Posted June 25, 2012

Is the full-time DH a dinosaur on its way to extinction?

David Ortiz, Designated hitters, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez, Vlad Guerrero

David Ortiz is something increasingly rare in baseball: a full-time DH who is also a premier slugger. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Elsewhere at SI.com today, Ben Reiter noted the Yankees’ success using a rotating cast of players at designated hitter, a development fueled by the injury to Brett Gardner as well as the advanced ages of several of their hitters. All told, their DHs — primarily Alex Rodriguez, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, Derek Jeter and Andruw Jones in terms of their share of playing time — are hitting a combined .294/.367/.502 in that role, producing a higher OPS than any Yankee besides Robinson Cano, and more homers (13) than any Yankee besides Curtis Granderson and Cano. Such an arrangement may be the future of the position, an evolution driven by teams’ increased awareness of advanced metrics and steeper luxury tax penalties created by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Consider the plight of David Ortiz. During a storied Red Sox career that began in 2003, he has been a key component of two world champions and six playoff teams. His 338 homers since 2003 rank fourth in the majors during that span, behind only Albert Pujols (385), Adam Dunn and Rodriguez (343 apiece), while his .571 slugging percentage is second only to Pujols’ .614. Yet the Red Sox have chosen to play hardball with Ortiz at the negotiating table in recent years. Rather than grant him the multi-year extension for which he had repeatedly agitated following a four-year, $52 million deal that ran from 2007-2010, they picked up his 2011 option at $12.5 million, a slight pay cut from his $13 million the year before. This past winter, even with Ortiz coming off his strongest season since 2007, Boston again resisted a long-term entanglement, signing him to a one-year, $14.575 million deal.

The Red Sox are aware that a full-time one-way player such as Ortiz rarely achieves the value of a two-way player. Though his 2011 line (.309/.398/.554) reversed a three-year trend of decline in all three categories, led the club in slugging percentage and ranked second in on-base percentage, Big Papi was worth just 2.7 Wins Above Replacement Player last season. Meanwhile, Jacoby Ellsbury ranked second in the league with 7.4 WARP, with Dustin Pedroia (4.7) and Adrian Gonzalez (4.5) also well ahead of Ortiz, and oft-injured Kevin Youkilis (2.3) not far behind. Throw in the fact that at 35, Ortiz was the oldest of that bunch, and you can understand why the Red Sox would go year-to-year on his contract. Add in the fact that they will have to mind the $189 million luxury tax threshold that kicks in in 2014 and that carries increasingly steep penalties for repeat offenders, and their reluctance to ensure that Ortiz plays out his sunset years in Boston becomes even more clear.

The recent market experiences of accomplished players such as Vladimir Guerrero, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Ibanez suggest that other teams are catching on as well. Upon the expiration of his five-year, $70 million deal with the Angels, Guerrero signed relatively meager one-year deals with the Rangers ($6.5 million base salary for 2010) and Orioles ($8 million for 2011). After his production receded, he was forced to settle for a minor league deal from the Blue Jays this spring, and following an unimpressive minor league showing, he asked for and was granted his release. After Damon’s four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees expired after the 2009 season, he accepted one year deals from Detroit ($8 million) and Tampa Bay ($5.25 million), and after going unsigned this winter, he waited until April to ink a minor league deal with the Indians worth a prorated $1.25 million, not including incentives. Matsui has gone from a four-year, $52 million deal to salaries of $6 million (from the Angels in 2010) and $4.25 million (from Oakland in 2011) to accepting a minor league deal with the Rays in late April. Ibanez went from a three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Phillies to a $1.1 million deal plus incentives with the Yankees — and he’s the only member of this quartet whose 2012 production is anything to write home about.

