2015 Positional Power Rankings: Designated Hitter

What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data below 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.

Yes, we know WAR is imperfect and there is more to player value than is wrapped up in that single projection, but for the purposes of talking about a team’s strengths and weaknesses, it is a useful tool. Also, the author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.

Last week, Craig Edwards detailed the death of the long man. Another position that has been dying a slow death is the designated hitter as we know it. Many teams just rotate people through the spot these days. Last season, American League teams started an average of 10.9 players at designated hitter. Just six of the 15 teams were in the single digits, and only the Tigers started fewer than five DHs. Enough of the eulogy, let’s get to 2015:


This year, you probably won’t be surprised by the teams at the top of this ranking, but there are a couple of teams that play in hitter-friendly ballparks which occupy the bottom of these rankings, and while that may not be entirely surprising, it is most certainly disappointing. In between, there is a pretty clear line between the have’s and have nots, with eight teams garnering no better than 1 WAR here, and one team getting a big, fat zero. Yalla, let’s get started!

#1 Blue Jays

Edwin Encarnacion   490 .268 .357 .512 .376 22.1 -0.2 0.0 2.8
Dioner Navarro 105 .264 .315 .398 .314 -0.3 -0.3 0.0 0.0
Russell Martin 70 .239 .338 .404 .331 0.7 -0.2 0.0 0.1
Danny Valencia 35 .246 .283 .402 .301 -0.5 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .264 .345 .478 .359 22.1 -0.8 0.0 2.9

This is about as effective of a quartet as you can have. After three straight years with a wRC+ between 144 and 150, Edwin Encarnacion has proven one of the best hitters in the game, and is on the short list for the safest hitters in the game. He split time between first base and DH last season, but Toronto wants him to be at DH more often this season, as it will help him deal with his various ailments (like his currently aching back).

When he’s not DHing, this may be Dioner Navarro’s best chance to showcase himself for a shot with another team that he so desperately wants. Russell Martin will also get some reps here to rest his legs, and he won’t embarrass himself. And Danny Valencia could actually end up with better production than what is listed above, as he probably would only get the chance to DH against lefties, as Valencia still maintains a pretty extreme platoon splits (138 wRC+ vs. lefties, 65 vs. righties).

#2 Red Sox

David Ortiz   595 .277 .363 .509 .370 23.4 -4.1 0.0 2.6
Allen Craig 105 .267 .324 .418 .328 0.7 -0.4 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .275 .357 .495 .364 24.2 -4.5 0.0 2.7

Though he’s just a year shy of turning 40, David Ortiz is still going strong. There has been some scuttlebutt this spring about Ortiz’s absence, but then Ortiz news sells newspapers, and it doesn’t seem like much of an issue. And his projections don’t seem concerned about his advancing age, as he is pegged to do just about the same stuff as he was a year ago. He is even expected to get a little batting average bump after he posted his lowest batting average on balls in play in a Red Sox uniform. That remains to be seen — Ortiz is one of the guys who is heavily shifted against.

One thing that should help Ortiz this season is that the team has a legit cushion for him in Allen Craig. That is, if the team doesn’t trade him first. Well, even if they do trade him, someone productive would likely slip into the bench DH role, most likely Daniel Nava or Shane Victorino. Both are close to Craig’s projected .328 wOBA (Nava at .322, Victorino at .318). As we’ll see lower in the list, this gives the Sox multiple potential backups who are projected to be better than other team’s starters.

#3 Tigers

Victor Martinez   392 .306 .368 .479 .364 14.3 -2.5 0.0 1.6
J.D. Martinez 133 .278 .325 .473 .348 3.2 -0.3 0.0 0.4
Miguel Cabrera   77 .312 .386 .544 .399 4.9 -0.3 0.0 0.6
Steven Moya 70 .233 .261 .415 .294 -1.2 0.0 0.0 -0.1
Nick Castellanos 28 .272 .320 .428 .328 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .292 .349 .476 .356 21.5 -3.1 0.0 2.6

The Tigers’ hitting talent is concentrated in a few players. Fortunately for this list, most of those players pop up as potential DHs. Tigers fans are likely hoping that J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera don’t need to collectively log 200+ PAs at DH, because it will mean that Victor Martinez is on the shelf. Between the knee injury and the simple regression that comes after a dominant season, the elder Martinez is unlikely to be the hitter he was last season, but he is still forecast to have a commendable campaign.

