Booms and busts: designated hitter
By Jay Jaffe
Over the past two weeks, I’ve introduced a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for players I expect to break out (“Booms”) or decline (“Busts”) in 2013. As I’ve noted each time around, I don’t have hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, and I won’t promise that a player’s OPS will spike and help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, that he will wind up below the Mendoza Line or go on to lose his job. In fact, these aren’t particularly fantasy-targeted assessments because I don’t think about RBI totals or batting average very often.
These are established players whom I’ve studied and have reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury and entry into or exit from the prime age range of 26-29 may all come into play. If you’ve missed any of the positions thus far, you can catch up here.
As I noted last summer, while the production from the position has remained fairly level, teams have become less reliant on a single hitter to fill the DH slot. Last year, DHs hit for a collective .271 True Average, down five points from 2011 but just two points below the five-year rolling average. More notably, Billy Butler was the only DH with at least 500 plate appearances at the position, while Delmon Young and Adam Dunn were the only others with more than 400 in that spot; the latter had 401 there. David Ortiz was on pace for another 500-PA season when his Achilles problems knocked him out of action for most of the second half. Aside from Ortiz, Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez, no team is paying its DH $10 million or more per year. Instead, teams appear to be using more platoons or rotations at the position to spread the playing time around and give players more half days of rest. Given that, I’m covering fewer players here than in any of the previous batches; the players here are listed alphabetically within each category.
Travis Hafner, Yankees: Once upon a time, Hafner ranked among the game’s most dangerous hitters, but injuries — shoulder, foot, abdomen, knee, back — have taken a huge bite out of his last five seasons, limiting him to an average of 86 games, 342 plate appearances and 12 home runs. Last year, he missed time due to in-season knee surgery and a bulging disc in his lower back, played in just 66 games and hit .228/.346/.438 with 12 homers in 263 plate appearances, only 26 of which were after July 31. The Yankees signed the 35-year-old slugger (36 on June 3) to a one-year deal with a $2 million base salary plus incentives, with plans for him to serve as their DH against right-handers, against whom he has hit .278/.385/.470 in 802 plate appearances over the last three years.
The combination of a lighter workload, avoidance of southpaws (against whom he’s hit .240/.302/.388 in 291 PA over the last three years) and the lefty-favoring dimensions of Yankee Stadium should work to Hafner’s advantage. If he doesn’t get hurt — a big if, admittedly — he should put up attractive rate stats across a 300-400 PA sample and easily be worth the money the Yanks are paying.
Kendrys Morales, Mariners: After missing most of 2010 and all of 2011 due to a freak fibula fracture, Morales finally swung back into action last year and hit 22 homers in 522 plate appearances, and while his slash line (.273/.320/.467) doesn’t scan as particularly impressive, he showed significantly more power and somewhat more patience during the second half of the season. In all, his numbers were good for a .298 True Average in Anaheim’s pitcher-friendly environment. Morales isn’t exactly catching a break by moving to Safeco Field, but his lifetime line there (.292/.346/.558 with seven homers in 130 PA) does provide a superficial reason for small sample-based optimism.
More importantly, the change in Safeco’s dimensions should make life easier for the 29-year-old switch-hitter when he’s swinging from the left side, which he’ll do most of the time due to his weakness against southpaws (.250/.286/.416 career); roughly 78 percent of his career PA are against righties. The Mariners apparently plan to give Jesus Montero a long look behind the plate, at least early in the year before top prospect Mike Zunino is ready, which will send the bulk of the DH time Morales’ way in the meantime. Assuming Zunino does arrive on schedule, Morales will have to battle first baseman Justin Smoak for playing time — and I’ve already filed my position paper on Smoak’s futility.
Luke Scott, Rays: Like Hafner, Scott is a lefty in his mid-30s who can’t hit southpaws and has recently missed considerable time due to injuries. More specifically, he’s a 34-year-old (35 on June 25) with a lifetime .226/.303/.439 line against lefties (.193/.257/.408 in 249 PA over the last three years, propped up by a big 2010) who hit just .229/.285/.439 with 14 homers in 344 PA last year while missing seven weeks with back and oblique injuries, that after being limited to 236 PA in 2011 due to a torn right labrum that required surgery. Amid his injuries, he’s been worth just 0.1 WARP with a .259 True Average over the past two seasons, the latter well below his .291 mark from 2005-2010.
So why do I have the oft-injured Hafner as a Boom and Scott as a Bust, even given the likelihood that both will be platooned? Unlike Pronk, Scott neither has a history of elite production (as far-removed as it may be) nor a favorable home ballpark to boost his production. Where Yankee Stadium has three-year park factors for left-handed hitters of 103 for batting average and 153 for home runs —at least according to The Bill James Handbook 2013 — Tropicana Field is at 91 for average and 86 for home runs, which makes it even less favorable than it is for righties (95 for average, 91 for home runs). Given that, I’m just not optimistic that Scott is much help to the Rays, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they stumble across an in-season upgrade if he gets off to another slow start.
David Ortiz, Red Sox: I’m honestly torn as to which way this one could go, but as Big Papi has been in the news lately, he’s worth discussing here. Last year, Ortiz was easily the game’s most potent DH — when he was available. He hit .318/.415/.611 with 23 homers in 383 plate appearances, numbers in the vicinity of his 2006-2007 peak, but only four of those came after July 16 due to a strained Achilles tendon in his right foot. With the Sox season going nowhere and free agency approaching, there was no reason for him to push himself any harder. The team re-signed him to a two-year, $26 million deal, one that’s reasonable given that he’s averaged 2.9 Wins Above Replacement Player over the past three years even while remaking his approach to cut his strikeout rate. It was at 18.8 percent for his career through 2010 and had crept to 22.6 percent over the 2009-2010 span but has dipped to 13.6 percent in the past two seasons while his batting average on balls in play has stayed 10-15 points above his career .304 mark.
That’s all good news, but the problem is that according to an MRI taken on Sunday, Ortiz is dealing with inflammation in both feet, though his right Achilles itself is sound. He’ll be shut down for at least a week while taking anti-inflammatories, a lag which could affect his availability for Opening Day. Given his age (37) and history, I can’t see him maintaining last year’s torrid pace across 600 plate appearances, but even 500 at his 2010-2012 level (.296/.391/.558) will still probably be enough to place him among the position’s elite.