2021 Positional Power Rankings: Designated Hitter

Last week, the FanGraphs staff took you through most of the league’s position players. Now, before we turn our attention to pitching, Meg Rowley examines the state of the designated hitter.

If these rankings prove anything, it’s just how rare it is for teams to have a truly designated designated hitter anymore. Some still look to a single bopper, and many of those clubs are at the top of these rankings. The Astros, Yankees, and Twins still figure prominently; Yordan Alvarez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Nelson Cruz will do that for you. But for about half of the squads here, DH plate appearances are a group project, with the position often serving as a means of giving otherwise-capable fielders a day off.

It’s not totally old hat in 2021. Interesting young guys like Andrew Vaughn and Ty France could outperform their modest projections, and Shohei Ohtani is his own wild card. Still, with three clubs projected in the red and several more clustered around 1 to 1.5 wins, the DH bats have swooned. Perhaps a universal DH will shake things up, but I suspect we’ll see more of the same when the NL finally puts pitcher hitting to bed — a collection of good-hitting catchers, erstwhile first basemen, outfielders who need a breather, aging vets, and a few elite bats carrying the load.

2021 Positional Power Rankings – DH
1. Astros
Yordan Alvarez 525 .282 .369 .565 .382 29.7 -0.4 0.0 3.4
Michael Brantley 77 .293 .354 .460 .344 1.9 -0.0 0.0 0.3
Abraham Toro 56 .237 .313 .403 .306 -0.5 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Alex Bregman 28 .278 .389 .519 .381 1.6 -0.0 0.0 0.2
Jose Altuve 14 .283 .350 .464 .344 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .279 .363 .536 .371 33.0 -0.5 0.0 3.9

A funny thing happens when a major leaguer demonstrates he’s capable of doing something: We come to expect that he’ll do it again. The mere existence of Alvarez’s 2019 Rookie of Year campaign, with his 178 wRC+, his 27 home runs, and 3.8 WAR is enough to make us think he might meet or exceed those heights again. Our regression spidey sense may tingle as the skeptical part of our brains notes that those stats were accrued in just 369 plate appearances, or frets over his 25.5% strikeout rate. But his batting eye is quite keen, as evidenced by a 14.1% walk rate, and a bevy of Statcast metrics suggest a realness to his rookie performance: a 16.7% barrel rate (top 2% in the league), a 92.2-mph average exit velocity (top 6%), a 48.9% hard-hit rate (top 5%). And while his expected stats diverged somewhat from his real ones, they were still superlative: a .592 xSLG and a .409 xwOBA, both in the top 2% of the league.

Baseball trains us to expect other things, too — like that an injured player might stay injured or get hurt more. That’s the push and pull of Alvarez; the glory of his rookie campaign, the potential lingering effect of his injuries. You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t said anything about his 2020, and that’s because there’s nothing good to say. After a stint on the Injured List delayed his arrival to summer camp, he played in just two games before undergoing season-ending arthroscopic surgery to repair a patellar tear in his right knee and clean up his left.

When Ben Clemens wrote last year’s Astros DH blurb, he noted that there were two paths to underperformance: Alvarez could get hurt, or the team’s lack of outfield depth could press him into service there. Those concerns remain. Alvarez still has knees even if they’re surgically repaired, and it’s not like the Astros’ outfield depth has improved, though Dusty Baker has indicated the slugger is unlikely to see much time in the outfield; if anything, he may get a look at the safer infield confines of first base. It’s also unclear how the time away might affect his performance. His 15 spring training plate appearances have been uninspiring, but it’s more important that he’s out there healthy, and anyway, it’s just 15 plate appearances.

There are predictable ways this could go wrong for the Astros, and while Michael Brantley’s bat is fearsome enough to DH, Houston hopes he’ll see the bulk of his time in left field. But there’s also a reason Alvarez is projected to have the year he is. After all, we know what he’s capable of.

2. Yankees
Giancarlo Stanton 546 .250 .347 .544 .366 20.5 -0.9 0.0 2.4
Jay Bruce 63 .231 .294 .468 .316 -0.4 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Aaron Judge 49 .252 .369 .521 .371 2.1 -0.0 0.0 0.2
Miguel Andújar 21 .268 .307 .458 .319 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Luke Voit 21 .261 .349 .500 .355 0.6 -0.0 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .249 .342 .531 .360 22.7 -1.1 0.0 2.8

Since the start of the Statcast era, no one in baseball has hit the ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton. Literally no one! He’s registered 275 batted ball events with an exit velocity of at least 110 mph; second-place Nelson Cruz checks in with 235, and bronze-finisher Aaron Judge has 156. Balls hit 120 mph or higher? Stanton’s got eight, putting him in a tier all his own; only two other players — Judge and Gary Sánchez — have even one (1) ball demolished that soundly. Given that, it’s probably not a surprise to learn that Stanton has bested the league in max exit velocity every year since 2015.

