Don’t Punt on the Designated Hitter

Heading into the 2010 season most American League teams had a plan with the DH spot. As I noted earlier this month, many of those plans failed. As we can see on the team DH leader board, only six teams have gotten better than a .321 wOBA from the hitter-only position. In some cases this was poor luck. The Angels and Blue Jays had solid plans for the DH spot but saw them blow up, while the Rays had a good hitter who just couldn’t do it as a DH or in the AL, apparently. Other teams had plans that predictably failed. The White Sox are the prime culprits here.

During the off-season the Sox faced some criticism for passing on potential full-time DHs. They instead favored a rotation that would allow them to give someone a half day’s rest every once in a while. That might sound like a reasonable tactic, but the half day’s rest is a dubious assumption. There is no study, to my knowledge, that demonstrates the effect a day at DH has on an everyday player. Employing this tactic also means the team must replace the everyday player in the field, and that usually involves an inferior player. The White Sox have certainly felt the latter effect.

Twenty times this year Paul Konerko has filled the DH spot and seven times he has taken a day off. In all 27 instances Mark Kotsay took his place at first base. In an additional 47 games Kotsay himself has served as the DH. This has been nothing but a detriment to the team. Kotsay is no longer a good hitter, and really hasn’t been one since 2004. He has a mere .304 wOBA this year after a .309 mark last year, and he hasn’t crossed the .320 mark since 2005. There was no reason to think he’d approach average production for a DH. Yet he has been their primary guy in that spot. It seems like it could have gone to a more worthy player.

Kotsay wasn’t the Sox only option heading into the year. During the off-season they had signed Andruw Jones, who spent the majority of his 2009 season at DH. They also had Carlos Quentin, who struggled with injuries in 2008 and 2009. A rotation between the outfield and DH might have served both of them well. But the White Sox couldn’t count on that, since neither played a full 2009 season. Since they couldn’t count on it, the Sox would have done well with a more solid option at DH. Instead they turned to Kotsay.

The Sox weren’t lacking for options at DH. Jim Thome expressed his desire to return to Chicago after his short stint in Los Angeles, but the Sox passed. Minnesota jumped at the opportunity, and for relative pennies they picked up a 2.4 WAR player. Jermaine Dye also wanted to return, but there didn’t seem to be any interest from Chicago. There were good reasons to avoid him, but those reasons become diminished when your team has Mark Kotsay penciled into the DH spot. CHONE projected Dye to produce 1.2 WAR on the season, and that might have been even more if he didn’t play the field. That’s a nearly two-win boost over Kotsay, who has produced -0.6 WAR.

Passing on Thome hurt the most, of course, because of the swing it caused. This is all in hindsight, of course, but it still must sting to see a three-win difference between Thome and Kotsay. That’s three more potential wins for the White Sox and 2.5 fewer for the Twins. Even rounding down that’s a five-game differential, which would have the Sox in first by a game. Even with Dye over Kotsay the Sox could be within two games of first. Instead they’re four games back against a team that has played exceptionally since late July. And the entire difference might have come down to the decision to punt the DH spot.

As Dave noted yesterday, the White Sox stand to improve by adding Manny Ramirez, perhaps to the tune of a full win upgrade in September. But they could have used those wins earlier in the year. The team made a conscious decision to keep the DH spot open this winter, and it has come back to bite them. Maybe the 20 games at DH have helped keep Konerko fresh and productive, but we can’t prove that. What we can prove is that the usage of Mark Kotsay as the primary DH has hurt the team. Other teams might have gotten burned by their DH plan, but the Sox got burned by their lack of one. If they’re still in second place on October 4, it wouldn’t be wrong to point fingers at the guy whose DH plan included Mark Kotsay.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

20 Responses to “Don’t Punt on the Designated Hitter”

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  1. Mike B. says:

    It’s time for Kotsay to hang up his spikes and pursue the career for which he was destined, a Stephen Baldwin impersonator.

