Note: Due to an unfortunate data error, the numbers in this story did not include park factors upon publication. We have updated the data to include the park factors, and the data you see below is now correct. We apologize for the mistake.
For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. The data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.
Update: Boy! What a difference park factors make! In the original iteration of this article — the one where we thought the park factors were park factoring, but they weren’t — the distribution of DH talent appeared skewed left. Now, not only have the teams shifted closer together, but teams from hitter-friendly parks — such as the Yankees and White Sox — have slunk to the rear while those in pitcher havens — the Mariners and Rays — have edged to more prominent slots.
Because I attempted to weave together these rankings into a grander sort of narrative, much of my original text requires revision. I am happy to report, however, the majority of my in-post complaining about the rankings became validated by the fixed park factors. However, in lieu of covering this article with strike-throughs, I am going to just update the test (as minimally as possible) to reflect the updated rankings.
Originalish post: These rankings are fun. They do not affect the results on the field or the players ranked in them or the GMs glowering over the players. But we are inexorably drawn to these sorts of rankings. With egos invested into our teams, rankings give us pre-season bragging rights or grinding axes.
In all this fun, however, it is important to remember the function of our list. As we are wont to do at FanGraphs, we have attempted to make our lists in the most clinical, mathematical and unbiased ways as possible. Whereas many MLB power rankings are based on gut judgements or broad, basic analyses, we have computed a scientific power ranking system that requires human input only when it is an improvement over an algorithm.
This means, however, the space between each team is discrete. The distance between No. 1 and No. 2 is much greater than, as you will see, between No. 13 and No. 14:
Two are clustered near the top, others are rounding errors apart, and two teams appear clustered near the bottom. But an ordinal ranking does not represent that accurately.
And even despite our best utilization of projection systems and playing time predictions, the season is unpredictable. Not just hard to predict, but unpredictable. If it weren’t, who would watch it? But as of now, as of our best playing time estimations, as of the best projection systems, this is how the DH world settles. This is how the big and sluggerish stand.
Without further ado, I present the Slow and Sluggering Show:
#1 Red Sox
It is hard to expect 600 or more plate appearances from David Ortiz. He will be 37 in the 2013 season and had an injury-clipped 2012 campaign, but all the same, his bat could not appear any younger. In 2011 at age 35, he seemingly reinvented his approach, cutting his strikeout rate beneath a 14% K-rate for the first time in his career. And then in 2012, through 383 PA, he mustered another sub-14% K-rate and struck out less than he walked for only the third time in his career.
When talking DH, the conversation is Ortiz and the field. His proven, steady productivity puts the Red Sox on a special tier. And if he struggles again with health, his backup should be Mike Napoli, who swings a bat of no little renown either, and Jonny Gomes, who abuses lefties and isn’t the worst against righties.
All told, it makes the best DH combo in the league, but by a small margin.
The Royals rank No. 2 here, and here we also conclude our first cluster. Both Kansas City and the Red Sox feature enviable DH situations. On the merit of Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler’s durability, the Big KC earns a better projection than the otherwise impressive Rangers DH situation. Butler has averaged more than 670 PA during the last four seasons (and 600 PA as a DH over the last two seasons). Entering his physical peak (age-27 season), he should continue the same.
Butler had a filthy .373 OBP and .510 SLG, good for 140 wRC+ in 2012, but the duo of Steamer and ZiPS sees him regressing to a .369 OBP and .484 SLG. Behind the Great Morning Meal, the Royals do not have obvious DH types. The dropoff here could be much greater than in Texas, but it is nonetheless dandy to have a catcher in Salvador Perez who enters the season with a career 119 wRC+ and who could benefit from a few DH days to keep his catcher parts fresh. When Perez takes a spin at DH on days Butler is at first or taking a breather, the change in offense production should be neatly, though not perfectly, contained. The projection systems also forecast a solid season for Eric Hosmer, which could mitigate potential production losses if Butler succumbs to the unforeseen.
On pure hitting talent, I would take Lance Berkman over Billy Butler (career 146 wRC+ versus 121 wRC+). But Berkman is aged, post-injured, and on the aging slope’s slippery side. He also will be paying the DH penalty for the first time since his abbreviated Yankees tenure (where he posted a 91 wRC+ through 123 PA). He clobbered expectations in 2011 with the second-best offensive season of his career (163 wRC+), but projecting him for beyond 500 PA in 2013 requires uncommon faith in his 37-year-old frame.
