Pure designated hitters losing their luster
What should be one of the least polarizing and glorious elections in our country, for entrance into one of our greatest museums, this year turned as divisive and nasty as the non-fiction world of politics. Even more than the ill-tempered, fanatical, condescending thrashing by the sabermetric world of all things visual or traditional, the issue of steroids continues to tear the labrum of the sport, making the game John Updike saw through a peeping-eye egg into fundamentalist absolutes based on speculation and the "credibility" of steroid users not at peace with just ruining their own lives.
Until we begin to celebrate the inevitable coronation of Barry Larkin as the next member of The Hall, or maybe not until we are past 2013 and begin thinking of the day when Junior Griffey and Greg Maddux reach Cooperstown, that era and all its contradictions will continue to haunt this sport, and no other. But between the Cooperstown vote and this winter's free-agent market, there is another trend in play: The DH is not valued as it once was.
Harold Baines fell off the ballot for good. He was the prototypical professional hitter, a notch below Tony Oliva, but with a career 122 OPS+ (Jim Rice was 128, Andre Dawson 119). He was Barack Obama's favorite White Sox player. Gone, with less than 5 percent of the vote.
OK, Baines was a decent outfielder for half his career, but because of injuries, he became a pure DH.
Edgar Martinez was strictly a DH. He was a great hitter. Like Jeff Bagwell, he is one of 16 players with at least 5,000 plate appearances with an on-base percentage better than .400 and a slugging percentage over .500. Some of his numbers, especially in 1995, were those of a superstar. Yet he is mired at 32.9 percent and may not be able to have advocates inch him closer to the 75 percent necessary.
Then look at the free-agent market. Manny Ramirez has no job in sight. Jim Thome is struggling with negotiations with the Twins. There is no regular job for Johnny Damon. Vladimir Guerrero is unemployed. So is Jason Giambi. And Russell Branyan. The Indians would eat a little of Travis Hafner's contract to move him.
The two designated hitters who have been signed this winter are David Ortiz and Hideki Matsui, and the Athletics got Matsui for $4.25 million. Ortiz is a special case, as an icon, as a key figure in two World Series championships, as a part of the Boston community. He also recovered from a miserable five-week start to lead all DHs in homers with 32 and was second (to Guerrero) in RBIs and second behind Luke Scott in OPS last season. The Red Sox picked up his option because they felt he would still produce and they owed it to him for nine great seasons.
But after his productive past four-plus months, if Ortiz struggles against left-handed pitching (.218 the last three years), Terry Francona may try to make the DH spot against lefties a more flexible position. He could DH Kevin Youklis to rest him, with Jed Lowrie and his career .944 OPS against left-handers at third. Or he could use Mike Cameron (.980 OPS against southpaws) or Darnell McDonald.
An inflexible DH spot can tie a manager's hand. Rumors circulated that the Yankees might be interested in Ramirez, rumors that were unfounded and untrue for a number of reasons. The most important is that Joe Girardi needs the DH spot open to keep Jorge Posada in the lineup and allow Russell Martin, Jesus Montero (who one baseball executive calls "the next Mike Piazza ) and Austin Romine the opportunities to catch and grow.
Guerrero had 115 RBIs for the Rangers and was a major factor in their run to the World Series. But they felt that Adrian Beltre was a more important long-term fit, and that if they were to sign Beltre, they needed to give Michael Young the flexibility to DH and play first, second, short and third, especially given the fact that he's won Gold Gloves at second and short and might win one in center field if he played enough at that position.
We all get the Beltre notion. During the season, Texas could have C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Michael Kirkman, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes and Martin Perez throw innings from the left side. Brandon Webb may not be left-handed, but he is a sinkerballer, and Beltre and Elvis Andrus may make for the best left side of any infield.
"There are two factors working against players who are predominantly designated hitters," said one American League general manager. "The first, obviously, is the flexibility. If you're the Orioles, why give the DH spot to Guerrero when you have Scott [and his .902 OPS] and can give Derrek Lee a rest and allow Scott to play first?
"The other factor," said the GM, "is that the way the game is evolving, there is a premium for players who perform on both sides of the ball. The fact that Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford are outstanding defenders helped them on the free-agent market. It will help Adrian Gonzalez in his negotiations with Boston that he is a Gold Glover. It probably added $2 or 3 million to Lee's deal in Baltimore."
If you are Ramirez, Guerrero or Ortiz in his prime, that is one thing. But remember, the AL designated hitters added up to a per-team production average of a .252 batting average, 22 homers, a .332 on-base percentage, .426 slugging percentage and a .757 OPS.
Johnny Gomes had a .758 OPS. Alex Gonzalez hit 23 home runs. They were your average DHs. The Angels, who eschewed Beltre and Crawford, got a .670 OPS and 17 homers from their designated hitters.
Hitters are necessary. Hitters who can play on both sides the ball are invaluable.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.