Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Evolution of the Designated Hitter

On this day in 1973, the American League agreed to adopt a hitter to take the place of the pitcher in the batting order. It wasn't the first time that the idea was floated. As early as the 1880s, various suggestions about replacing the pitcher with another bat in the lineup to boost offense were floated. Connie Mack brought it up again in the 1920s, with Babe Ruth and a host of other power hitters making offense more exciting, but he had very little support. It wasn't until the year of the pitcher (1968) that MLB owners started to entertain the idea with broad support. A handful of Spring Training games tested having a designated pinch hitter in 1969, but even then the National League owners had little interest in expanding it to regular season play.


Ron Blomberg, is of course the answer to the trivia question of the first player to appear in a MLB game as a Designated Hitter - he was happy to make history, but took pride in playing in the field as well.

Tony Oliva, the Twins great, benefitted greatly from the introduction of the DH rule, extending his career for several seasons after injuries made regular play in the field too painful to bear. Tony O hit the first home run ever for Designated Hitters.

Willie Horton / Rico Carty / Orlando Cepeda / Tommy Davis -

This Quartet of aging superstars were typical Designated Hitter material in the early days. Whether it was declining skill due to age or injury, the DH was often employed to extend the careers of players nearing the end of their playing days. Orlando Cepeda was nearly the first DH ever, playing in the same game as Blomberg, but he was on the home team, hitting 3rd in the bottom of the 1st inning. Cepeda's 1973 season was a renaissance for the slugger, hitting 20 homers for the Red Sox. Rico Carty was a frequent visitor atop the batting leaderboard throughout the 1960s, and managed to bounce between several teams in the 70s becoming an accomplished DH. After playing in just 41 games for 2 teams in 1972, Tommy Davis  found a niche as a DH in the 70s, finishing 10th in the AL MVP race in 1973. With the exception of his breakout 1962 campaign, Tommy was never a big power threat. His three big seasons with the Orioles featured lots of hits and solid run production. Willie Horton saved the best for last - after a decade of injuries and spending lots of time as the DH in Detroit and a whirlwind tour in 77 and 78, he became the everyday DH in Seattle. And I do mean every day, appearing in a career high 162 games. Horton hit 29 homers, the most he'd hit in a decade.


Hal McRae / Reggie Jackson / Andre Thornton / Ken Phelps

In the 1980s, the DH position started to see a little more variety, as younger and (slightly) more athletic players began to get a chance to make an impact. The prototype for that kind of player was Hal McRae, who was not only one of the best DHs of the '80s, but the 1970s as well. After being traded from Cincinnati to the Royals, McRae found himself in a crowded and fleet of foot outfield. The competition for best hitter on the team was a smaller pool, with only the great George Brett offering resistance for the title. McRae's peak ran from the mid 70s to the early 80s, and he consistently put up great numbers. Now before you laugh, take a moment to consider this about Ken Phelps. From 1984 through 1988, there were few if any Designated Hitters that matched his power and his eye at the plate. His OPS+ as a Mariner was 145! Not too shabby. His OBP was .406 in '86, .410 in '87, and .434 in '88 before being traded to the Yankees. Reggie Jackson dabbled in DHing throughout his career, but it wasn't until the '80s that it became more of a full time gig. Always a prolific hitter, his brief time as DH was enough to make him one of the more successful of the decade at the position. Yo, Andre, put that glove down, you are not going to need it. Be content with being a two time All-Star without a glove. You were legitimately feared at the plate, leading the league in intentional walks in 1982 and earning a Silver Slugger in 1984.  