A.J. Pierzynski, Geovany Soto, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz can and will probably log some DH plate appearances for Texas, but the surest bet behind the freshly-rehabbed, not-young Berkman is fresh and young corner infielder Michael Olt, who should offer, if nothing else, some power. If Texas is feeling frisky, they might summon Jurickson Profar and play Musical DH in an eventual Berkman absence. Either way, the Rangers have a wealth of options that, despite even Berkman’s question-mark-shaped health, puts them in the no man’s land between the top tier and the rounding-error cluster.
“What’s wrong with the Angels?” you ask. I don’t know. I like the Angels. I like Mark Trumbo. In fact, I fully expect Trumbo to manage a wOBA above .345 in his age-27 season. I would not be surprised to see a .325 OBP or higher. I would rank the Angels higher.
But, here’s the deal: I am not an emotionless projection system, hardened into calculated wisdom. I’m a fickle, emotional human thing. I like Trumbo, you might too, but Steamer and ZiPS agree: He’s a touch better than Adam Lind.
And since he possess defensive flexibility (flexibility without acumen, albeit), he will likely spell Albert Pujols, Vernon Wells, and few others. Ceding DH plate appearances to Pujols? Sure. Cool. It only helps. Ceding PAs to Vernon Wells? Not so cool. The net result? Let’s just say: The opportunity cost of rostering Vernon Wells increases; it edges skyward like bubbling Kilauea, biding time, collecting paychecks, steadily not playing great baseball — I’m talking about Vernon Wells, but some of this might apply to Kilauea too. Never been.
The Detroit Tigers have perhaps the most curious DH conundrum. Their ranking, like most any other rankings here, relates directly with the hitter on the top of the depth chart; but unlike the other DH groups, the less of Victor Martinez, the better this group does. Martinez, coming off an entirely lost 2012 campaign, will be 34 in 2013. His offensive projections are solid, if not great.
But his backups? Pitch Killers and Twirl Torturers. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, the most likely to pick up the slack from an injured Martinez, only improve the projected offense for the Tigers DH position. Andy Dirks will probably get some playing time here too, which does not add much in the way thrilling offense, but a long-term injury to Martinez might result in more Fielder and Cabrera.
Without Martinez, the Tigers are a worse team. Nobody in Michigan wants a Martinez injury. But with less Martinez, the DH production improves as playing time cedes to a pair of other-worldly hitters. If Fielders gets 100 or 200 PA here, the Tigers DH slot pushes for No. 4 or No. 3 in this power ranking. Such is the nature of rankings, I guess.
#6 Blue Jays
Adam Lind is not what we think when we think, “Sixth best DH in the league,” and there’s a reason for that: He’s not the 6th best DH in the league. But since he has no business hitting against lefties, and since Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have a multi-million dollar, international, blue-power-suit-wearing business hitting lefties, and since the latter two cannot — by Canadian law — rest against left-handed starting pitchers (especially given the lefty-soaked rotations of the AL East), these gentlemen — Mr. Bautista and Mr. Encarnacion — will elevate the otherwise uninspiring, Lind-led Blue Jays DH position.
Add to this potent duo: Melky Cabrera, upon whom shine the projection systems (oblivious in their digital, cold magnanimity to the implications, the possibilities, the doubts of a failed PED test). Can Melky, entering only his age-28 season, sustain his new BABIP level, begun in 2011, begun before The Failed Tests?
Questions like these and names like “Lind,” help illustrate why, despite ranking just two spots beneath the Rangers, the Blue Jays at No. 6 are further down the list than ordinal ranking suggests.
Kendrys Morales has been a switch hitter in name only throughout his career. Against southpaws, he owns an 84 wRC+, but we would be remiss to note that’s just 392 PA — with a .266 BABIP, which may or may not mean anything. Moreover, his minor league splits never seemed particularly one-sided.
