For reasons no one can fathom, you’ve clicked on a post about all the designated hitters in baseball — one of the most absurd installments in our ongoing positional power rankings for 2017. Would you care to read an introduction to the entire series? Dave Cameron has authored one. Would you care to read about other positions? My colleague Sean Dolinar, whatever his many flaws, has created the navigation bar above.
As with the other posts in this series, the current one begins with an illustrative graph:
Here one finds the projected WAR totals for each of the American League’s 15 designated-hitter spots, calculated by combining the Steamer and ZiPS projections hosted at this site with playing-time estimates curated by FanGraphs authors.
Unlike some of the other graphs in this series, this one has been altered slightly to allow for a negative value on the Y axis — in order to accommodate the Chicago White Sox, that is. As the author has noted elsewhere, the White Sox actually rank 30th in the majors on the DH charts before the NL clubs are removed. This isn’t what’s known as an “ideal” state of affairs.
If one is searching for a unifying theme here, I advise you to stop immediately: the relentless human need for patterns and meaning distorts reality! That said, many of the players included here do possess one quality in common, which is that they’re older than the average ballplayer, many of them in their mid-30s.
Those cursory remarks having been made, I invite you to an even longer collection of cursory remarks.
The Toronto Blue Jays appeared at the top of these DH positional rankings in both 2015 and 2016. That’s relevant to the present incarnation of the Indians insofar as Edwin Encarnacion, who was previosly employed by Toronto as their DH, is now a member of the Clevelands, with whom he signed a three-year, $60 million deal this offseason.
Much like a liberal-arts major, Encarnacion dedicated the bulk of his 20s to finding himself. As the table below suggests, that period of introspection appears to have served him well:
Few batters possess the combination of contact skills and power that Encarnacion has exhibited in recent years. Nearly all the ones who do possess it also possess good batting numbers. It’s isn’t all optimism, of course: Encarnacion’s strikeout rate increased by four points between 2015 and -16. That could be a result of variance. It could also be a result of physical decline. The latter explanation becomes more likely as a player ages. At 34, Encarnacion is past what are typically considered the peak years.
Because he’s been both durable and good, it’s unlikely that Encarnacion will lose much time to injury or ineffectiveness. If he does, Carlos Santana is a candidate to slide over from first base. He’s comparable to Encarnacion offensively, with less power but greater patience. Michael Brantley, in his best seasons, would have served as a very good DH. In light of his recent injury history, however, there’s little certainty about his near future as a ballplayer.
There’s a glitch at FanGraphs that affects the “baseball” ages of players who were born on July 1st. Due to the influence of leap day — and also to the manner in which the code is written — these players appear to skip certain years and repeat others. Go ahead, take a look at Nelson Cruz’s player profile. It indicates that he recorded two age-28 seasons and age-32 seasons each — but zero age-27 or age-31 seasons.
This is relevant to Nelson Cruz because everything in the universe is relevant to everything else. It’s also relevant because Nelson Cruz is, by FanGraphs’ errant standards, about to enter his second age-36 season in a span of two years. At Cruz’s age — whether one considers him 36 or 37 (the latter of which he turns this July 1st) — baseball-type skills are supposed to be in the midst of their decline. Cruz, meanwhile, has recorded two of this three-best major-league seasons over the past two years.
The projections suggest Cruz will both (a) fail to match his established levels of the past couple years and also (b) surpass the levels of most other major-league hitters. If he falls very short of that mark or otherwise fails to remain healthy, the club will struggle to approximate Cruz’s projections by other means. Dan Vogelbach, who certainly looks like a DH, offers promising if untested offensive skills. He was also just optioned to Triple-A on Thursday, though, so his bat will remain untested for the time being.
Matt Holliday made a grave mistake as a ballplayer and as a man. What he should have done is to establish a merely acceptable level of production over the first 13 years of his major-league career. That way, when he recorded a 114 wRC+ (his projected figure) as a 37-year-old, he would have been celebrated both far and also wide. What he did instead, though, was to produce elite offensive numbers year after year after year, setting the bar so high that now, despite receiving the second-best offensive projection on baseball’s most storied club, barely anyone cares.
