May 13, 2008
You Could Look It Up
The Mariners have been trying to solve their designated hitter problem of late, bringing up nominal catcher Jeff Clement and putting him into a platoon with incumbent DH Jose Vidro. Vidro has put the lie to the "hitter" part of designated hitter, batting .193/.244/.289 to open the season. In promoting Clement, the Mariners, who have been struggling to score more than four runs a game and whose pitching ain't been so hot either, are doing one of the obvious, pain-free things within their power to change that. That they should have relieved Vidro last season, or never acquired Vidro in the first place, is beside the point. The main thing is, they're taking a position whose only point is to provide offense and-gasp-trying to get offense out of it.
It is shocking just how often teams fail to get offense out of their designated hitter spot. The rationales offered in defense of non-hitters at other positions-"Sparky McNastydrawers saves us ten runs a game with his glove"-don't apply. Yet, teams will go forever with a sub-par DH or DHs. In the latter case, the manager simply cannot or does not want to identify a regular for the slot, and so he rotates players through with mixed results. More often, though, the team has a veteran name player and it is waiting for that player to find his old stroke and start hitting. Sometimes, often, they never do.
For that reason, some of the worst seasons by designated hitters have been turned in by players with resumes even greater than that of three-time All-Star Vidro, among them former MVPs like Dave Parker and George Bell. In 1991, the erstwhile Cobra finished his career by batting .232/.279/.358 for the Angels, who had acquired him from the Brewers in exchange for Dante Bichette. To their credit, the Angels did release Parker and replace him with a still-vigorous Dave Winfield, though not until September, when the season was already lost.
Mere months after Parker was released, the White Sox consummated a trade with the cross-town Cubs that would become infamous, swapping Sammy Sosa and Ken Patterson for George Bell. Bell was always a good contact hitter for a hitter with power-too good in some ways, given that he never learned to take a walk. Bell propped up his production by hitting for averages around .290. The White Sox didn't get that, they got .255/.294/.418, and then it got worse: in 1993, the 33-year-old Bell hit .217/.243/.363 in 102 games. The limitation in playing time was not manager Gene Lamont getting wise, but a mid-season knee injury; when Bell returned he went right back into the lineup. He hit only .183/.212/.409 in 99 plate appearances from then until to the end of the season, and Lamont let Bo Jackson do the DH-ing in the playoffs-the Sox had won in spite of him.
Two of the worst seasons by full-time designated hitters took place in 1984, and in each case, that player's decline mirrored the decay at the heart of two great teams. Ken Singleton had been with the Orioles since 1975, playing right field for them until becoming their DH in 1982. A three-time All-Star and four-time top ten MVP candidate, Singleton's career rates are "only" .282/.388/.436, numbers from the relatively low-slugging era of the 1970s and early 80s which partially disguise a .305 career EqA. Singleton had been trending gradually downwards since his .295/.405/.533 season for the pennant-winning 1979 O's; his .251/.349/.381 season of 1982 was both barely adequate and the worst of his career to that point. He rebounded at age 36, batting .276/.393/.436 for the World Series winners in 1983.
That was the last World Series the Orioles have won to date. The old "Oriole Way" was dying as the team aged and, more importantly, the farm system curdled. While Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr. were either in or embarking upon the prime of their careers, Earl Weaver was gone, and there were no replacements for underperforming vets like Al Bumbry, Disco Dan Ford, and the left-field platoon of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke. Over the next few seasons prospects like Mike Young and John Shelby would fail to take.
Singleton became part of the problem. In 1984, every aspect of his game went south, from his power at the plate, to the patience that usually brought his team 100 walks per season, to his ability to hit for average, and finally to his health, as a fractured bone in his foot would land him on the disabled list for the first time in his career (incredibly, he missed just 16 games). Singleton had never had any speed and was always a big double-play threat. This was the one aspect of his game that age accentuated. Singleton opened cold and stayed cold, batting just .191/.267/.298 in the second half. All in all, he batted .215/.286/.289, and wisely hung up his spurs. The O's fell to 85-77, a record they would soon be grateful to have, but at the time it represented their worst winning percentage since 1972.
Halfway across the country, the Brewers were also struggling. That's something that we're used to hearing, and it was something that people were also used to hearing then, although for a brief period of time, the Brew Crew supported one's willing suspension of disbelief. The Brewers went 67-95 in 1977, but the next year the club nearly turned that record around, going 93-69 as the team's assemblage of hitting talent-which included Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Sal Bando, Lary Hisle, Gorman Thomas, and Ben Oglivie-emerged as the league's leading offense. The club's only weak spot was catcher, held down by the nondescript tandem of Charlie Moore and Buck Martinez.
Pitching would never be the club's strong suit, but the offense would keep the club going strong for the next several years, climaxing in the team's 1982 pennant and seven-game loss to the Cardinals in the World Series. Along the way, they attempted to upgrade at catcher, one of the team's few weak spots, by making a December, 1980 swap with those same Cards for catcher Ted Simmons, also picking up key pitchers Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers in the deal. As it turned out, the Brewers had mistimed things with Simmons. A career .298/.366/.459 hitter though his age-30 season in 1980, the switch-hitting Simmons still had a couple of good years left with the stick, but after 1982, the Brewers chose to see him as more of a DH. Simmons' defensive rep had never been good, and the team had a couple of young catchers lurking about in Ned Yost and Bill Schroeder. Charlie Moore was also still on the team, but for reasons beyond understanding, he was playing in right field and contributing little in the way of offense while waiting for a chance to get back behind the dish.
In 1984, the Brewers' run came to a decisive end with a 67-84 record. By now the club had acquired six-time Gold Glove winner Jim Sundberg, and Simmons never did get to put on the tools of ignorance that year, spending most of the season as the DH with occasional starts at first and third bases. In all he got into 132 games, batted mostly fifth, and hit a ghastly .221/.269/.300. Like the Orioles, the Brewers have been mostly down since then and on rare occasions up, but how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again has remained an elusive concept.
So let us celebrate the Mariners, whose designated hitters have to date batted .208/.270/.309. Let us celebrate Jeff Clement, even though he has struck out in 16 of 37 at-bats so far. Let us praise manager John McLaren and general manager Bill Bavasi, even though they conceived Vidro-as-DH in the first place. At least they're not totally complacent, more than you can say for so many of their peers across the ages.