Positional Power Rankings: Designated Hitter

For an explanation of this series, please read Dave Cameron’s introduction from Monday. All the posts in the series can be found here.

Whether you believe that every team should have a designated hitter, or that no teams should have one, there is no denying that the DH is an interesting position. While it’s still a position of high-octane performance — as a position, DH’s .771 OPS was second-best in the American League, behind only first base — it is also the one that most resembles a carousel. Last season, teams started — on average — more than nine different DH’s. Seven teams — the Blue Jays, Mariners, Rangers, Rays, Twins, White Sox and Yankees — had more different starting DH’s than they did starting pitchers. If you’re scoring at home, that’s half the AL.

All of which is to say that predicting who will get the most playing time at DH for each team can be a bit of a crapshoot. But that’s not going to stop us from trying.

One other thing to keep in mind — when it comes to WAR, it is a little bit harder for a DH to build up an elite season, due to the heavy positional adjustment that is taken into account.

14. Baltimore Orioles

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Wilson Betemit S 0.252 0.316 0.430 400 0
Reserve Nolan Reimold R 0.246 0.325 0.416 150 0
Reserve Mark Reynolds R 0.218 0.32 0.461 75 0
Reserve Chris Davis L 0.25 0.299 0.440 75 0

The Orioles don’t have much to crow about these days. Wilson Betemit finished last season on fire, but ZiPS is not buying in for a return engagement. Nolan Reimold seems the most likely to beat his projection of this bunch, but he with two good seasons sandwiched around a dismal, albeit injury-shortened campaign, it’s still hard to know what to expect from him. Mark Reynolds, who by all rights should only be a DH at this point, is still going to see some time in the field for some reason, otherwise he might see a positive figure here. And while Chris Davis is only going to be 26 this year, it may be time to stop waiting for him to put it all together.

13. Oakland Athletics

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Seth Smith L 0.245 0.322 0.408 300 0
Reserve Jonny Gomes R 0.220 0.309 0.374 200 0
Reserve Manny Ramirez R 0.241 0.342 0.363 200 0

Nothing from nothing leaves nothing, and that’s exactly what the A’s may get out of their DH spot this season. While I count myself as firmly planted on the Seth Smith bandwagon, when you combine a potentially part-time role, with no defensive value added and a big new ballpark, you get an equation with long odds for success. Having said that, if Smith and Gomes are used in a true platoon that leverages the strength of each, then they have a chance to better than this projection. As for Manny, it’s an open question as to whether or not he has anything left in the tank, but he is likely to defy his protection one way or the other.

12. Minnesota Twins

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Ryan Doumit S 0.256 0.319 0.404 300 0
Reserve Josh Willingham R 0.247 0.347 0.45 150 0.5
Reserve Trevor Plouffe R 0.244 0.296 0.398 150 -0.5
Reserve Joe Mauer L 0.302 0.38 0.432 100 0

Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham will make a combined $10 million this year, but that doesn’t mean that they will be contributing a lot to this season’s bottom line. Willingham should be just fine as a DH, but letting him roam the expanse that is right field at Target Field may be akin to improv theater. Mauer will likely get some “keep me fresh” time at DH, but it probably won’t be enough for him to be a difference maker here. And even at that, Mauer’s forecast is for “only” a .350 wOBA. That would be plenty good for most players, but Mauer is a guy who compiled a .396 wOBA from 2008-2010. Can Mauer get back to that magniflorious three-year stretch, or will that end up as his peak?