Meanwhile, the highest-paid players at the position are ones whose contracts either look like mistakes, relics of a bygone era, or at least a different set of circumstances. Last year, seven DHs — defined as players who spent more time at the position than at any other — made at least $9 million in salary. That list included Michael Young ($16 million, bumped off third base by the signing of Adrian Beltre), Jorge Posada ($13.1 million, no longer allowed to catch due to repeated concussions), Travis Hafner ($13 million and increasingly injury prone), Ortiz ($12.5 million), Victor Martinez ($12 million in the first year of a four-year, $52 million deal whose second year is being wiped out by injury), Adam Dunn ($12 million in a historically awful first year of a four-year, $56 million deal) and Bobby Abreu ($9 million). Including their minimal defensive contributions when they played the field, those seven were worth a combined 6.1 WARP, an average of 0.9 per player. Exclude Dunn’s −3.1 WARP and the average shoots up to 1.5, but that’s a horrible return on investment for a group that averaged $12.5 million in salary.

According to the salary data at Baseball Prospectus, a system that classifies players according to their primary position, DHs averaged around $10.7 million per WARP in 2011, 49 percent higher than any other hitting position. They were much more efficient in 2010 ($4.3 million per win) but even so, the cost per win at the position has been the highest in every year since 2006, excluding pitchers:

Year Total WARP $/WARP Comparison
2006 25.3 $3,789,579 28% higher than RF
2007 25.8 $4,997,262 53% higher than LF
2008 17.3 $6,685,151 90% higher than 1B
2009 23.0 $4,162,385 31% higher than RF
2010 21.7 $4,331,875 20% higher than 1B
2011 10.9 $10,698,219 49% higher than 3B

Looking at that table, one might infer that overall DH productivity is on the wane, and may be to blame for receding offensive levels. That’s true, but only to a point. In terms of BP’s True Average (runs per plate appearance adjusted for park and league scoring levels and expressed on a batting average scale, with .300 good, .260 average, .230 replacement level), DHs as a group have combined for TAvs in the .270-280 range every year since interleague play began in 1997, save for two slight deviations of one point apiece:

Year AVG OBP SLG TAv 5-year TAv
1997 .274 .352 .441 .272 .274
1998 .274 .356 .459 .281 .277
1999 .276 .363 .471 .277 .277
2000 .276 .362 .461 .275 .277
2001 .260 .340 .444 .269 .275
2002 .262 .342 .444 .272 .275
2003 .262 .350 .444 .274 .274
2004 .262 .345 .444 .273 .273
2005 .258 .337 .437 .271 .272
2006 .263 .347 .463 .276 .273
2007 .268 .354 .447 .276 .274
2008 .255 .338 .433 .271 .273
2009 .256 .338 .444 .274 .274
2010 .250 .330 .422 .268 .273
2011 .263 .337 .427 .276 .273

Here it’s worth noting that AL DHs have decisively outhit their NL counterparts’ .258 True Average during that span, in part because AL teams do tend to carry an extra above-average hitter while NL teams do not, and in part because the even the best players who do DH for NL clubs are often ones who are nursing minor injuries. The footprint of the NL DHs is so small that it has very little impact on the overall numbers. Anyway, note that while the raw rate stats have declined signfiicantly as overall offensive levels have receded, the True Averages haven’t fluctuated very much at all, and the five-year average has declined from a high of .277 to a low of .272 before rising again to .273 — hardly enough to explain the overall offensive downturn we’ve seen in recent years.

What is true is that fewer teams are relying on just one player to do the job. While the number of players with 500 plate appearances in the DH role in a given season has generally been on the wane, the number of such players at the 300- and 400-PA levels has been on the rise. From 2006-2008, 25 DHs received 300 PA in the role in a given season, 16 drew 400, and 11 reached 500. From 2009-2011, 34 DHs received 300 PA in the role, with 20 at 400, and just nine at 500.

It’s tempting to suggest that trend will only continue, particularly with Ortiz and the Royals’ Billy Butler as the only DHs on pace to top 500 PA in that role this year. The long-term deals of Rodriguez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols will certainly provide for a few pricey immovable objects in that position later in the decade. The bet here is that even with additional television revenue flowing in, those players will be exceptions to the rule in an increasingly rational game.

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