Regardless of how it’s perceived, Holliday’s contribution will be important to a Yankees team that’s leaning more heavily than usual on the performances of relatively inexperienced players. Chris Carter isn’t an inexperienced player, but he is a candidate to DH for this club at some time. His skill set (picnic, lightning) is well established. Gary Sanchez, meanwhile, represents one of the majors’ few catchers who could probably serve as a useful DH.
Here are two opinions that can reasonably exist in one single mind. First, that the Blue Jays overpaid (three years, $33 million) Kendrys Morales in an offseason when bat-first players were available at a discount. Second, that the Blue Jays will pay only $11 million per season (an average player costs about $16 million per annum now) for one of the best designated hitters in North America. This — and not a glass halfway filled with water — might become the real litmus test for optimism.
Despite the enthusiasm with which clubs have typically courted him, Morales has never really exhibited elite power. At least not recently. In his defense, though, he’s also never really played in a hitter-friendly park. Anaheim, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle: all feature a home-run park factor less than league average. The Rogers Centre, meanwhile, is more generous in that regard. It’s improbable that Morales would set career highs as a 34-year-old — and, of course, all this junk is park-adjusted, anyway, so it doesn’t really matter — but it’s not impossible. Also, he remains one of the absolutely worst baserunners in the majors, and no park is capable of hiding that particular flaw.
As long as he’s healthy, Morales is likely to occupy the DH spot in Toronto. Jose Bautista is an alternative, of course, and so is Steve Pearce. Pearce, one notes, is actually projected for a superior batting line than is Morales. Part of that is because Pearce has benefited from careful, platoon-centric usage in recent years. But Steve Peace is also a good hitter. He will help the Toronto Blue Jays!
The differences between Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter (cited above) aren’t particularly substantive. They occupy almost identical places on the aging curve. Each led his respective league in home runs last year. Trumbo strikes out less than Carter, but he walks less, also. And the results are similar. Consider: both players are projected to record a batting line roughly 10% better than league average in 2017.
Or, the performance results are similar, that is. As for the compensation, that’s quite different. While Carter had to settle for a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Yankees, Trumbo signed for more than 10 times that amount. This isn’t analysis so much as it’s an alert on the occasion of a cosmic injustice.
If Trumbo was able to extract a more lucrative deal out of the market this offseason, it’s possibly because he’s given the impression that he can play the field sometimes. That impression is a false one. Trumbo, whatever his virtues as a batter and human man, is a defensive liability. Which is fine, because he’ll mostly be DH-ing for Baltimore. When he isn’t doing that, Pedro Alvarez probably will be. Alvarez has also (a bit tragically) become a defensive liability. He’s basically the lefty-hitting version of Trumbo.
The Rangers’ DH depth chart contains more names than any of the other DH depth charts on this dumb, long list of DH depth charts. “Is that good or bad?” is a question one might reasonably ask. Well, that’s not entirely clear. Here’s a reason why it’s maybe bad: because Texas lacks a hitter who distinguishes himself sufficiently for the job. Or, alternatively, why it’s maybe good: because Texas has so many hitters who distinguish themselves for the job. It’s also possible that Jeff Sullivan, who’s responsible for curating the Texas depth chart, is just attempting to amuse himself.
In reality, there’s little mystery as to the identity of the Rangers’ primary designated hitter. It’s Shin-Soo Choo. Choo takes over a spot vacated first by the retirement of Prince Fielder and then by the departure (to free agency) of Carlos Beltran. While nominally a center fielder at one point, Choo has never been a gifted defender. That fact, coupled with the litany of injuries he endured last year, renders him a logical candidate.
When healthy, Choo takes a lot of walks and records way-above-average BABIPs. Health, of course, isn’t a foregone conclusion for him. In his place, expect to find any one of the six alternates designated by wiseacre Jeff Sullivan.
Hanley Ramirez has worked tirelessly, over the course of his career, to problematize the concept of positional adjustments. Once a serviceable shortstop, Ramirez has more recently distinguished himself as a nearly adequate first baseman and wholly terrifying left fielder. While logic dictates that a competent middle infielder ought to produce above-average fielding marks at positions on the less demanding end of the defensive spectrum, Hanley Ramirez dictates something very different. He is truly an iconoclast.
