Jeff Sullivan wrote last week that the DH just had its worst season. That was the main point of his piece. Along the way, though, Jeff also did some myth-busting with regard to how the DH spot is being utilized these days. There’s an emergent belief that the DH has become a revolving door on many clubs, used more often to keep players fresh and create roster flexibility, and less often to simply give a lone, defensively challenged hitter a full complement of at-bats.
What Jeff found contradicts this belief, however. Last season, the top-15 designated hitters in the AL accounted for 64% of plate appearance. Since 1973, though, the average for primary DHs is just 56%.
From Sullivan’s piece:
So designated hitters are hitting worse than ever not because of a transformation of the role itself but just because they’re hitting worse than ever.
While the collective production of DHs might improve in 2018, it’s still a bleak landscape, with only seven AL teams projected to produce a win or better from the position. The Mariners (3.0 WAR), Yankees (2.6), Indians (2.4), Athletics (1.8), and Rangers (1.2) account for the top-five DH teams. Their respective depth charts at the position are led by Nelson Cruz, Brett Gardner, Khris Davis, Edwin Encarnacion, and Shin-Soo Choo. The average age of those players is 34.2 years. While the DH position often allows for aging bats with diminishing defense to find their way into the lineup, there is hardly a youth movement occurring at the position. It’s possible the position is even weaker than in 2017.
While teams are still employing regular designated hitters, they rarely invest in such players. The two largest contracts awarded to current designated hitters were the four-year, $68-million pact received by Victor Martinez from the Tigers leading into the 2015 season and the three-year, $60-million deal the Indians gave to Encarnacion. While the Angels should have perhaps anticipated that Albert Pujols would require a move DH, he was nevertheless signed as a first baseman.
So with the DH looking to be historically weak and few teams willing to pay a premium for the position, this might be a point in time when it makes sense for the right club to invest in the DH and gain a competitive advantage in the process.
The Red Sox jump out as an obvious candidate. That’s why they’ve been connected to J.D. Martinez all winter and reportedly have a standing five-year offer out to the Boras client. An agreement has seemed inevitable, but pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report tomorrow and nothing has yet occurred. Boston ought not to let this opportunity slide away.
The DH position was a great strength for the Red Sox during the David Ortiz era, of course. From 2003 to -16, the club only once posted a wRC+ worse than 118 at the position. Last season, meanwhile, Red Sox DHs produced a 90 wRC+, the sixth-worst mark in franchise history.
During the Ortiz era, the Red Sox had a competitive advantage at DH. They posted 48.2 WAR from the DH spot from 2003 to -16. The next nearest AL club, the Yankees, produced 30.2 WAR. Only six AL clubs in that 13-year span produced 20 or more wins from their DH spot.
The Red Sox could purchase another similar advantage in the short- to mid-term.
Since 2015, Martinez has posted the seventh-best wRC+ in the game (147). Last season, amongst hitters who made at least 400 plate appearances, Martinez’s 166 wRC+ trailed only that of Mike Trout and Aaron Judge.
Yes, we have to worry about how Martinez will age. Yes, he could fall off a cliff. Yes, there is risk. But there appears to be little immediate or short-term concern. They’ve already traded a lot of tomorrow for right now. And Martinez is not yet ancient. He’s entering his age-30 season.
In an examination of how comparable hitters have aged from ages 30 to 36, our own excellent Craig Edwards found earlier this offseason that Martinez could “still return a $150 million investment” even if paired with below-average baserunning and defense. The latter is a concern for NL clubs, of course. Martinez recorded a -14.8 UZR/150 and -5 DRS last season. His defense was even worse in 2016 (-22 DRS and -21.5 UZR/150). In the AL, that wouldn’t have to be a problem.
While the end of the contract could be ugly, the totality of the contract might not be so unpalatable. And while there are cheaper hitters like Carlos Gonzalez and Logan Morrison available, Martinez has an elite-level bat. He would give the Red Sox a sizable competitive advantage in one lineup spot.
Environment and context are important, too.
The Red Sox hold a one-game edge over the Yankees in FanGraphs’ projections. The next-closest projected division race? The NL Central, where the Cubs hold a six-game lead over the Cardinals. And one can argue the Yankees have a far better long-term outlook than Boston, ranked No. 2 in Baseball America’s farm system rankings. The Red Sox rank No. 24 in that same list. The Yankees are determined to get under the luxury threshold and be key players in next year’s free agent shopping, while the Red Sox already have $204 million committed to 2018 salaries, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. It appears as though the Red Sox are not concerned with getting below the tax threshold. So this might not only be a time to invest in the DH and a rare bat for the position, but the Red Sox have a division title to worry about and perhaps a shorter window.
We also don’t know for how long Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel will remain healthy and elite. Boston traded considerable prospect wealth to acquire them. The Red Sox ought to be in win-now mode. A player like Martinez, could, in theory, tip the divisional balance in their favor. That’s incredibly valuable.
While it’s prudent to remember the Albert Pujols contract this time of year, Pujols’s first year in Los Angeles was in his age-32 season. Martinez is 30. He’s at the height of his powers, having ranked second in Statcast’s barrels-per-batted-ball metric both last season and 2015. Dave Dombrowski has been criticized, and rightfully so in some cases, for his big-game hunting, for trading too much of tomorrow for today. But this is an instance when the Red Sox ought to ensure that they get their target, which is the best bat available — one of the great offensive sources in the game.