Either way, Morales, Jesus Montero and tumbleweed Raul Ibanez will split the DH role (as Morales will get some playing time at first). ZiPS (.308 wOBA) is the most pessimistic about Montero, but Steamer (.326 wOBA) and the others (all above .333 wOBA) predict a better sophomore campaign for the 23-year-old catcher.
The net result should be about the same as any other team from No. 6 all the way down to No. 12. This whole middle tier is a week of hot or cold BABIP apart. As far as upside goes, though, I would take the Mariners and Morales/Montero
over at least the Yankees and Rays DH situations (well, nevermind).
Do not let the
nearness to superiority of the Yankees fool you: The Rays DH situation is almost certainly worse than the Bombers’. Tampa Bay’s own Injury Gravity Machine never hit like New York’s, and he has already struggled with Spring Training injuries. The Rays, however, do have a better Injured Third Baseman situation. Evan Longoria is healthy and ready to start the season. He figures to get some DH playing time as the team limits Luke Scott’s exposure against lefties and limits Longoria’s innings the field. The Rays have a plethora of infielders who can allow Longo to shift to DH with little lost defensively (and offensively, when Ryan Roberts or Sean Rodriguez replace Scott against lefties).
But if the Rays opt to just fully rest Longoria rather than DH him throughout the season (and who would fault them in preserving their Great Investment?), then Scott’s replacement becomes Shelley Duncan (whom the Rays have given a heavier bat; maybe that means something?) and/or Chris Gimenez (who has not been terrible against lefties in his career; maybe that means something?). The team also likes lefties Stephen Vogt and Leslie Anderson, the latter having impressed in Spring Training, but these are risky options with a capital, bold, 32-point font “R.”
Tropicana Field discourages left-handed HR power. Carlos Pena’s new orange juice home, Minute Maid Park, encourages home runs for lefties. Pena, however, has never been primarily a DH and the transition might, should hurt his numbers. If the Astros swap him and Brett Wallace to keep each a little more fresh, maybe the DH penalty dulls a bit, but DH production likely slips as Wallace’s offense is not quite Pena’s. At least not yet.
Pena enters the 2013 season hoping to rebound from a career-worst, sub-Mendoza, sub-100-wRC+, sub-acceptable offensive season. Steamer and ZiPS expect a rebound from Pena, but at age-35, the slugging first baseman may receive his final regular plate appearances as a member of the Astros — however long that tenure will last.
Chris Carter in left field will likely supply the NotGraphs crew with new, voluptuous GIF opportunities. It makes sense he will thereby get playing time at DH, especially seeing as how Pena never hit lefties well. Nate Freiman, also a righty, is a Rule 5 draft pick who could conceivably turn a few heads with his low-strikeout, high-power approach, but rookies who never reached Triple-A are a tough sell for ZiPS and Steamer.
Considering the Astros front office had to build a DH group from scratch, the team has done quite well for themselves.
Seth Smith will platoon at DH and should fare well, better, perhaps, than the projection systems anticipate. And count me among those (Bill James, Oliver, and fan projections included) who anticipate Josh Reddick’s OBP, BABIP, and, therefore, wOBA to improve in 2013 (though perhaps not to the degree of those more optimistic projection systems).
Yoenis Cespedes, 27, and Reddick, 26, are both young and entering their second full seasons as starters. Smith, 30, is more weathered, but altogether this DH/OF trio is young, exciting, and better positioned than, though mathematically inferior to, more than one of the teams ranked above of them.
Mark Reynolds dropped under 30 home runs in 2012, the first his totals dipped that far since 2008, and his offense as a whole slouched from his previous season’s production. Renyolds posted his first sub-30% strikeout rate, but it came with only a .335 wOBA. Our hybrid projections have him doing little different in 2013.
The Indians also signed roaming late-career ghost-of-a-bat Jason Giambi. I would like to imagine Giambi’s bat would offer more than just a .307 wOBA, but considering he has only one season above 100 wRC+ over the last four years, I must accept this is quite possibly the final stop for the nostalgic slugger.
#12 White Sox
Again, in the White Sox, we have a DH position that I — in my fiery, beating heart — prefer in real life, but in the Projection Systems Life, we must confront Dunn’s increasing strikeout rate, decreasing OBP — his startling 2011 season, his underwhelming 2012 bounce-back (an un-Dunnian 114 wRC+) — the ticking clock of Dunn’s career, the tick tock.