To his credit, Ramirez’s offensive skills remain sufficient to offset even the robust negative positional adjustments of first base and DH. No longer an asset on the bases, Ramirez is still projected to record an offensive line about 20% better than league average. Against right-handers, he’ll work as the Sox’ designated hitter. Against left-handers, he’ll likely take over for Mitch Moreland at first and make way for Chris Young, among others. Neither Young nor the others are likely to match Ramirez’s offensive output. That said, manager John Farrell et al. are likely to utilize the platoon advantage whenever possible.
As a young hitter, Pujols was nearly singular in his ability to make contact while simultaneously hitting for power. Despite a conspicuous decline, Pujols is actually still nearly singular in this ability.
Consider, by way of example, the complete list of qualified batters from 2016 to record a strikeout rate below 12% and isolated-slugging figure above .180:
|Mookie Betts||Red Sox||730||6.7%||11.0%||.216||.318||.363||.534||135||7.8|
Less than 12% strikeout rate, more than .180 ISO.
The result? A table featuring four of the best players in baseball and then Albert Pujols.
What’s different between Pujols and these others? Defense is part of it: they all play the field, Pujols doesn’t. But Pujols has also suffered from other sorts of decline. His walk rate has nearly halved since his peak. Also, his batted balls have become hits with much less frequency.
Manager Mike Scioscia has indicated this spring that he has little intention of moving Pujols, who underwent foot surgery in the offseason, out from the friendly confines of the designated-hitter slot. That makes sense. In other news, however, Luis Valbuena will miss the first month of the season with a hamstring injury. Now it’s less clear, if Pujols gets injured, who will DH for the DH.
With his first plate appearances of the season, Beltran will reach that mythic point in a player’s career when the whole of his major-league statistical record becomes too long to fit completely within the confines of a Lenovo ThinkPad X230 laptop monitor. One remembers the tender moments of other players who’ve crossed that particular threshold: Nolan Ryan wiping tears from his eyes, Rickey Henderson wiping tears from Rickey Henderson’s eyes, Ty Cobb momentarily loosening his grip from the neck of street urchin. It’s truly a solemn occasion.
Beltran was one of only two players aged 39 or over last year to qualify for the batting title last year. The retirement of David Ortiz means that, if Beltran remains healthy, he’s likely to be the only 40-year-old qualifier in the game. Despite his age, he’s been basically the same hitter now for five years. He walks less and strikes out more than he used to, but has basically preserved his power on contact. The result: a batting line roughly 20% better than the league average.
Of course, the projections are predictably skeptical, calling for something more like a 110 wRC+. That’s not surprising for a 40-year-old. Also not surprising is the prospect of Beltran suffering a small injury here or there. Evan Gattis is a candidate to lumber up to the plate in Beltran’s absence. He could more or less approximate Beltran’s output, but might be best reserved for left-handed pitchers.
On February 1st, Travis Sawchik wrote a piece for FanGraphs, advising the Twins not to quit on Byung-ho Park. On February 3rd, the Twins did something very much like quit on Byung-ho Park, designating him for assignment in order to clear a roster spot for Matt Belisle.
While Park’s numbers in 2016 were quite poor, there are reasons for optimism. For one, it’s possible he was playing through a finger injury for much of the season. And for two, Park actually still managed to record excellent exit-velocity numbers. That’s why he appears on the depth chart here despite the likelihood that he’ll begin the season in Rochester.
The starter for the moment is Kennys Vargas. Vargas actually possesses a nearly identical approach to Park, marked most notably by good power numbers and poor strikeout rates. Where Park has upside in the sense that he’s recorded fewer than 300 major-league plate appearances, Vargas has upside in the sense that he enters just his age-26 season.
Healy exhibited a kind of power last season unprecedented in his professional career. The lowest isolated-power figure he produced across three levels was the .188 mark he recorded over 210 plate appearances with Triple-A Nashville. The highest ISO he’d recorded previously was a .151 mark over 151 plate appearances with Oakland’s short-season A-ball affiliate in 2013. Healy’s excellent minor-league performance led to a mid-July promotion. Ultimately, he produced a 134 wRC+ in roughly a half-season of work with the A’s.
