May 27, 2011
The DH Conundrum
The designated hitter is one of those principles that seem to be a lot better in theory than in practice for most American League franchises. In theory, AL clubs can replace their feeble-hitting pitchers with a big, strong bat that will help the offense’s efficiency. But those big hitters are not always plentiful for some teams and not affordable for others. For every Edgar Martinez out there, a team ends up with Pat Burrell, as the only guarantee a designated hitter gives a team is the right to choose not to put the pitcher in the batting order.
Joe Maddon once unintentionally discarded that luxury with a lineup card mistake that had both Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria at third base, forcing Andy Sonnanstine to take his own hacks at the plate. Sonnanstine ended up going 1-for-3 with an RBI double while Pat Burrell sat on the bench wondering how that was done. Outside of that, you have to travel back to Ken Brett to find the last time a pitcher hit for himself in the American League for an entire game.
Power is the attribute most often associated with the DH role as visions of Frank Thomas, Jose Canseco, Steve Balboni, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, and Jim Thome dance in our heads while Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez stand and scoff from the other side of the spectrum. While power is the most desired attribute, it is also the costliest one. Home runs add to the RBI total and the runs scored total with just one swing of the bat; those numbers jump off the page to an arbiter, and even more so to a player’s agent, who is attempting to siphon money out of a general manager’s budget.
Over the past three seasons, there have been 33 different players in the American League that have had at least 350 plate appearances in a single season as their team’s primary DH. That group has pocketed $226.2 million for their work. They have accumulated a VORP of 672 and an average TAv of .289. To put that in perspective, the top 30 third basemen from 2010 accumulated a VORP of 753, an average TAv of .275, and a combined salary of $171 million. Four players—Alex Rodriguez, Michael Young, Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez—account for $76 million of that price tag.
Ten of the 33 players above had their contract value exceed their VORP in a single season, with Pat Burrell’s efforts being the most egregious. Ironically, it is the cheapest contract of them all that produced the highest VORP total on the chart—Lind’s stellar work in 2009. But one year later, he posted the fifth-worst on the chart at -1.2. That is a radical swing in value from one season to the next, but at the very low cost of $0.4 million, the impact of the move is lessened compared to other teams.
The Rays paid Pat Burrell $9 million to be their full-time DH and to help solve problems against left-handed pitching. Instead, he was wearing a Giants uniform by early June after clearing waivers, and the Rays were forced to use two players no longer in baseball, Rocco Baldelli and Willy Aybar, as their ALDS DHs. Twice in the last three seasons, the Tigers have been straddled with a $13-plus million salary; they paid Gary Sheffield and Carlos Guillen to produce a combined 10.2 VORP. Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers gave Vladimir Guerrero half that amount to fill their DH role, and he helped take them to the World Series.
The top 10 names on the table above made an average salary of $6.9 million in the season they were productive. Note that six of those 10 players made $6 million or less, or just a bit more than the dollar value of a win these days. This season, the role is once again off to a less-than-stellar start, as four of the current full-time DHs have a negative VORP. The group has compiled a VORP of just 63.4 while being paid $37.9 million of the $126.3 million due to them this season.
Jack Cust, who is being paid $2.5 million by Seattle, is the lowest-paid full-time DH in the American League. Kansas City’s Billy Butler ($3.5 million) and Oakland’s Hideki Matsui ($4.3 million) follow Cust on the pay scale, while Michael Young tops the charts at $16 million. Given the fact that a lot of money is spent at this position each year and the return on investment has been poor compared to other positions, might the new market inefficiency for American League be eschewing big dollars on full-time bats and allocating those saved costs on position players or pitching staffs?
The San Diego Padres have written the book on how to efficiently build bullpens without testing the open market. For the last few years, they have built their bullpen mostly through in-system development and shrewd acquisitions. The Padres didn’t give set-up men multi-year deals like the Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees have done recently. But no team has taken the leap of faith and tried to fill the DH role from within.
Each organization has at least one player on their depth chart that a scout says has the bat and poor defense. Chris Carter (take your pick), Brandon Allen, Jesus Montero, Eric Thames, Kila Ka’aihue, Wily Mo Pena, and Clint Robinson all come to mind as players who could serve as the DH and help teams now rather than spending time on the bench or even in Triple-A because of roster issues at the big-league level. Robinson in particular would be a model case for this experiment.
Robinson was a 25th-round draft pick by the Royals in 2007 due to concerns about his ability to play the field, but his numbers continue to improve as he climbs the organizational ladder. Last season, he won the Texas League triple crown and has taken that success to the Pacific Coast League, where he is currently hitting .349/.434/.616 in 198 plate appearances with 25 walks and 32 strikeouts, giving him a .340/.414/.626 slash line over his last 737 plate appearances. The first-base role at the big-league level is going to be locked up by Eric Hosmer for the foreseeable future, and the DH role belongs to Billy Butler thanks to the new contract the Royals gave him this past offseason. The organization still has Ka’aihue in the fold, meaning Robinson has quite a crowd of players to fight through to find at-bats.
Robinson may never be more than a bench player at the major-league level, but it is unlikely he will get the chance to showcase that as a member of the Royals because the only two spots on the roster he can fill will not be available any time soon. Rather than spend another $7-plus million on an aging bat at a lineup spot that has shown a rather disappointing rate of return on the money invested, I would like to see a general manager buck that trend and give a young bat such as Robinson a chance to fill the role that scouts say he and others like him are destined to fill.