11. Cleveland Indians

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Travis Hafner L 0.259 0.346 0.423 400 0.5
Reserve Shelley Duncan R 0.228 0.309 0.398 175 0
Reserve Matt LaPorta R 0.253 0.321 0.422 75 0
Reserve Lonnie Chisenhall L 0.255 0.312 0.404 50 0

About the only thing you can count on from Travis Hafner these days is that he will be injured at some point during the season. His days of .400 wOBA’s are well behind him, and with the exception of Bill James, every projection system on his player page has him regressing even further from the .350’s mark he has put up the past couple of years, with ZiPS being the harshest critic. In 2010, Shelley Duncan hit lefties fairly well in his first season of semi-extended playing time, which led some idiot to pick him up in his Scoresheet league to serve in the shallow end of a DH/OF platoon. He then went back to not hitting lefties, but he did turn in a good season against righties, so perhaps there is still something there. The same can’t be said for Matt LaPorta, who is essentially trading on his draft status and the fact that he was the big prize in the CC Sabathia trade. Jack Hannahan’s hot finish and similarly blazing start to this spring means that Lonnie Chisenhall may be shifted around, and a few games at DH seem like a good bet.

10. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Kendrys Morales S 0.274 0.321 0.455 375 0.5
Reserve Mark Trumbo R 0.253 0.295 0.437 225 0
Reserve Bobby Abreu L 0.246 0.338 0.385 100 0

If there is one wild card on this list, it’s Kendrys Morales. The range of possible performances is wide. On most player pages, there is usually a 15-20 point difference in projected wOBA’s, but Morales has a 53-point gap between his high and low projection. ZiPS comes in — as it so often does — at the lowest end of the spectrum, meaning that if Morales hits like he did in 2009 and 2010 that he will blow past this projection. If Morales is healthy and productive though, that will have affect Trumbo’s playing time, so in the grand scheme of things, it may not mean a great deal for the Angels’ DH spot overall. I am of the belief that Abreu will be traded before the season starts, because it seems silly to let Mike Trout waste away in the Minors, but I’ve been wrong before.

9. Chicago White Sox

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Adam Dunn L 0.209 0.34 0.429 550 0.5
Reserve Dayan Viciedo R 0.274 0.328 0.431 150 0

Dunn’s season was inexplicably bad. It was so inexplicably bad that the consensus among projection systems is a rebound back to respectability. As David G. detailed back in January, Viciedo is a candidate to beat his projections if his newfound plate discipline sticks. That could be especially true for our purposes here if he ends up the DH against left-handed pitching, as he can get quite mashtastic against southpaws.

8. New York Yankees

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Raul Ibanez L 0.253 0.307 0.427 350 -0.5
Reserve Andruw Jones R 0.234 0.335 0.455 250 0.5
Reserve Alex Rodriguez R 0.264 0.350 0.474 100 0.5

Another guy who could beat his projections if used properly is Raul Ibanez, but the proper way to use him is probably not the heavy-half of a DH platoon. Andruw Jones will pull his share in the shallow half of said platoon, but the real reason the Bombers place one spot higher than the White Sox is because of A-Rod. If he ends up being healthy enough to not need this much DH time, this ranking will probably end up on the optimistic side.

7. Tampa Bay Rays

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Luke Scott L 0.245 0.325 0.447 400 0.5
Reserve Matt Joyce L 0.254 0.342 0.453 150 0.5
Reserve Sam Fuld L 0.245 0.322 0.348 80 0
Reserve Brandon Guyer R 0.259 0.310 0.400 70 0

While home-road splits are generally pretty fallible, Steve Slow noted a funky trend in Luke Scott’s, and whether or not that carries forward will determine whether or not the Rays turned up another gold doubloon, or another lemon. Whether boom or bust, his recent physical maladies will likely prevent him from playing a full campaign. And while it is hard to know just how manager Joe Maddon will fill the void, it’s a decent bet that Matt Joyce will see some time at DH, and also a decent bet that he will be productive if he does. Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer will probably be less productive than Scott and Joyce will, but given the Rays dearth of “natural” DH options, they may be pressed into duty there anyway.