The search for those big bops tells the thumper’s story in another way. Apart from his excellent 2018, when he hit 38 home runs and posted a 128 wRC+ across 158 games split between the outfield and DH, if you actually want to see Stanton’s Yankees tenure on the Statcast leaderboards, you have to lower the threshold considerably. He’s accrued just 871 PA in pinstripes across three seasons. His 2019 was undone by a left biceps strain and a right knee sprain, the latter of which landed him on the 60-day IL. Last year was marred by a left hamstring sprain; Stanton went on the IL on August 9 for a month. When he returned in September, his performance down the stretch was tepid, though he looked like his old self in the playoffs with a .308/.387/1.038, 254 wRC+ line and six home runs.

Stanton isn’t just his power. He gets on base at an above-average clip, and though he strikes out a fair amount, he also draws a fair number of walks. And unlike many of the players on this rankings, he can still credibly man an outfield corner. But unlike prior iterations of this exercise, when Stanton’s presence at DH was as much a reflection of the Yankees’ ludicrous depth as anything else, the emphasis now is on keeping him healthy. Stanton changed up his offseason routine, lifting less; he’s run better and looked more lithe this spring. If he does get nicked up again, there are plenty of bats that could fill in beyond those listed here, but other than Judge, who is slated to be the team’s regular right fielder and is no stranger to the frustrations of the IL, few come close to replicating Stanton at the height of his powers.

Speaking of Judge, he’ll likely see some time at DH, both as a ploy to keep him healthy and to give Stanton days off. Bruce offers a left-handed alternative to the demigods cosplaying as baseball players, though he will likely play more first base in the early going due to Voit’s knee injury. With a 92 wRC+ in his last 797 PAs, he doesn’t clear the offensive bar at either position, but hey, at least he’s left-handed. Andújar’s bat was great in 2018, but he’s a liability in the field and will start the year in Triple-A; if he’s seeing a lot of big league time, something has gone very wrong. Voit could DH as he’s coming back from his partial meniscus tear and as maintenance after.

3. Twins
Nelson Cruz 574 .267 .353 .524 .361 18.4 -2.1 0.0 2.2
Josh Donaldson 98 .242 .363 .468 .352 2.4 -0.2 0.0 0.3
Luis Arraez 14 .312 .370 .412 .338 0.2 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Alex Kirilloff 7 .280 .326 .450 .327 0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Mitch Garver 7 .237 .322 .444 .324 0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .264 .354 .512 .358 21.1 -2.4 0.0 2.5

Once it became clear that there wouldn’t be a universal DH in 2021, Cruz’s return to Minnesota seemed inevitable. The reunion makes plenty of sense. A glance at his 2020 stats reveals another excellent campaign from the now–40-year-old. He posted a .303/.397/.595 line with a 164 wRC+ and 16 home runs in 53 games. His 15% barrel rate was in the 93rd percentile; his .535 xSLG the 91st.

Still, Cruz’s age primes us to look for signs of decline, and while the projections expect another great year for the pro-nap slugger, 2020 revealed a few points of potential concern or at least strangeness. His average launch angle dipped. His groundball rate ticked up — trouble for a guy as lumbering as he is. There was a meaningful gap between his wOBA (.411) and xWOBA (.377). And while his 41% FB/HR ratio (a career high) led baseball, we can’t count on him replicating such efficiency again. Does it mean anything? Maybe. Someday he will slow down. The groundball rate could catch up to him, and fewer of his fly balls might sail over the wall. Bodies can break on you at Cruz’s age. Some awareness of all that is part of why he only got a one-year deal from Minnesota. But also, it was 53 games! He also posted a career-high BABIP! 2020 was weird!

Should Cruz falter, Minnesota has options. The team would surely prefer to see Donaldson finally healthy and in the field every day, but his bat is plenty potent to DH. Arraez’s game is very different from Cruz’s — all contact, almost no thump — but it’s not without its value. Kiriloff and Garver might cycle through, though the former’s bat is unproven (if promising) and the latter’s brief 2020 was atrocious. Miguel Sanó, though not listed here, could get a turn. You sign Nelson Cruz with the hopes of playing him almost every day, but if the Twins can’t, they won’t be completely lost.