Chili Davis / Paul Molitor / Harold Baines / Ellis Burks

Again we see some holdover stars from the previous decade come into their own as Designated Hitters in the next. Chili Davis seemed like the DH spot was the position he was born to play. Transitioning to the AL in 1989, he excelled as a DH with the Angels, Twins, Royals, and Yankees. All told, he played over 1100 games as a DH. Paul Molitor had some of his finest seasons as a Designated Hitter, and despite injuries that slowed him down, his motor continued to run throughout the 90s with stops in Toronto and Minnesota. Until Ichiro's 3,000th hit last season, Molitor was the only member of the club to get to 3,000 hits on a triple. He led the league with 225 hits in 1996 at the age of 39, primarily as the Twins' DH. Harold Baines was the DH of the 1990s- stints with Oakland, Texas, the Orioles, and White Sox resulted in over 1600 career games as the Designated Hitter. Baines hit for average, got on base, and had decent power. Ellis Burks. Ellis Burks? Well, that was a mistake. He did DH in over 300 games in his career, but most of that was in the early 2000s, not in the 90s. You can roast me in the comments and let me know who should have been there instead.  


Edgar Martinez / Travis Hafner / Jim Thome / Frank Thomas

Instead of Burks, probably could have gone with 3 out of the 4 of these guys... Frank Thomas was still playing first base in Chicago in the 90s, but transitioned to more or less full time DH duties in the 2000s. He finished his career with some very strong seasons in Toronto and Oakland, but will be best remembered for his days on the South Side. Jim Thome toured the AL Central, with memorable stops in Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota. He sprinkled in a few years in Philadelphia for good measure as well as brief stops in LA and Baltimore. His 800+ games as a DH were spent mashing taters at every opportunity. Edgar Martinez spent his entire career in Seattle, and was probably the best "pure hitter" at the DH position of all time. Edgar should have been on the 90s list, I can see that now. His 1995 campaign alone, when he won the batting title, led the league in doubles, OBP, runs scored and OPS+, was enough for him to headline the list. Travis Hafner essentially became Thome's replacement in Cleveland, and while he didn't match the production of the future Hall of Famer, he still provided tremendous pop and some outstanding seasons in the 2000s. Injuries derailed his career in his prime, though he still managed to hit over 200 career homers.


David Ortiz / Victor Martinez / Billy Butler / Kendrys Morales

Still with me? As we look forward to the rest of this decade, we will have to do it without Big Papi. David Ortiz will retire as the best Designated Hitter of all time. There are some questions about how he got his big numbers, and that kind of thing will be just fine for sportswriters to debate for years to come. His playoff performances and body of work will have to do the talking. Billy Butler has the best nickname in baseball right now, "Country Breakfast." He's also quietly amassed a fairly solid resume as a DH over the course of his career. He's not in the same conversation with Ortiz, Martinez, or Thome, but he has been an above average hitter in a league where average is pretty good. Victor Martinez might be the only MLB player the Molinas could beat in a footrace, but he still can crush the ball all over the ballpark. He's closing in on 2,000 career hits. Since coming to Detroit and throwing away his catching gear, he's put up 4 stellar seasons at the plate. Hard to say how many years he has to go, but V-Mart seems ready to give it another go in 2017. Kendrys Morales has turned in a pair of really good seasons for the Royals and parlayed them into a long term contract with the Blue Jays. It can be argued that the Jays struck too early in the free agent market, as the price for power bats seems to be at an all time low. However, Morales seems fully recovered from injuries that pushed him to the DH role in the first place, and is poised to strike again for another season of 20 plus homers.

So, who will be the next generation of DH? Big guys like Sano, Chris Carter, Chris Davis? Will we finally see some GMs and Managers try to leverage speed and OBP from no-glove guys? Will Bartolo Colon convince the AL to scrap the DH altogether? ONLY TIME WILL TELL.


  1. Love the history posts. (That's why I named my own blog Cardboard History, after all). Enjoyable read.

    1. Thanks! I learn (or at least remember) quite a bit putting them together as well.

  2. Great post! I really don't get why the HOF is dragging their feet so much in electing Edgar Martinez into the Hall. DH or not, he was easily one of the best pure hitters of his generation. I definitely think guys like Sano and maybe Mark Trumbo are nominees for the next DH generation.