6. Toronto Blue Jays

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Edwin Encarnacion R 0.261 0.331 0.457 500 1
Reserve Adam Lind L 0.264 0.315 0.466 130 0
Reserve Travis Snider L 0.247 0.304 0.407 70 0

He didn’t hit for the power that he did in 2010, but E5 once again cut his strikeouts, and that helped carry him to the best wRC+ mark of his career. I expect more of the same this season. Whenever you hear some “expert” tout the fact that Adam Lind is a good player because he has hit 20+ homers in three straight seasons, feel free to press mute and click over to FanGraphs for a few minutes of serenity. As for Travis Snider, he may only have a few minutes left in his tenure with Toronto if he doesn’t show and prove right out of the gate.

5. Texas Rangers

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Michael Young R 0.291 0.336 0.431 325 0
Reserve Mike Napoli R 0.272 0.361 0.538 175 1
Reserve David Murphy L 0.268 0.328 0.422 50 0
Reserve Mitch Moreland L 0.264 0.329 0.424 50 0

Last year, at age 34, Michael Young had one of the three best seasons of his career, thanks to an incredibly high BABIP and a career-low K%. Don’t bet on either happening again this season. Similarly, Mike Napoli will be hard pressed to duplicate his 2011 output — but unlike Young, he can have a large dropoff and still be a very productive player. David Murphy needs to get back to hitting the ball in the air if he wants to again be an above-average player. I’m willing to give Mitch Moreland a mulligan on the account of his wrist injury, but that won’t show up in the projections. Josh Hamilton may make a DH cameo as well, but in interests of not listing half the Rangers’ offense here, we capped it at four players.

4. Seattle Mariners

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Jesus Montero R 0.257 0.322 0.438 600 1
Reserve Mike Carp L 0.252 0.317 0.414 100 0

Putting the Mariners over the Rangers here is a debatable move, but they win out for simplicity, as the lion’s share of playing time at DH should go to the cub of the bunch, Jesus Montero. While it is said that he will get an opportunity to catch, it seems more likely that he ends up spending the bulk of his time with his tools of ignorance planted firmly in the clubhouse. Mike Carp is likely not the hitter he appeared to be for much of last season, but he is a decent reserve option.

3. Detroit Tigers

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Delmon Young R 0.283 0.317 0.441 300 0
Reserve Miguel Cabrera R 0.31 0.406 0.548 250 1.5
Reserve Ryan Raburn R 0.255 0.308 0.429 100 0
Reserve Prince Fielder L 0.275 0.394 0.504 50 0.5

If there is one team at the top of this list that seems unsettled from a playing time standpoint, it’s the Tigers. Delmon Young figures to get his share of PT — whether or not he does anything with it is another story. Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Raburn and Prince Fielder seem likely to divvy up the remaining PT, with Raburn obviously being the least effective of the troika. If Cabrera’s rebirth at third base doesn’t take, he could end up the starter here, and that would easily vault the Tigers to the top of the list, but for now we’ll play along and slot him in as a reserve.

2. Kansas City Royals

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter Billy Butler R 0.295 0.362 0.462 650 2
Reserve Mike Moustakas L 0.274 0.316 0.436 50 0

In our FanGraphs After Dark chats, it seems like we are frequently asked if this is the season that Billy Butler smacks 25 home runs or slugs .500. And while those are noble pursuits, Butler doesn’t need them to remain effective. The great thing about Butler is that he is usually healthy, and doesn’t often need a replacement, but if Yuniesky Betancourt really is going to start three or four times a week, then the Moose may need to slide into the DH spot every now and again just to stay in the lineup, as crazy as that sounds.

1. Boston Red Sox

Role Player Bats ZiPS BA ZiPS OBP ZiPS SLG PA WAR
Starter David Ortiz L 0.266 0.357 0.498 630 2
Reserve Kevin Youkilis R 0.268 0.374 0.477 70 0

With Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield retiring, David Ortiz is now the longest tenured member of the Red Sox (at least in terms of time with the big club), but luckily he still has something left in the tank. Last season, Ortiz fixed his strikeout issues, which were threatening to spin out of control. The other graybeard in terms of time with the Red Sox (he has actually been in the organization longer, just not in Boston), Youkilis — who is also still a very good hitter — will likely need some DH at-bats to save his weary body from the grind of third base.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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