4. Red Sox
J.D. Martinez 630 .271 .349 .506 .353 13.1 -1.5 0.0 1.8
Danny Santana 28 .241 .288 .436 .302 -0.7 0.0 0.0 -0.0
Christian Vázquez 21 .261 .313 .419 .309 -0.3 -0.1 0.0 -0.0
Rafael Devers 14 .285 .340 .527 .358 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Franchy Cordero 7 .248 .311 .457 .322 -0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .269 .345 .500 .349 12.4 -1.5 0.0 1.8

A lot went wrong for Martinez in 2020. He posted his lowest wRC+ (77) since his days as an Astro along with a career-worst OBP and his second-worst wOBA. His batting average was a new low, and his ISO was putrid by his standards. He was in the 63rd percentile for average exit velocity, HardHit% and xSLG — not terrible, but a far cry from the 88th, 91st, and 93rd marks he registered in each of those categories the year before. When the bat is all you are, and the bat is this bad, you’re in trouble, and Martinez was good (bad?) for -1.0 WAR.

So what might we expect from him in 2021? A bounce-back seems in order, though its magnitude is murky. Martinez decried last year’s restrictions on in-game video access; it’s hard to say how much that might have factored into his clunker of a season. His .259 BABIP was almost 100 points lower than the year before, though his sprint speed also declined. And while the expected stats suggest that he got a bit unlucky (.228 xBA vs. .213 BA, .441 xSLG vs. .389 SLG, .319 xWOBA vs. .290 wOBA), they still weren’t that good. I’m willing to write off the extremity of his dip to the strangeness of last season, but at 33, this amount of decline has to be at least mildly worrisome. And even though the projections suggest a productive season ahead, it is worth noting that ZiPS and Steamer are a full win apart from one another as concerns Martinez (1.2 WAR via ZiPS vs. 2.2 via Steamer).

5. Royals
Jorge Soler 504 .243 .339 .485 .345 8.7 -0.3 0.0 1.3
Carlos Santana 98 .246 .365 .426 .339 1.1 -0.1 0.0 0.2
Salvador Perez 70 .261 .294 .486 .323 -0.2 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Ryan McBroom 14 .244 .303 .411 .302 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Ryan O’Hearn 7 .224 .310 .406 .304 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Hunter Dozier 7 .242 .323 .434 .321 -0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .246 .337 .474 .341 9.2 -0.6 0.0 1.5

In 2019, Soler hit an AL-best 48 home runs, slugged .569, and posted a .304 ISO on his way to 3.6 WAR. In 2020, he did… not do that. He still hit the ball hard, mind you. His barrel percentage actually went up (18.9% in 2020 vs. 16.6% in ‘19), as did his HardHit% (51.1% vs. 50%), and his average exit velocity was basically the same. But his fly ball and HR/FB rates both swooned, and his infield fly ball rate spiked to 20%, up from 8.8% in ‘19. And his strikeout rate, which was already high, also climbed, putting him in the bottom 4% of baseball. It all added up to a 108 wRC+ and less than a win.

How much of Soler’s step backward you attribute to the right oblique strain that sidelined him for much of September as opposed to the less-lively baseball or the fact that it was just 174 PA in the middle of a pandemic probably colors your 2021 outlook for him. The hard contact and full health probably mean it won’t be as bad as last year, and he’s hit well this spring, but it’s difficult to see 2019 as anything but an outlier.

Behind Soler, the primary backups are Santana, another hitter who’d like to recover his home run stroke, and Perez, fresh off a four-year extension and keen to prove that his 37-game, 162 wRC+ surge in 2020 wasn’t an aberration. Both figure to be full-time starters elsewhere on the depth chart, but they’ll likely DH on days when Soler needs a day off or Perez’s body needs a break from the rigors of catching.

6. Cleveland
Franmil Reyes 658 .257 .329 .493 .342 8.9 -1.1 0.0 1.4
Jordan Luplow 14 .241 .331 .434 .325 -0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Josh Naylor 14 .273 .339 .443 .330 0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Eddie Rosario 7 .277 .318 .496 .336 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Bobby Bradley 7 .223 .293 .450 .310 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .257 .329 .491 .341 8.9 -1.1 0.0 1.5

Happy Cleveland outfielders are all alike; every unhappy Cleveland outfielder is unhappy in his own way. Among the miserable, some can hit but can’t really field; others are zeros at the plate but dazzle with their defense. And the happy ones? The happy ones become DHs, as Reyes did when he was traded from San Diego to Cleveland as part of a three-team deal at the 2019 deadline. Freed from the tribulations of the DH-less NL and the outfield, he could focus on what he does best: hit, and hit hard. That year, he hit 37 home runs and was in the 98th percentile for exit velocity and HardHit%, while his xSLG was in the 90th percentile and his barrel % was in the 94th.