One name to keep an eye on is Stephen Moya. The number-two ranked prospect in the Detroit system has plate discipline issues (and that’s being kind) but may also have the potential to rake at the big league level. Moya probably won’t get his shot right away — if Victor Martinez misses extensive time in the first half, it would probably be J.D. Martinez filling in at DH — but if a need arises later in the year, Moya might get his chance to mash.

#4 White Sox

Adam LaRoche   280 .239 .338 .448 .343 5.4 -0.9 0.0 0.7
Jose Abreu 252 .292 .369 .549 .395 14.9 -0.6 0.0 1.8
Avisail Garcia 63 .267 .308 .419 .320 0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Matt Davidson 56 .212 .281 .377 .292 -1.1 0.0 0.0 -0.1
Conor Gillaspie 49 .256 .316 .395 .313 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .260 .341 .472 .354 19.0 -1.6 0.0 2.5

Here we have our first ranking which may be misleading. While Adam LaRoche is set to be the primary DH, most of the positive projection here comes from his backup, Jose Abreu. If the White Sox manage the pair similar to how the Blue Jays managed Encarnacion and Adam Lind the past three seasons, then this projection will look spot on.

Certainly there is logic behind such an arrangement, as LaRoche will likely prove a better asset in the field than Abreu. But we’ve seen players like Manny Ramirez and Chipper Jones claim that they’re more comfortable at the dish when they are playing their preferred defensive position, and if there is a player who is likely to get such treatment on the White Sox it’s Abreu. So we’ll see. For now, we’re being conservative and giving both LaRoche and Abreu a healthy dose of time at each spot.

If all goes to plan, the other three players below them here won’t log any DH time unless LaRoche needs a day off against a lefty. In that case, Avisal Garcia or Matt Davidson may be the better bet, with Conor Gillaspie being around more for in case of injury. Not necessarily LaRoche’s injury, as LaRoche is generally pretty reliable for 140+ games a season (he has hit that mark in eight of the last 10 seasons, and in one of the other two seasons he amassed 136) but rather Abreu.

#5 Astros

Evan Gattis 350 .245 .296 .462 .330 4.5 -0.5 0.0 0.7
Chris Carter 350 .225 .313 .460 .339 6.9 -0.3 0.0 1.0
Total 700 .236 .305 .461 .334 11.4 -0.8 0.0 1.7

Evan Gattis and Chris Carter profile so similarly that they remind me of these brothers from another mother:

bertier and campbell

Sure, sure, Gattis doesn’t walk or strike out as often as does Carter, but their end results have been and are expected to be very similar:

Chris Carter – Evan Gattis Comparison
Player 14 wOBA 14 triple slash 15 wOBA 15 triple slash Career wRC+ vs LHP Career wRC+ vs RHP
Chris Carter 0.346 .227/.308/.491 0.339 .225/.315/.460 120 111
Evan Gattis 0.352 .263/.317/.493 0.330 .245/.296/.462 138 111

Pretty close, and now the Astros have both of them. If there’s any potential hiccup here, it’s that they’re both right-handed hitters, so their platoon will likely depend on the team’s needs at their other positions. That’s because, as you can see in the table above, even their splits paint them as pretty similar players, so you can’t really platoon them based on those.

#6 Mariners

Nelson Cruz 539 .250 .309 .457 .334 10.2 -1.8 0.0 1.4
Justin Ruggiano 49 .237 .300 .386 .306 -0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Seth Smith 35 .247 .330 .400 .323 0.4 0.0 0.0 0.1
Jesus Montero 28 .249 .297 .404 .307 -0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Rickie Weeks 28 .224 .309 .362 .302 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Kyle Seager 14 .262 .328 .431 .335 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Robinson Cano 7 .296 .361 .455 .353 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .248 .310 .443 .329 10.8 -2.0 0.0 1.5

It’s here where we first encounter an American League team behind a National League team on the actual DH depth charts page. Two, actually — the Brewers and Reds. This happens despite the fact that we allocated 400 fewer PA for NL DHs (for NL teams we treat the position as a hybrid DH/pinch hitter role). This is also the first team where we find one player dominating the role, and then a bunch of other good players cycled through to keep their legs fresh. That may be how the Tigers’ DH situation plays out, but the bet is that if he’s truly healthy, Victor Martinez nets another 600 PA. We’ll see.