Dunn is 33 with a skillset that ages poorly, and his most likely backup — defensive liability Dayan Viciedo — has yet to prove himself against righties. This is not a bad DH situation for the White Sox, but it is not above the DH crowd.
The Yankees are entering an unlit future, this 2013 season. Every player on the roster is injured, like, twice, and the only healthy person — he’s not healthy — is Travis Hafner — he’s probably been injured by time of publication. The Pronk Fella has not crossed above the 500 PA mark since 2007 — George W. Bush was president; Michael Jackson was alive; it was different era, that 661 PA year.
Despite the steady unhealthiness, Pronkfner can hit. And in New York, he will probably receive a courtesy home run per game (his home, left-handed HR park factor improves 16 points, or about a 32% increase in raw home run likelihood, by joining the Yankees). Behind him, the Yankees will likely roll the dice with recently-acquired Brennan Boesch*. There are worse gambles, but gamble it is nonetheless. And in case of emergency, the Yankees can pour a little Quad-A into the DH cistern. Juan Rivera or Dan Johnson can enter the equation, hit a fastball 10,000 miles, and then record 20 consecutive outs against breaking pitches. Everyone has a talent.
* Since the original publication, the Yankees have revealed intentions to play La Shortstop here, that Derek Jeter guy, but since his projections (.316 wOBA) differ little from Boesch’s (.313 wOBA), forgive me for leaving this lone historical artifact here.
Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez, if he ever plays for the Yankees again, will probably smack of a few homers, but only as many as a possible late-season cameo will allow.
Ryan Doumit has a career .336 wOBA and 106 wRC+. In 2012, catchers — Doumit is sort of a catcher — averaged .312 wOBA and 95 wRC+. Over the last decade, catchers have around a 90 wRC+. For a catcher (or, a “catcher”), Ryan Doumit hits well.
Designated hitters had a .339 wOBA and 114 wRC+ in 2012. They tend to average a bit over 110 wRC+. If Doumit hits to his career numbers, hey!, that’s not bad DH production. In fact, sure, it’s fine, whatever. If he slumps into his less-glowing ZiPS and Steamer projection numbers? Well, as the No. 14 ranking suggests, that’s the good enough for this bottom tier.
If Justin Morneau can have another healthy season, albeit split between first and here at DH, the Twins will profit from it. But given Morneau’s .330 wOBA in 2012, maybe the best of Morneau has already been concussed away, which is a bummer for the Twins and for baseball.
In 2006, Wilson Betemit had 412 PA and hit .336 wOBA and 100 wRC+ with the Braves and Dodgers. That was the most faith any team — or, in this case, two teams — put in Wilson Betemit. The next-most playing time he ever received was with the 2012 Orioles. He got 376 PA and posted a .324 wOBA and 101 wRC+.
Our best guess has Buck Showalter playing Betemit enough to cross the 500 PA milestone for the first time, albeit against righties only. Could this more-steady playing time help him find a rhythm above his career .336 wOBA and 105 wRC+? Maybe, but few projection systems like age-31 Betemit, and they like injury-torn Nolan Reimold — the logical choice for Betemit’s platoon partner — only slightly more.
NOTE: Some have protested the Betemit playing time, and rightfully so. But since our projections have Chris Davis getting ~600 PA at first base, it leaves little flexibility to put him here at DH. This is our best, cumulative guess: Betemit in a platoon, getting regular platoon playing time. As happens, we may be wrong.
ALSO NOTE: Fielding numbers did not factor into the designated hitter WAR calculations. They are shown for reference only.
ALSO ALSO NOTE: Somehow, inexorably, certain readers have used this DH post as a launching point for complaints about the designated hitter rule, as though the uninspiring WAR totals made for a compelling case in favor of watching Matt Garza strike out on three pitches. But the DH position has a vastly different baseline than your typical hitter. Also, because their fielding ability has no contribution outlet, they are limited only to their batting and base-running contributions.
In 2012, DHs added 220.4 hitting runs and -53.8 base-running runs. Pitchers added -792.1 batting and -34.3 base-running runs. WHAT NOW, BRO!?
Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.