But Reyes’ 2019 tells another story, too — one about the limitations of exit velocity as a unit of analysis, and of a slugger with a high strikeout rate and a middling OBP. On the whole, he was only a bit above average at the plate (109 wRC+) and actually worse upon heading to Cleveland. Last year saw his average and OBP recover but his power dip as he posted a 113 wRC+ in 59 games.

There’s a lot of volatility to a profile like this. Reyes has crazy raw power and is only 25; he won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. It’s worth remembering that he has yet to experience a full, normal year as a full-time DH, with a 2020 that constituted all of 241 PA. If he can combine last year’s average and OBP with his raw thump, we’re likely to see a bat like the one he flashed his rookie year. If he can’t — if the strikeouts keep coming and the home runs don’t — he could risk going the way of another kind of unhappy Cleveland outfielder: the sort who finds himself on waivers.

7. Blue Jays
Rowdy Tellez 245 .258 .325 .485 .336 3.0 -0.5 0.0 0.5
Teoscar Hernández 224 .242 .309 .489 .331 1.8 0.0 0.0 0.4
Alejandro Kirk 154 .272 .341 .446 .333 1.5 -0.1 0.0 0.3
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 42 .286 .355 .506 .360 1.4 -0.1 0.0 0.2
George Springer 21 .271 .357 .495 .358 0.7 -0.0 0.0 0.1
Joe Panik 14 .253 .326 .366 .300 -0.3 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .258 .326 .477 .335 8.1 -0.7 0.0 1.4

Rowdy Tellez is intriguing, and not just for his 80-grade name. He has a career 110 wRC+ against right-handed hitting and last year showed strides in his plate discipline, striking out less and walking more while still hitting the ball with authority. That came in only 127 PA worth of work — he was sidelined by a knee sprain in September, making the short season even shorter — and his more modest career numbers (albeit in just 609 PA) show his vulnerability against southpaws. How sticky his progress from 2020 proves to be will determine if he meets or exceeds his projection, but he’s a useful bat in a Jays lineup full of good ones.

And when it’s time to face a tough lefty, or for Tellez to back up Vlad Jr. at first, there’s Hernández and Kirk to turn to. As Jay Jaffe noted in both the right field rankings and a piece last September, Hernández’s strong 2020 was fueled by improved selectivity versus breaking pitches down and away. That, coupled with his impressive power (his barrel rate, hard-hit rate, average exit velo and xwOBA all ranked in the 95th percentile or higher), led to a .289/.340/.579 line, 143 wRC+ and 16 home runs. An oblique strain meant he only played 34 games, and his strikeout rate has been perilously high at other points in his career, but the improved approach could signal a full-season breakout in 2021, with his at-bats split between DH and right field.

Kirk, who currently ranks 74th on Eric Longenhagen’s preseason Top 100, was impressive in a limited major-league look last year, hitting .375/.400/.583 in 25 PA. He won’t replicate that over a full season, particularly when you consider the toll catching takes (despite being body-comped to a bowling ball, Kirk isn’t bad behind the dish). But he hits the ball hard, and as Eric noted in Kirk’s write-up, he “has several elite statistical indicators,” including Trackman data from his 2019 minor league season that indicate “his expected stats based on quality of contact are very similar to his … Hi-A slash line of .288/.395/.446.” His eventual trajectory will depend on how long he can don the tools of ignorance, but for now, he’ll split time between catcher and DH and likely thump regardless of where he’s playing.

8. Rays
Yandy Díaz 217 .274 .368 .395 .331 2.8 -0.3 0.0 0.5
Yoshi Tsutsugo 189 .236 .332 .442 .327 1.7 -0.1 0.0 0.3
Austin Meadows 182 .251 .322 .461 .327 1.7 -0.1 0.0 0.3
Brandon Lowe 56 .245 .323 .466 .332 0.7 0.1 0.0 0.1
Ji-Man Choi 56 .244 .345 .431 .330 0.6 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .253 .341 .434 .329 7.6 -0.5 0.0 1.4

One of baseball’s greatest assets is its ability to surprise you. To wit: a guy with biceps like Díaz’s really ought to be a bopper, and yet! Prone to putting the ball on the ground, Díaz’s 2019 looked like that swole strength finally asserting itself. He still ran a 50% groundball rate — baseball isn’t that surprising — but between IL stints for hamstring tightness and a foot contusion that limited him to 79 games, he socked 35 extra-base hits, 14 of which were home runs. He ended the year with a .208 ISO and .476 SLG, both career highs.