Getting back to Seattle, they signed Nelson Cruz a year after we thought they would, and as such are probably in for a normal Nelson Cruz season and not that really cool Nelson Cruz season that he had in 2014. Which would be a shame, since they just signed him to a four-year contract and all. Still, you could do worse than a normal Nelson Cruz season, and though the other players here don’t have enough PA to amount to anything WAR-wise, they’re also not dragging down the overall projection. So, they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.

#7 Indians

Nick Swisher   336 .231 .317 .384 .313 0.8 -0.7 0.0 0.3
Brandon Moss 147 .242 .325 .479 .351 4.7 0.0 0.0 0.6
Carlos Santana 133 .247 .365 .437 .355 4.7 -0.4 0.0 0.6
Ryan Raburn 49 .223 .280 .372 .289 -0.8 0.0 0.0 0.0
Zach Walters   35 .234 .270 .449 .313 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .236 .323 .416 .327 9.5 -1.1 0.0 1.5

If there’s a player in this post who is in dire need of a bounceback season, it’s Nick Swisher, aka the patron saint of Bro-hio:

Cleveland Indians Nick Swisher Brohio

Of course, Swisher isn’t going to be ready for Opening Day, and while manager Terry Francona is saying all the right things, double knee surgery is double knee surgery. Most likely because of his knee(s) trouble, Swisher’s 2014 campaign was mostly a disaster. If there’s any good news to be gleaned from it, it’s that Swisher still saw plenty of pitches — his 4.15 pitches per plate appearance was right at his career average. Most everything else was bad, though hopefully that can be attributed to his knee pain. I know I have trouble doing stuff when my knees hurt.

In any case, until he gets back, expect Brandon Moss to get most of the reps. Moss himself has battled a hip ailment recently, and so the DH spot makes sense for him too. Because Moss was not terrible last season, he has a more robust projection than does Swisher, though his lack of playing time as a DH in our current projections keeps the Indians in the middle of the pack. Carlos Santana figures to get some DH at-bats when he needs a breather from the field, and that is helpful here as well.

#8 Athletics

Billy Butler 525 .272 .342 .408 .330 8.2 -3.8 0.0 0.9
Mark Canha 105 .239 .307 .376 .305 -0.4 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Ike Davis 35 .228 .332 .402 .326 0.4 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Nate Freiman   35 .239 .298 .398 .307 -0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .264 .334 .402 .325 8.2 -4.1 0.0 1.0

It’s at this point where things really begin to fall apart. The Billy Butler deal might not have been totally crazy, and may even make perfect sense, but a whole season of Butler still doesn’t project to be worth much. And here we don’t even get that full season, as we have him slated to play a portion of his season at first base, as that is a thing that generally happens each season.

When Butler is at first or maybe shooting a BBQ sauce commercial (seriously he has his own BBQ sauce), Rule 5 pick Mark Canha figures to get some run. If you purchased FanGraphs+, you’ll see when you click on Canha’s name an endorsement of his swing from our resident swing guru Dan Farnsworth, so that is an encouraging sign. Also encouraging is that he essentially has a league average offensive projection (97 wRC+) despite never having played in the majors before. And maybe Davis and Freiman will filter through here as well. Not bad, not great. It might be that kind of year for the Athletics.

#9 Orioles

Delmon Young 245 .261 .299 .403 .310 -1.2 -0.5 0.0 0.0
Steve Pearce 105 .266 .346 .471 .358 3.4 0.0 0.0 0.5
Chris Davis   105 .241 .325 .485 .350 2.7 0.0 0.0 0.4
Matt Wieters   70 .249 .311 .423 .322 0.3 -0.2 0.0 0.1
Travis Snider 70 .251 .320 .428 .329 0.7 0.0 0.0 0.1
Christian Walker 70 .247 .297 .403 .309 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Steve Clevenger 35 .249 .303 .349 .291 -0.7 0.0 0.0 -0.1
Total 700 .255 .313 .426 .325 4.8 -0.8 0.0 1.0

Steve Pearce is going to float around, like a more burly version of Ben Zobrist. There has even been talk of him giving him action at third base, which he played as recently as 2012 in Triple-A:

It hasn’t happened yet this spring, but there’s still time. This is a long way of saying that while he’ll spend plenty of time at DH, there will be other players who see the light of day in the hitting-only role. Chief among them will be Delmon Young, who is expected to get more run this season after his productive 2014. Davis will also get time at DH, as he needs somewhere to hit when Pearce is manning first base.