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  2. The Duder says:

    Wait a sec… so you’re telling me that there’s an entire position in the American League where all you have to do is hit… and that it’s a BAD idea pass on signing older guys who can definitely still hit but shouldn’t play the field therefore carrying less cost, and instead in slot in various players, often below average hitters, on a rotating basis?

    /brain explodes

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  3. Andy says:

    IIRC, weren’t they trying to take advantage of platoon splits depending on who was starting?

    I could be totally wrong (and the numbers, which I haven’t looked up, might not even suggest it’s a great idea), I just thought that was largely the rhetoric at the time

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  4. Otter says:

    Ozzie has some sort of idea that guys like Thome “clogged” the bases and therefore prevented the White Sox from scoring runs. I’m not totally sure what this theory is to be honest, but I think it’s just a weird way of saying that if you get on base, you better have speed. While I was never a fan of the double play and with Thome and Konerko, there are going to be a lot of double plays, but at the same time, having to watch Mark Kotsay for five months has been brutal (it’s a shame that Kotsay wasn’t on the Mariners this year honestly). Anyway, I’ve taken to call Kotsay “The Plummer” since he’s unclogged the bases by not getting on base. At least Ozzie is happy.

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  5. Muzz says:

    Ironically, if double plays were the concern, Kotsay and Thome have grounded into the same amount of double plays this year, 8. Kotsay has had roughly 40 more PAs, but that is a difference of maybe 1 double play in Kotsay’s favor. The rotating DH was really stupid, and if it is an attempt to keep guys fresh, it doesn’t seem to be working. Quentin, Konerko, and Alex Rios all have lower OPSes in the DH spot.

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    • colintj says:

      that’s expected. Tango has shown that hitters perform worse at DH than they do in the field. which is why the position adjustment is -17.5 runs instead of -22.5.

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  6. James says:

    It’s hard to finger the DH, when Tampa Bay is 10 games better than the Sox without getting significantly more from their DH rotation. The bullpen has cost them more wins since the all-star break than the WAR difference between Thome and Kotsay. I don’t think a revolving DH is a bad idea, the caveat being it needs to be filled with at least average hitters, and that’s failure is on the GM.

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  7. John says:

    The logic about Thome moving from the Twins to the Sox meaning +3 for the Sox and -2.5 for the Twins fails. It is based upon the assumption that the Twins don’t get to replace those ABs or would be replacing them w/ a player that is a 0 or negative WAR player.

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  8. Dan Greer says:

    If managers weren’t complete cowards in their usage patterns of their backup catchers, Ramon Castro would have been a candidate to pick up some DH time.

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    • JCav75 says:

      .Wait. you want MLB managers to use Ramon Castro in their lineups…the backup catcher and former Met….furthermore…the dude who settled a rape case against him out of court in 2004? –#1 he shouldn’t even be on a major league baseball team because of his terrible judgement, poor morals and lack of character — #2 90 at bats does not a .322 hitter make (what he’s hitting right now), he’s a career .239 hitter. his average right now is a total outlier of a performance and the dude for all intents and purposes freakn’ raped someone. Nice article Joe, Kotsay is a waste of time and they should have done this eons ago.

      PS– anyone else frustrated that the day after the white sox get manny, they STILL started Kotsay instead?!

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      • Dan Greer says:

        Castro may be everything you claim, or he may not be. He’s on a Major League roster and on the balance has been a more productive hitter than Kotsay over the last 5 years. I think that’s enough of a sample size.

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      • BlackOps says:

        You’re an idiot.

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    • ozzie's gut says:

      You don’t start your only backup catcher at DH, because if you need to switch him behind the plate during the game, then you lose the DH and the pitcher hits in the catcher’s spot in the order.

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      • Not David says:

        And it would certainly mean the end of the world if a pitcher *might* have to get a plate appearance.

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  9. Steve says:

    Kotsay’s wife is smoking, time to retire Mark..

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  10. Shoeless says:

    I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry reading this article. It’s like banging your funny bone over and over.

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