But 2020 saw the arrival of a new, differently good Díaz. His groundball rate spiked to 66% (!), and his power evaporated (he notched just five extra-base hits), but he walked 16.7% of the time and dropped his strikeout rate to 12.3% en route to hitting .307 with a .428 OBP. It all added up to a 138 wRC+, albeit across just 34 games, as he was one again felled by a hamstring injury. Healthy and a bit leaner this spring, the Rays are hoping for a 2021 that marries the best of Díaz, who can clearly be a productive hitter even without pop.

It wouldn’t be the Rays without a time-share, and joining Díaz as lefty-hitting complements are Meadows and Tsutsugo. The former’s dismal 2020 started with a stint on the COVID IL, progressed to an oblique strain, and ended with an underwhelming postseason. Along the way, he slashed just .205/.296/.371 with an 87 wRC+ and a 32.9% strikeout rate. He’ll look to regain his 2019 form splitting time across left and right field, as well as DHing. Tsutsugo had a rough introduction to MLB, hitting just .197/.314/.395 for a 98 wRC+ and eight home runs, and hasn’t looked that much better this spring. But he had a long track record of performance in NPB, and his positional versatility — in addition to DH, he’s set to log time at first, third and in left field — makes him useful, even if he’s only a middling fielder.

9. Angels
Shohei Ohtani 497 .258 .335 .481 .342 8.8 0.6 0.0 1.4
Albert Pujols 161 .236 .288 .399 .290 -4.4 -0.5 0.0 -0.3
José Rojas 21 .231 .282 .397 .287 -0.6 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Justin Upton 14 .229 .315 .443 .321 -0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Mike Trout 7 .281 .421 .586 .411 0.5 0.0 0.0 0.1
Total 700 .251 .323 .459 .328 4.3 0.1 0.0 1.1

It’s odd not to want to see a talented hitter hitting more, but that’s where we find ourselves with Ohtani. To see more of him at the plate would mean that the two-way experiment has come to an end, and after being reminded this spring of what a healthy Ohtani can do on the mound — the velocity! the splitter! — and the potential for him to start and lead off, it would be a shame if we didn’t get at least one season of him going full-Ruth.

Still, if Ohtani does eventually have to commit to the bat full-time, there’s plenty to like. He hit .286/.351/.532 with a 134 wRC+ and 40 home runs from 2018 to ’19 across 220 games, losing time to a UCL tear, Tommy John surgery, his recovery, and then another surgery to repair a bipartite patella. In his first game of 2020, he capped off a 1-for-5 night by spotlighting as the major’s first automatic runner in extra innings; he was thrown out in a run down, and his season got less memorable from there. He ended the year with a .190/.291/.366 line with seven home runs and an 82 wRC+, though it’s hard to say if the flexor strain he suffered that shut down his pitching had any effect on him as a hitter.

So what should we expect from Ohtani this season? If his spring is any indication, this projection might prove to be light. The savvy among us are primed to be skeptical of spring numbers, and with good reason, and if you want to fret over something other than injuries, his strikeout and whiff number will serve. But it can’t be a bad thing that he’s hitting the ball hard — doing things like clearing the batter’s eye twice — and often while also healthy. It’s enough to make you want to see more of him… just not too much more.

Behind Ohtani is a collection of no-longer-that good hitters (Upton, Pujols), unproven prospects (Rojas), and Trout, who surely will need a few days off over the course of the season. Pujols is going to be hard to avoid given the days off Ohtani will need to pitch, though he’ll also see time at first in the final year of his Angels contract.