If any of these players struggles, one player who could get his chance to shine is Christian Walker. Walker held his own in his first taste of Triple-A last season (109 wRC+), and if he can master it the way he mastered Double-A last season (144 wRC+) he’ll have nowhere to go but to Baltimore.

#10 Rays

John Jaso 210 .249 .338 .387 .325 3.0 -0.3 0.0 0.5
David DeJesus 210 .236 .318 .362 .306 0.0 -0.5 0.0 0.1
Brandon Guyer   140 .253 .313 .372 .306 0.0 0.4 0.0 0.2
Steven Souza   70 .237 .308 .408 .316 0.6 0.0 0.0 0.1
Desmond Jennings 70 .242 .318 .380 .312 0.3 0.3 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .244 .322 .378 .313 4.0 0.0 0.0 1.0

If John Jaso seemed like a human pincushion as a catcher, well perhaps it’s because he was. Last season, he dealt with elbow, back and knee ailments before having his season ended by a concussion. So, it should come as no surprise that he has left catching behind. Of course, this being the Rays, he’s also going to have to learn some new defensive positions. Right now, the focus is on left field, but given time I’m sure the Rays will cook up somewhere else for him to play.

While Jaso is off exploring the vast areas of the baseball field in front of home plate, other players will rotate through. Right now, the chief candidates are David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer. They will actually field a nice little mini-platoon. It was nice to see Guyer have some success last season, as he was seemingly becoming the baseball version of the boy who cried wolf. He doesn’t really do anything well, but he does a lot of things decently, and that is exactly what you want in a utility player. DeJesus, well he just keeps quietly cranking out above-average seasons against righties (between 16 and 37 percent better than average against righties for seven straight seasons). His skill set is limited, especially now that his defense isn’t the caliber it used to be, but the Rays manage to get the most out of it.

Hopefully Steven Souza is everything he is cracked up to be, but even with him rotating in, the success or failure of this unit will depend on Jaso’s health, and manager Kevin Cash’s ability to put DeJesus and Guyer in position to succeed.

#11 Twins

Kennys Vargas 210 .246 .303 .416 .316 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.2
Josmil Pinto   203 .247 .316 .400 .318 0.6 -0.3 0.0 0.2
Joe Mauer 140 .284 .369 .397 .338 2.5 0.0 0.0 0.4
Trevor Plouffe 77 .251 .317 .418 .324 0.6 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Eduardo Escobar 70 .255 .298 .367 .295 -1.0 0.0 0.0 -0.1
Total 700 .255 .321 .403 .320 3.1 -0.4 0.0 0.8

If you want to dream on someone in this post having a breakout season, you could do worse than Kennys Vargas. Last August, he came up in August and bashed four homers to go with a .309/.336/.463 line in his first month as a major leaguer. It was fueled by an unsustainable .400 batting average on balls in play, but his September was also dragged down by an unsustainable .258 BABIP. In the minors, Vargas averaged a .338 BABIP, including marks of .304 and .303 at High-A and Double-A, so the truth of his first two big league months lies somewhere in the middle. What isn’t in doubt is Vargas’ power. Only 39 players hit more no doubt homers than did Vargas, and most of them played more than two months of the season, and according to Baseball Heat Maps, his fly ball and home run distance was essentially identical to Mike Trout and Marcell Ozuna, two players who are familiar with hitting home runs.

Vargas also has plenty of flaws, most notably his plate discipline, and that is the main reason the Twins find themselves so low in this ranking. In fact, they’d be even lower if not for Joe Mauer’s projected time here. But in him and Josmil Pinto, the Twins have three at least decent options. Twins fans will hope for more.

#12 Angels

C.J. Cron 315 .248 .285 .408 .305 -0.3 -0.7 0.0 0.1
Matt Joyce 175 .242 .330 .400 .324 2.4 0.1 0.0 0.4
Albert Pujols 105 .271 .328 .470 .344 3.0 -0.5 0.0 0.4
Efren Navarro 35 .241 .297 .332 .281 -0.7 0.0 0.0 0.0
Josh Hamilton   35 .250 .311 .421 .319 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.1
Taylor Featherston 35 .215 .259 .325 .260 -1.2 0.0 0.0 -0.1
Total 700 .248 .303 .408 .313 3.5 -1.1 0.0 0.8

