Look around the American League and you’ll see teams using the DH spot in a few different ways. Some, like the White Sox and Tigers, use it, or have used it, as a rotating spot that can afford a veteran a half day off. Others, like the Blue Jays, use it for a player without a position, whether the position is filled by someone else or the player himself isn’t particularly good at any one spot. Yet it seems like a good number of teams reserve the DH spot for an aging slugger who, freed from the physical rigors of playing defense, can save their energy for the one thing at which they excel. The Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Angels, and Twins employ this strategy.
This past off season four of those teams signed a veteran to fill the DH spot on a more or less full-time basis. The Twins signed Jim Thome with designs of him being a bench player, but knowing that he could fill the DH on a more permanent basis if necessary. The Angels brought in World Series MVP Hideki Matsui to fill the spot vacated by Vladimir Guerrero, who signed on with the Rangers to handle DH duties. The Yankees brought back Nick Johnson, a defensively capable first baseman who moved to DH in an attempt to reduce the physical toll on his oft-injured body.
Despite having signed similar players for the same position, each team has experienced different results with their DHs. This was the gamble heading into the off-season. The free agents all had something going against them. Thome was headed into his age-39 season and had seen his numbers dip for two years after a strong 2007 season. Matsui had his knees drained twice during the 2009 season and despite quality production still presented an injury risk. Johnson had spent plenty of time on the DL in his career, including missing most of the 2008 season with a wrist injury. Vlad missed time in 2009 and had also seen his numbers decline in the last two years.
Faced with this dilemma, the GMs seeking a full-time DH got to work. Two of them filled their spots with apparent cast-offs from other teams. Matsui signed first, going from New York, which sought a DH, to Anaheim, which had let its incumbent DH, Guerrero, leave via free agency. About a month later Guerrero signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract with a $9 million mutual option and $1 million buyout. New York, seeking to get a bit younger, let Matsui walk without a counter-offer, opting instead to sign Johnson, a player whom they had traded for Javier Vazquez, a player they would re-acquire later in December. The Twins already had Jason Kubel as an in-house DH option, but signed Thome to the curiously cheap salary of $1.5 million, with playing time escalators that could bring it to $2.25 million.
Out of the gate Vlad and Matsui looked like winners. In 93 April PA Vlad produced a .374 wOBA while Matsui was close behind at .357. Thome actually led the pack at .415, but that came in just 52 PA, so he add quite as much value as Vlad or Matsui. The Yankees appeared on the short end of this one, as Nick Johnson produced a mere .308 wOBA, which was almost completely based on his 25.9 percent walk rate. His batting average .138, and his ISO, .086, were downright terrible. He was the youngest out of the four, which is a big reason why the Yankees chose him. That completely backfired.
His season wouldn’t last that much longer, though. After just 17 May PA Johnson complained of wrist pain, which resulted in his second wrist surgery in three years. This was a lesser procedure and his return remains a remote possibility, but the signing was a nearly complete loss for the Yankees. The only consolation is that it opened a spot for them to acquire Lance Berkman. He hasn’t had an easy go in New York so far, but his track record suggests that he could provide ample value.
For Matsui, things have turned south. After his .357 wOBA in April he dropped all the way to .248 in March. He does have a streaky tendency, and in the early goings of 2009 he didn’t hit particularly well. To that end he recovered well in June, producing a .389 wOBA. In July and August, however, that has fallen to around .300. That brings his season wOBA to .323, not the stuff of a DH. Manager Mike Scioscia has defended Matsui while he’s slumped, but he has still kept him out of the lineup a few times in the past week.
Through June Vlad looked to be the best of the bunch, as he continued to hit better and better. From his .374 wOBA in April he went to .405 in May and then .437 in June, making him a big part of Texas’s first place run. In June he also uncharacteristically walked 10.7 percent of the time. But ever since he’s slowed down. In 100 July PA he produced a .275 wOBA that comprised a .282 OBP and .130 ISO. Things have gotten even worse in his 23 August PA, where he’s just 5 for 22 with two doubles and one walk. Joey from Baseball Time in Arlington examined the issue, and noticed that Vlad has been hitting the ball the other way lately, perhaps suggesting a slowing bat or timing issue.
Thome, the elder statesman, has actually been the best of the bunch. His wOBA has been over .400 in each month of the season save for May. He doesn’t have a ton of PA, just 232, so he won’t have standout counting numbers, but given the context his 14 homers looks pretty impressive. So does his .404 season wOBA. The Twins can also afford to play him almost exclusively against righties, as he’s hitting them hard this season. Not only does he have a .336 ISO against righties, but he has also walked in 20.7 percent of his PA.
Since he’s been healthy all season and productive for most of it, you might think Vlad would stand out as the WAR leader of the group. You’d be right, of course, as he’s produced 2.1 WAR. But Thome, despite 212 fewer plate appearances, comes in a close second with 1.8 WAR. There is a contingency of Yankees fans who continually scold the front office for signing Johnson over Matsui, but the two have produced identical WAR values this year, 0.1. It goes to show that when general managers have to make choices among a number of flawed players, there’s no real correct answer at the time. We just don’t know what these oft-injured and aging players will produce.