Healy’s good fortune is very likely the product of a mechanical adjustment not unlike those adopted by Josh Donaldson and Jake Lamb and J.D. Martinez — a change in swing path that permits the hitter not only to keep his bat in the hitting zone for a longer period of time, but to hit the ball in the air with greater frequency.
The projections are (again) predictably skeptical, but evidence in support of Healy’s breakout is strong. If he’s incapable of approximating last year’s numbers, there isn’t really a compelling Plan B already present on the major-league roster. Installing a veteran at DH, however, could make room for either Matt Chapman or Matt Olson elsewhere.
Victor Martinez put up the sort of numbers last year that a tired dad might produce if he were, for some reason, to play an entire season in a local Little League. While recording the second-highest home-run total of his career, Martinez also produced the absolute worst baserunning mark in the league, making it very clear that he takes his role as a designated hitter very seriously, but maybe isn’t thrilled about all the physical demands that accompany it.
For various reasons, probably — a combination of age and his subpar 2015 season most prominent among them, one assumes — the projections call for regression to something more like league average. A league-average batting line is an achievement for a 38-year-old, but it doesn’t add much value to a club in the latter stages of its competitive window. If Martinez is unable to play, Miguel Cabrera is an obvious alternative. Steven Moya is physically impressive.
Brandon Moss is responsible for what remains one of the most excellent interviews to appear in these pages, during the course of which Moss relates his approach to hitting while suffering the slings and arrows of then-teammate Adam Dunn from the next locker. It’s a pleasure — not only for the levity involved but also for the clarity with which Moss obviously understands both his strengths and weaknesses.
That conversation took place in 2014, and Moss has been mostly the same player since then, still swinging and missing a bunch and still exhibiting good power on contact. If there’s trouble in Moss’s profile, it can be found in his batted-ball figures. The left-handed batter recorded just a .261 BABIP in 2016. That could be the product of variance, of course, but he also produced just a .260 BABIP on the 200-plus occasions on which he recorded a ball in play against the shift. That, combined with a slightly worse-than-average infield-fly rate, might continue to suppress his overall batting lines.
In lieu of Moss, is Jorge Soler, who’s a candidate to concede right field to Paulo Orlando and assume DH duties when the Royals face a left-hander. Given Soler’s upside and the use of Moss in a strict platoon, the Royals’ DH spot might be a candidate to exceed the conservative estimates of the projections.
|Steven Souza Jr.||35||.238||.311||.409||.312||-0.1||0.0||0.0||0.0|
On one level, Dickerson’s 2016 season represents an achievement. After leaving a field with the absolute highest home-run park factor in the majors for a home field possessing one of the lowest home-run park factors, Dickerson nevertheless tied his career-high home-run mark, at 24. There are a number of caveats and qualifiers to make alongside that comment, however. Like Dickerson recorded more plate appearances in the second of those two seasons. And like, the parks’ respective home-run factors for left-handed batters are actually not quite as starkly different. And like, home runs aren’t the only mark of offensive production.
In other respects, Dickerson’s 2016 season wasn’t quite as successful. He remains quite good for a player who was selected in the eighth round and never appeared on a top-100 list. But he’s likely a league-average hitter, which isn’t really sufficient for a full-time DH role.
Relegated to a platoon role, it can work, however — and the Rays appear likely to pursue that route, first with a member of the bench and then (ideally) with Wilson Ramos. There’s a lot of uncertainty tied to Ramos right now, but if he approximates the best version of himself, he could help the club before summer begins.
This isn’t particularly fair to Matt Davidson. As Epictetus advises, one should concern himself only with those things that are in his control. Matt Davidson can control, to some degree, how well he plays baseball. He can’t control how the projections account for and weight his numbers from previous seasons. He also can’t control the White Sox’ decision to install him at designated hitter on their major-league team.
A former first-round pick, Davidson appeared on a number of top-100 lists between 2011 and -14. The prognosis, generally, was that Davidson had good power and feel to hit but would need to resolve his swing-and-miss issues. He hasn’t resolved them yet. Or, he hadn’t resolved them by the end of the 2016 campaign, at least.
It’s also possible Davidson doesn’t even break camp with Chicago. The White Sox might simply use the DH spot to lighten the respective loads of Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, and Avisail Garcia. There have been reports to that effect.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.