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November 16, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Designating Some Offense

by Jim Baker

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Hippies used to say that you should never trust anyone over 30. Well, one of baseball's renegade institutions is now a couple years past that point--has it earned our trust? Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus ran the list of the top five DHs for 2004, using VORP as the gauge, and it set me to wondering about the grand old institution of the Designated Hitter. A few interesting things happened with the DH this year. First, though, you can see that Travis Hafner of the Indians barely beat out David Ortiz of the Red Sox for the highest VORP at the position:


Player          Team   AVG   VORP
---------------------------------
Travis Hafner   CLE   .337   74.1
David Ortiz     BOS   .320   73.1
Erubiel Durazo  OAK   .315   62.3
Frank Thomas    CHA   .333   36.5
David Newhan    BAL   .288   27.1

In the process, Hafner posted the 13th-best ever VORP by a designated hitter. Here are the top five:


VORP   Player          Year  Team
-------------------------------------
102.4  Edgar Martinez  1995  Mariners
94.1   Frank Thomas    2000  White Sox
91.4   Frank Thomas    1991  White Sox
87.2   Edgar Martinez  1997  Mariners
87.2   Edgar Martinez  2000  Mariners
Martinez has sixth-place as well.

Lobbyists for the DH in the early '70s argued that it would prolong the careers of fan-favorite superstar athletes who would otherwise have to retire if they were required to continue taking the field for defensive purposes. As if to illustrate this, the first winner was Frank Robinson. For the long-run, though, this did not pan out. Within four years, the second-youngest man ever to post the highest VORP for a DH was on the scene. Jim Rice was just 24 in 1977 when he was crowded out of the Red Sox outfield by more glove-worthy individuals. Rice was the first man to crack 70 in VORP as a DH. It was another ten years before somebody bettered him (Paul Molitor with 82.3 in 1987), making for some very unimpressive DH performances along the way.

In 1991, Frank Thomas became the youngest man ever to post the highest VORP for a DH. His gaudy 91.4 that year broke a seemingly endless string of pedestrian-looking league leading VORP numbers for DHs. Aside from Rice, Molitor and a 66.0 from Hal McRae in 1982, the leaders were not exactly spanking the heights up until Thomas came along. Low tide for the DH position came in 1985 when Gorman Thomas logged a VORP of 30.2 and still managed to have the best number at the position.

For his part, Hafner is the third-youngest man to win the designated hitting VORP title. The average age of the leaders has been 32.5, but only six men below the age of 30 have posted the highest number. Hafner's success in his prime makes one wonder what fate has in store for him position-wise. Here are the six men who have posted the highest VORP at DH before the age of 30, followed by the numbers of games they have played in the field and at DH after/since winning the title:

  • Frank Thomas (23): 864 at first base 823 at DH
  • Jim Rice (24): 1,308 in outfield, 290 at DH
  • Travis Hafner (27): ?
  • Hal McRae (28): 209 in outfield, one at third base, 1,300 at DH
  • Don Baylor (29): 68 in outfield, 18 at first base, 1,043 at DH
  • Manny Ramirez (29): 332 in outfield, 94 at DH

There are three basic paths for the young, successful designated hitting fellow:

  • The Thomas Route: Use the DH as an entree into the starting lineup, hit well, and then claim a position for yourself (but move back to DH later in your career when it is deemed dangerous to have you in the field).

  • The McRae-Baylor Route: Become one of the designated hitting elite and pretty much give up defense for keeps.

  • The Rice-Ramirez Route: Go back to playing the majority of your games in the field.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with circumstances. It's not like Hafner is in complete control of his destiny. Still, though, as one of the very few younger men to stir things up in this role, it's interesting to speculate on his future. Ortiz is in the same boat, too. He's only 19 months older than Hafner. His trajectory could be like McRae's. The Royals sent him to the outfield for most of '75. He settled into the DH role after that. Ortiz could find himself getting more playing time at first in 2005 before settling into a DHing for the rest of his career.

Something else interesting happened this year is unique in the three-decade history of the designated hitter. First base was the previous final stopping point on the defensive spectrum for players unable to handle more demanding fielding tasks. The advent of the DH allowed those so challenged to take the big step completely off the spectrum. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at the VORP leaders at first base and DH since 1973. What we find is that the DH has never quite been the font of runs that first base remains. In fact, 2004 marks only the fifth time that the best DH VORP is higher than that of the best first baseman's number. Actually, never before has there been such a gap between DH and first:

  • 2004 (20.5) Hafner over Mark Teixeira, 74.1 to 53.6
  • 1995 (15.0) Edgar Martinez over Frank Thomas, 102.4 to 87.4
  • 1991 (13.1) Frank Thomas over Rafael Palmeiro, 91.4 to 78.3
  • 1987 (10.7): Paul Molitor over Mark McGwire, 82.3 to 71.6
  • 1999 (10.5): Palmeiro over Jason Giambi, 86.1 to 75.6

What is more, the best DH VORP would usually be only good enough for third or fourth place among first basemen. In a handful of years, it would have barely qualified for the top ten. This year, for the first time ever, the second-best DH VORP is better than the best first base mark as well. To top that, Erubiel Durazo's third-place finish was better than Teixeira's, too.

Does this mean the balance of power is shifting from first to DH? It is interesting to note that the top three finishers at DH were 27, 28 and 30 respectively for the 2004 season. One could make a great leap and state that this trio is going to dominate DHing for the next half-decade but that wouldn't be prudent. For one thing, first base had a down year with the injuries to Giambi and the fall-off by Carlos Delgado. In no time, Justin Morneau will be pushing a VORP agenda of 75 to 80 points and Teixeira is a good bet to better his 2004 performance. Hafner and Ortiz could both switch positions and bring their acts to the first base side of the ledger, further reinforcing the belief that what we saw this year was merely a blip on the offensive EKG.

In the end, the DH will continue to be what it has been for a long time: a catch-all; a Sargasso Sea of a position rather than a wellspring of offensive output in the hands of a team's best hitters.

Related Content:  Travis Hafner,  Designated Hitter,  Dh

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