The fate of the Angels’ DH’s is linked to the fate of what happens in left field with Josh Hamilton. C.J. Cron will get his share of time there, but the forecasts for him are modest. This is less than encouraging, considering his debut was modest in itself. He hit 13 percent better than league average, but he still ended up with a sub-replacement level WAR. The league looked like it figured him out in the second half, as his performance dropped off a great deal. He did have wrist problems in September, but Cron hit poorly in July and August as well in limited action. Perhaps that limited action was itself an issue, as it’s hard to develop a rhythm when you play irregularly. But the bottom line is that Cron swings at everything, and he will need to pick his spots better in the future. Of the 311 players who compiled at least 250 plate appearances last season, only seven swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than did Cron. So hopefully for the Angels’ sake, Matt Joyce — who is complicated in his own right — doesn’t need to spend the whole season covering left field.

Albert Pujols will see some time at DH, but that is likely to be a zero-sum game for the Angels, as when he’s DHing, Cron will likely be at first base.

#13 Royals

Kendrys Morales 490 .262 .317 .418 .323 3.1 -2.1 0.0 0.5
Alex Rios   175 .273 .308 .407 .313 -0.2 0.2 0.0 0.1
Salvador Perez 35 .276 .308 .423 .320 0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .265 .314 .416 .320 3.0 -2.0 0.0 0.7

After the fiasco that was Morales’ 2014 season, I thought there was a chance that he might have to settle for another one-year deal. Nope. He in essence received a three-year contract from the Royals. We’re now five seasons removed from his 30-homer season of 2009, and as such his projections are modest. The Royals are essentially betting that the real Kendrys Morales hasn’t stood up in awhile, and that bet faces some long odds. He has hit well this spring, though I’d be more encouraged if he was hitting homers off of dudes like Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto and Corey Kluber instead of dudes like Colby Lewis, Kraig Sitton and Atahualpa Severino.

Alex Rios will pop in to DH when Jarrod Dyson starts, pushing Lorenzo Cain to right field and Rios to the bench, either as the DH or to the actual bench. There’s a pretty good argument that Dyson playing full time and Morales and Rios splitting DH duties only is the best alignment for the Royals, but that’s probably not how things will shake out.

#14 Yankees

Alex Rodriguez 329 .231 .311 .386 .310 -1.7 -0.9 0.0 0.0
Carlos Beltran 175 .256 .316 .434 .329 1.6 -0.5 0.0 0.3
Garrett Jones 105 .245 .304 .447 .328 0.9 -0.3 0.0 0.1
Mark Teixeira 70 .229 .319 .422 .328 0.6 -0.2 0.0 0.1
Chris Young 21 .226 .304 .402 .312 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .239 .312 .411 .319 1.2 -1.8 0.0 0.5

With apologies to DJ Kay Slay, Alex Rodriguez is the real drama king. Rodriguez is going to need to hit like he used to if the Yankees are going to be successful this season, but after a year off, the projections aren’t betting on any type of rebound. They are just a guess at this point, as there is probably no harder player to accurately forecast this season. He’ll have help at DH of course, but the sum will be lacking if the real drama king can’t deliver.

#15 Rangers

Mitch Moreland 420 .246 .305 .409 .314 -2.5 -0.7 0.0 0.0
Ryan Rua 140 .240 .292 .378 .298 -2.5 0.0 0.0 -0.2
Kyle Blanks   70 .248 .317 .435 .331 0.5 0.0 0.0 0.1
Shin-Soo Choo   35 .262 .370 .409 .349 0.7 0.0 0.0 0.1
Ryan Ludwick 35 .237 .297 .376 .299 -0.6 -0.1 0.0 -0.1
Total 700 .245 .306 .404 .313 -4.3 -0.8 0.0 0.0

We began the post by talking about how the DH is dying, and never is that more true than with the Rangers. Last year, an AL-leading 18 players started at DH for Texas. EIGHTEEN! And 10 of them logged at least four starts. In a just world, Kyle Blanks would be completely healthy and finally get the chance to go all Steve Pearce on the league. But he dealt with injury problems again this spring — this time it was the achilles — and was sent down to minor league camp earlier this week. This leaves primarily Mitch Moreland and Ryan Rua. The former, Moreland, is probably amazed he keeps hanging onto a major league job, especially after posting a .102 ISO last season. Rua is nominally interesting as a fringe prospect, but he may actually end up playing left field more than DH. That leaves us with, well, that leaves us with a goose egg. Yamahama, it’s fright night!

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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8 years ago

The random DJ KaySlay namedrop was perfect.