10. Orioles
Trey Mancini 385 .268 .331 .476 .338 5.1 0.0 0.0 0.9
Maikel Franco 91 .253 .309 .443 .311 -0.9 -0.1 0.0 -0.0
Anthony Santander 84 .264 .309 .483 .327 0.3 -0.2 0.0 0.1
DJ Stewart 77 .231 .326 .425 .320 -0.2 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Ryan Mountcastle 56 .280 .321 .468 .330 0.4 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Chance Sisco 7 .227 .326 .381 .308 -0.1 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .262 .324 .466 .330 4.6 -0.4 0.0 1.1

Mancini’s return after a 2020 battle with cancer has to be one of the better stories in baseball right now. The day MLB announced it was shutting down spring training and delaying Opening Day, he underwent surgery for stage 3 colon cancer; his treatment stretched into September, costing him the entire season.

Back and cancer-free, Mancini will spend the bulk of his time this year at DH and first base, which is just as well, as he was never a defensive standout and was stretched in left field. No, his value lies in his bat, and 2019 showed us what a fully operational version of him looks like, as he hit .291/.364/.535 with 35 home runs, good enough for a 134 wRC+. He whiffed a little more than was ideal, but where his prior two full-season campaigns had been marked by groundball rates over 50%, 2019 saw him hit more fly balls and line drives while hitting the ball hard and all over the field. It’s hard to know how much the year away will affect him at the plate; his line this spring is respectable but light on power. He’s also been a bit clunky in the field. Still, on a Baltimore team that’s lousy with lousy talent, Mancini will likely be one of the more watchable players, and one of the easiest to root for.

Franco, a late addition this spring, will serve as the club’s primary third baseman but should see time at DH as the club manages Mancini’s return. He enjoyed something of a bounce-back with the Royals last year after an up-and-down tenure with the Phillies. Though his bat isn’t anything to write home about and his defense at third has been middling-to-bad outside of 106 good innings back in 2014. It shouldn’t stand in the way of playing time. This is the Orioles; the bar isn’t that high.

11. Mariners
Ty France 308 .263 .329 .437 .325 2.2 -0.6 0.0 0.5
Mitch Haniger 273 .248 .333 .455 .333 3.7 -0.3 0.0 0.6
Kyle Seager 35 .242 .321 .432 .318 0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Tom Murphy 35 .218 .272 .413 .288 -0.9 -0.0 0.0 -0.1
José Marmolejos 35 .242 .296 .400 .295 -0.7 -0.1 0.0 -0.0
Shed Long Jr. 14 .230 .297 .377 .290 -0.3 0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .252 .325 .439 .324 4.1 -1.0 0.0 1.0

France was part of the Mariners’ deadline deal with the Padres that sent Austin Nola to San Diego. He hit .305/.368/.468 last year, good for a 132 wRC+ in 43 games, and has done nothing but rake since being drafted in the 34th round out of San Diego State. France’s power and feel for contact are both big-league caliber, but he really likes to swing and has run walk rates close to 6% for his entire pro career, right in line with his 2021 projection. It’s not uncommon for DH types to walk so infrequently and still be solid big leaguers, but it often comes with more varied year-to-year performance and WAR values beneath what you’d expect if you just looked at their slash line. Some players in that mold hit for enough power to offset their aggressiveness, and France might too, but there’s risk here, however scintillating his spring (and in fairness, his .327/.389/.714 line and five home runs are scintillating). He’ll also get some run at first, second, and third base — perhaps with some emergency catcher thrown in — as the Mariners try to determine whether there’s a league-average fielder in there.

Haniger, who should start most days in right, will also see time at DH to help ease him back into the rigors of big league action. It’s not yet clear if he’ll be able to regain his 2018 form (a .285/.366/.493, 137 wRC+, 4.5-win campaign) after missing a season and a half to various maladies I feel weird knowing he had. If he can stay healthy, this projection might end up looking light.

12. Athletics
Mitch Moreland 392 .231 .310 .431 .311 -1.7 -1.1 0.0 0.1
Mark Canha 140 .241 .348 .441 .336 2.4 -0.1 0.0 0.4
Jed Lowrie 63 .234 .309 .359 .290 -1.4 -0.1 0.0 -0.1
Matt Olson 49 .239 .338 .506 .350 1.4 -0.1 0.0 0.2
Seth Brown 35 .218 .273 .377 .275 -1.2 -0.0 0.0 -0.1
Chad Pinder 14 .248 .309 .435 .313 -0.0 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Matt Chapman 7 .246 .328 .508 .348 0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .234 .318 .430 .316 -0.3 -1.3 0.0 0.5

Moreland’s 2020 was a tale of two wee seasons. Over 22 games in Boston, he hit .328/.430/.746 with eight home runs and a 206 wRC+. Upon being traded to San Diego, he posted a meager .203/.247/.362 line with two home runs and a 59 wRC+. What does any of that mean? Probably nothing! Moreland is a fairly well established entity by this point, producing serviceable offense with defense to match and just enough pop to stay employed, though less than first base (or DH) might truly demand. That his 2020 was both so brief and so streaky explains his one-year deal; that said deal only cost $2.25 million explains how he ended up in Oakland. He’ll DH and back up Olson at first and call it a season — one that will probably hover around replacement level.

