
How They're Ranked
The five DHs on this list meet two requirements: they've played at least 100 games and have also been used at the position in 75 percent of their games.
The scoring is based mostly on statistics from Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant and MLBfarm.com. The numbers at these sites leave few blind spots when looking at each player's performance, allowing for analytical scouting reports that cover the following:
Hitting: We know the average DH hit just .254 with a .326 on-base percentage in 2016, but I'm holding the five players ahead closer to the standards of the average first baseman (.259 AVG, .338 OBP). We want to know how each player lived up to that standard and assorted MLB norms with his patience, discipline and ability to make contact, make good contact and, ideally, use the whole field.
Power: The average DH had about the same slugging percentage (.449) as the average first baseman (.453). This is a cue to look at not only raw power but how well each hitter gets the ball in the air and how else (i.e., a steady pull habit) he maximizes his power potential.
Baserunning: This neck of the woods features more gray areas, so we'll keep it simple with a few questions for each player. Can he steal bases? Can he take more than one base at a time when the opportunity arises? Does he avoid running into outs?
The individual scores are meant to mimic the 20-80 scouting scale while also taking sample sizes into account. Perfect scores are reserved for players who have excelled throughout the entire season, with extra points possible under extraordinary circumstances. Anything else is a judgment call.
Last but not least: If any two (or more) players end up with the same score, we made another judgment call on the player (or players) we'd rather have.
5. Pedro Alvarez, Baltimore Orioles
G: 109 PA: 376 AVG/OBP/SLUG: .249/.322/.504 HR: 22 SB: 1
Pedro Alvarez came on strong after a cold start, but he still goes into the books as a platoon guy and a stereotypical left-handed slugger. His approach wasn't wild, but he he didn't produce a lot of contact (70.2 contact percentage) anyway. He also had an extreme pull tendency, leading to problems with the shift. But as a good slugger should, he redeemed himself by making loud contact. He averaged 94.1 mph on his batted balls, well ahead of the MLB average of 89.1 mph.
Alvarez's platoon role limited the exposure of his power, but his limits were otherwise nonexistent. He produced an average of 98.7 mph on fly balls and line drives, the best mark of any hitter not named Nelson Cruz. He also got under more balls than he did in 2015, upping his launch angle from 7.2 to 13.3 degrees. Between that and his raw power, it's no wonder he didn't need his pull habit to help him clear the fence. This is a strong man, folks.
Alvarez moves well for a 6'3", 250-pound beast, but running the bases isn't a Baltimore Orioles activity. They mostly stay put and wait for the long ball, so the only important task for O's baserunners is to not make outs. Alvarez handled that, running into zero outs on the bases this year. Pretty good considering he also took the extra base a solid 37 percent of the time on base hits.
The fact that Alvarez is only a part-time DH means his value only goes so high. He lived up to his job description, however, using a whole bunch of hard contact to cement himself as an above-average hitter.
4. Kendrys Morales, Kansas City Royals
G: 154 PA: 618 AVG/OBP/SLUG: .263/.327/.468 HR: 30 SB: 0
The quality of Kendrys Morales' contact is not the reason his numbers declined from his excellent 2015 season. Both his exit velocity (93.9 mph) and his hard-hit rate (41.1 percent) were in tip-top shape. His real struggle was adjusting to teams treating him like a dangerous hitter. He saw more breaking balls, and too many of his swings against them hit only air. And while he's not a dead pull hitter, he's an obvious shift candidate who had trouble beating the shift.
Morales struggled with consistency, but not as much with power. His raw power was in fine shape, averaging 96.4 mph on fly balls and line drives. That isn't Pedro Alvarez-level awesome, but it's still markedly better than the MLB average of 92.2 mph. Meanwhile, Morales' average launch angle went up from 11.1 to 12.3 degrees. One thing holding him back was Kauffman Stadium, where deep fly balls and line drives go to die. Another was his legs, as he's not one to stretch a single into a double. Speaking of which...
If Morales ever finds himself in a footrace against a glacier, take the glacier to win. He might be the slowest runner in MLB. He's a station-to-station runner all the way, taking the extra base on hits just 23 percent of the time and nabbing only five other bases on non-hits.
Morales was mostly good after a slow start in April and May, mainly by clobbering the ball en route to more power than he featured in 2015. On the whole, though, he wasn't the same kind of difference-maker that he was in 2015.
3. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
G: 152 PA: 650 AVG/OBP/SLUG: .268/.323/.457 HR: 31 SB: 4
Albert Pujols didn't need to change much to be more consistent than he was in 2015. He's been a good contact hitter his whole career. This year, he simply made better contact with 92.5 mph exit velocity, mostly by making sure mistake pitches didn't go unpunished. But this is still not the Pujols of old. A pull tendency that didn't hurt him before continues to be a problem in the age of shifts. In related news, Pujols once again lost his ability to hit pitches away from him.
Pujols didn't make it to 40 home runs again, but his raw power was actually better this year, with his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives going from 93.6 to 94.6 mph. He can do enough damage with that and his pull habit alone, so it's not that big a deal that his average launch angle was down slightly from 2015. There is one nit to pick, though: Home run power is all Pujols has. With 19 doubles and no triples, anything not over the fence tended to be a single or an out.
The 36-year-old Pujols isn't completely immobile just yet. He stole his four bases in four tries, proving he can still show up pitchers who don't pay attention to him. He also nabbed 21 extra bases on non-hits. But with a career-low rate of 18 percent extra bases taken on hits and eight outs run into, his legs can't always cash the checks his mind writes.
Pujols is still a solid hitter who can make contact and make loud contact against mistake pitches. If you miss the days when he was so much more than that, the only guys who can help are named Doc and McFly.
2. Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers
G: 154 PA: 610 AVG/OBP/SLUG: .289/.351/.477 HR: 27 SB: 0
Victor Martinez's big struggle in the wake of left knee surgery last year was hitting the ball hard from the left side of the plate. That problem was corrected in a big way in 2016, and the overall quality of his contact followed suit. Between that and how often he puts the ball in play, the dude can hit. The cracks of age are showing, though. Martinez's formerly elite ability to make contact outside the strike zone diminished, as his 75.1 outside-the-zone contact percentage was well short of his 88.1 peak from 2014. And after getting around it in his magical 2014 season, he continues to struggle against the shift.
Just as Martinez's overall contact improved, his raw power improved as well. He averaged 94.0 mph on fly balls and line drives, way up from his injury-marred 90.7 mph in 2015. That's enough to make up for the fact that, although still good, he couldn't match the launch angle he had in 2015. One thing holding him back was the fact he's not strictly a pull-power hitter from the left side. He'll launch balls to center and left-center, too, a bad place to aim at Comerica Park. And like with Pujols, the fact that he hit only 22 doubles to go with his 27 homers is a reminder he can't leg out doubles.
Surprise! A 37-year-old former catcher with a history of leg injuries doesn't run well. Case in point, Martinez took the extra base on hits just 7 percent of the time. He went first to third and second to home only twice each all season. He also ran into five outs. Basically, nothing to see here.
Despite some cracks appearing in his game, Martinez was healthy and mostly back to hitting the way we know he can hit in 2016. He's not a great player, but he's certainly a great hitter.
1. David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
G: 151 PA: 626 AVG/OBP/SLUG: .315/.401/.620 HR: 38 SB: 2
For David Ortiz, it's simple: swing at good pitches, make contact with them and blast them to utter smithereens. He excelled at all three things in 2016, forcing teams to get creative with how to beat him. One trick was to throw him more fastballs, which sort of worked. His exit velocity against heat declined as the year moved along. Shifting on him also sort of worked, as he was only an average-ish hitter against the shift. But in general, there's nothing misleading about Ortiz's slash line. Everyone thinks of him as a slugger first and foremost, but he's a great hitter, too.
Behold the best power hitter in the league. His 38 homers may not have topped everyone else, but those and his league-leading 48 doubles amount to many extra-base hits. He earned those by destroying balls in the air, averaging 97.3 mph on fly balls and line drives. He also had the launch angle (15.5 degrees) and the pull habit to make the most of all that raw power.
Ortiz went 2-for-2 stealing bases because he twice got confident and decided to troll the opposition. It certainly wasn't because he's fast. Otherwise, he'd have taken the extra base on hits more than 16 percent of the time and not run into seven outs.
As jarring as it is, the gap between Big Papi and the other top DHs of 2016 really is that big. He's one of the best hitters in the league, period. He's also the best power hitter in the league, period. Hell of a way to go out.