Don’t Punt on the Designated Hitter

Heading into the 2010 season most American League teams had a plan with the DH spot. As I noted earlier this month, many of those plans failed. As we can see on the team DH leader board, only six teams have gotten better than a .321 wOBA from the hitter-only position. In some cases this was poor luck. The Angels and Blue Jays had solid plans for the DH spot but saw them blow up, while the Rays had a good hitter who just couldn’t do it as a DH or in the AL, apparently. Other teams had plans that predictably failed. The White Sox are the prime culprits here.

During the off-season the Sox faced some criticism for passing on potential full-time DHs. They instead favored a rotation that would allow them to give someone a half day’s rest every once in a while. That might sound like a reasonable tactic, but the half day’s rest is a dubious assumption. There is no study, to my knowledge, that demonstrates the effect a day at DH has on an everyday player. Employing this tactic also means the team must replace the everyday player in the field, and that usually involves an inferior player. The White Sox have certainly felt the latter effect.

Twenty times this year Paul Konerko has filled the DH spot and seven times he has taken a day off. In all 27 instances Mark Kotsay took his place at first base. In an additional 47 games Kotsay himself has served as the DH. This has been nothing but a detriment to the team. Kotsay is no longer a good hitter, and really hasn’t been one since 2004. He has a mere .304 wOBA this year after a .309 mark last year, and he hasn’t crossed the .320 mark since 2005. There was no reason to think he’d approach average production for a DH. Yet he has been their primary guy in that spot. It seems like it could have gone to a more worthy player.

Kotsay wasn’t the Sox only option heading into the year. During the off-season they had signed Andruw Jones, who spent the majority of his 2009 season at DH. They also had Carlos Quentin, who struggled with injuries in 2008 and 2009. A rotation between the outfield and DH might have served both of them well. But the White Sox couldn’t count on that, since neither played a full 2009 season. Since they couldn’t count on it, the Sox would have done well with a more solid option at DH. Instead they turned to Kotsay.

The Sox weren’t lacking for options at DH. Jim Thome expressed his desire to return to Chicago after his short stint in Los Angeles, but the Sox passed. Minnesota jumped at the opportunity, and for relative pennies they picked up a 2.4 WAR player. Jermaine Dye also wanted to return, but there didn’t seem to be any interest from Chicago. There were good reasons to avoid him, but those reasons become diminished when your team has Mark Kotsay penciled into the DH spot. CHONE projected Dye to produce 1.2 WAR on the season, and that might have been even more if he didn’t play the field. That’s a nearly two-win boost over Kotsay, who has produced -0.6 WAR.

Passing on Thome hurt the most, of course, because of the swing it caused. This is all in hindsight, of course, but it still must sting to see a three-win difference between Thome and Kotsay. That’s three more potential wins for the White Sox and 2.5 fewer for the Twins. Even rounding down that’s a five-game differential, which would have the Sox in first by a game. Even with Dye over Kotsay the Sox could be within two games of first. Instead they’re four games back against a team that has played exceptionally since late July. And the entire difference might have come down to the decision to punt the DH spot.

As Dave noted yesterday, the White Sox stand to improve by adding Manny Ramirez, perhaps to the tune of a full win upgrade in September. But they could have used those wins earlier in the year. The team made a conscious decision to keep the DH spot open this winter, and it has come back to bite them. Maybe the 20 games at DH have helped keep Konerko fresh and productive, but we can’t prove that. What we can prove is that the usage of Mark Kotsay as the primary DH has hurt the team. Other teams might have gotten burned by their DH plan, but the Sox got burned by their lack of one. If they’re still in second place on October 4, it wouldn’t be wrong to point fingers at the guy whose DH plan included Mark Kotsay.

We hoped you liked reading Don’t Punt on the Designated Hitter by Joe Pawlikowski!

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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Mike B.

It’s time for Kotsay to hang up his spikes and pursue the career for which he was destined, a Stephen Baldwin impersonator.