Canha is ticketed for left field and has run a reverse-split over the course of his career (though he’s an above-average hitter against righties and lefties), so he’s not a perfect platoon option with Moreland, but he’ll see time at DH because his bat is worth getting in the lineup. He doesn’t jump out at you with elite exit velocities or blow you away with barrels, but his 2019 was a step forward in terms of on-base ability, and while he didn’t carry that year’s thump into last season, the plate patience stayed, and both ZiPS and Steamer anticipate a rebound in his power.

After that, it’s a bunch of guys who will use DH to find a day off, from the Messieurs Matt to Lowrie, Brown, and Pinder.

13. Tigers
Miguel Cabrera 399 .261 .331 .418 .318 -2.3 -1.9 0.0 -0.0
Nomar Mazara 182 .255 .314 .434 .316 -1.5 -0.2 0.0 0.0
Christin Stewart 35 .228 .306 .413 .304 -0.6 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Jeimer Candelario 28 .248 .333 .438 .328 0.1 -0.0 0.0 0.0
Wilson Ramos 21 .275 .329 .427 .320 -0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Akil Baddoo 21 .199 .265 .321 .255 -1.3 -0.0 0.0 -0.1
Harold Castro 14 .265 .295 .355 .278 -0.6 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .256 .323 .419 .315 -6.3 -2.4 0.0 -0.1

Miggy’s best days are behind him; now it’s about how he plays out the stretch. There were a few encouraging signs in 2020. He hit the ball harder: His average exit velocity ticked back up to 93.2 mph (97th percentile), and his HardHit% crept to 49.7% (91st percentile). His xSLG (.514) was almost 100 points higher than his SLG, and his xwOBA (.375) outpaced his wOBA (.323). That’s not to say that I think some late-career, Ortizian surge is imminent; Cabrera’s last productive year at the plate (2018) came with very little power, and his last truly superlative season (153 wRC+, 38 home runs, 4.8 WAR) was all the way back in 2016. But maybe a small rebound looms, one driven by thump and plate discipline. If they can refloat the Ever Given, surely other industries’ giants can come unstuck.

Backing Cabrera is Mazara, who makes sense for a Tigers team that isn’t planning to compete in 2021. His lone season on the South Side was a mess. He hit .228/.295/.294 with a 67 wRC+, struck out almost 30% of the time and, as his SLG suggests, hit for almost no power, launching just one home run and posting a .066 ISO in 42 games. Mazara doesn’t turn 26 until April, a fact that makes him attractive to clubs like Detroit, who are keen to throw outfielders against the wall and see which stick, or if the club can fix what ails them. I’m skeptical Mazara can do either, but there’s no harm in the Tigers finding out for sure.

14. White Sox
Andrew Vaughn 385 .226 .296 .365 .286 -11.6 -0.6 0.0 -0.8
Zack Collins 140 .200 .316 .372 .299 -2.6 -0.1 0.0 -0.1
Yasmani Grandal 70 .230 .347 .438 .336 0.9 -0.3 0.0 0.1
José Abreu 63 .272 .326 .499 .341 1.1 -0.1 0.0 0.2
Eloy Jiménez 35 .285 .331 .542 .360 1.2 0.0 0.0 0.2
Gavin Sheets 7 .235 .300 .370 .289 -0.2 -0.0 0.0 -0.0
Total 700 .229 .310 .395 .302 -11.1 -1.1 0.0 -0.5

Well this sure got interesting in a hurry. Vaughn, who ranked 14th on Eric’s offseason Top 100, seemed slated to open the season as either the team’s first baseman (José Abreu appears to be the superior defender at this point) or as the DH, but he now may see extended action in left field due to Eloy Jiménez’s injury. Vaughn’s 2019 minor league statline looms large in his projection, and he didn’t really hit for power that year. And while ZiPS factors in his college stats, the college to pro translation is pretty severe. But let’s not forget, he was one of the best college hitters ever, and even though his profile is driven more by his elite approach and feel for contact than huge power, he’ll likely out-hit these forecasts, and perhaps soon.

If Vaughn takes to left field, perhaps this opens the door for Collins to play a significant big league role. The former first rounder’s path has been cleared by a combination of James McCann’s departure and Jiménez’s injury. He pretty clearly cannot catch (Yermín Mercedes might be better than Collins is back there) but has had a hot spring training with the bat, though that’s also been true each of the last two years.

Behind Vaughn and Collins are a pair of occasionally-needs-a-day-off guys (Grandal and Abreu) and Jiménez, who will likely be eased back into game action at DH, assuming he can return at all.

15. Rangers
Khris Davis 259 .234 .317 .469 .329 -1.6 -0.4 0.0 0.1
Willie Calhoun 189 .256 .315 .445 .319 -2.6 -0.3 0.0 -0.1
Ronald Guzmán 70 .235 .312 .415 .309 -1.6 -0.1 0.0 -0.1
Adolis Garcia 70 .217 .260 .396 .275 -3.7 -0.1 0.0 -0.3
Joey Gallo 49 .209 .332 .486 .341 0.2 0.1 0.0 0.1
David Dahl 49 .246 .301 .430 .307 -1.2 -0.0 0.0 -0.1
Jose Trevino 14 .233 .267 .355 .264 -0.9 -0.0 0.0 -0.1
Total 700 .238 .309 .446 .317 -11.3 -0.9 0.0 -0.5

As of this writing, 12 NL teams project for a higher DH WAR this season than the Rangers do. As you might recall, the NL is not ticketed to feature the DH this year; that’s just from interleague play and pinch hit appearances. Not all of those NL projections are good, mind you, or all that far off from Texas’ (the Marlins’ project for -0.4 WAR, for instance), but yikes. What’s more, Texas’ lineup is largely composed of DHs playing out of position, making those paltry projections even more vexing.

Davis, who was traded to the Rangers for Elvis Andrus this offseason, is set for the most PA here. After posting a .247 batting average every year from 2015 to ’18, his line has taken on less intriguing consistency: The slugger notched an 82 wRC+ in each of the last two seasons, though he only played 30 games in 2020 as he was platooned more with lefties like Tommy La Stella and Jake Lamb. He’s struggled against velocity and seen his power swoon, with his ISO, SLG, Barrel %, average exit velocity, and HardHit% all declining. Despite that, he still managed to hit left-handed pitching, posting a 143 wRC+ against southpaws from 2019 to ’20, though his ISO was actually worse against them last year and his SLG still middling.

Calhoun has spent the last few years injured or blocked by others on the big league roster. He entered camp last year as the presumptive starter in left field but missed time with a hamstring injury and only managed 29 games. In 2019, his longest stretch of big league action to date, he hit right-handed pitching well, posting a .290/.345/.536 line and 121 wRC+. You can squint and see how a DH platoon could cure what ails the Rangers, but Davis might just be a vet in decline, and Calhoun might have spent too long blocked and injured to take off. And then there are the injuries…

The bad news for the Rangers is that this projection could get worse! Davis has a quadriceps strain that is expected to sideline him for 3–4 weeks, and Calhoun is expected to miss the first two weeks of the season with a groin injury. If they’re out longer or are further diminished upon their return, even more of the club’s DH at-bats will go to players cycling through on rest days. Assuming he makes the roster, García will likely help spell the hurt pair. His big league sips of coffee have gone terribly. Guzmán parlayed a strong LIDOM showing into a torrid spring and forced his way onto the Opening Day roster. Gallo projects as the team’s best hitter (though that isn’t saying much) but is also the starting right fielder. Dahl, who will start in left and be backed up by Calhoun, had a terrible 99 PA for the Rockies last year in a season marred by back and shoulder injuries, but is better when healthy.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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3 years ago

Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge seem like they are going to have shorter careers than their talent level suggests because they’re too big and strong for their bodies to really hold them. It’s a different kind of thing than just heavy guys…but these guys are so big and strong it’s like their body can’t handle the explosive strength they have.

I don’t know if there is a name or not for this in physiology but it’s not like Judge and Stanton keep having the same injury over and over again, but also, it’s not like you can keep calling these one-off injuries when they are basically never healthy. I think we got spoiled by Frank Thomas and Nelson Cruz playing so long.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Cespedes is another example of this.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Some of us older guys remember the old axiom against lifting weights that managers like Sparky Anderson espoused. While that is likely too old school, there just MAY be something to the thought that really big, muscle-bound guys are too susceptible to pulled muscles, little joint injuries caused by all the muscle mass, etc.