A history of designated hitters
The modification of Major League Baseball may eventually include changes to the DH rule — in league uniformity or even perhaps its removal. But for 42 seasons, the DH has been a source of memorable players who have helped keep the position practical and popular.
Five top World Series performances by a National League DH:
RED STAR: In 1976, Cincinnati’s Dan Driessen was the first NL DH in a World Series. His biggest impact came in a 6-2 win that gave his team a 3-0 series lead over the Yankees, going 3 for 3 with a solo homer and playing a role in all three of the Reds’ scoring innings.
FATHER FIGURE: A 37-year-old backup infielder gave the Padres hope in 1984. Kurt Bevacqua had a 1.327 OPS in the series against Detroit, and delivered San Diego its only win by blasting a go-ahead, three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 2.
SAY WHAT?: The 1988 Dodgers had one of the worst lineups of any champion. But using a DH who slugged .270 in the regular season goes beyond reason. So what did Mike Davis do? He cracked a two-run homer in a surprising clinching win over the A’s in Game 5.
ONE MORE CHANCE: Ten years after starring in the 1982 Series, 36-year-old Lonnie Smith had one big hit for the Braves. It came in a series-extending Game 5 against Toronto, and it was a two-out, opposite-field grand slam off October ace Jack Morris in a 7-2 win.
GO FISH: In a dramatic 1997 seven-game series, it’s easy to forget Game 3. That’s when the Marlins outlasted the Indians, 14-11, and Jim Eisenreich started the comeback by crushing a first-pitch fastball from Charles Nagy for a momentum-swinging two-run homer.
Five DHs who were born to play the position:
HIT OR MISS: When you watched Dave Kingman play, you usually either raved about a prodigious homer (442 total) or a mighty whiff (1,816 strikeouts). Either way, it’s a shame Kingman didn’t become a full-time DH until his late 30s. The guy hit 35 homers in his final season.
CARTY HEARTY: One of the majors’ first great Dominicans, Rico Carty could hit with the best of them and field with the worst. By the time he settled in as a DH at age 34, he was a career .306 hitter. Over his final six seasons, he still delivered at a .290 clip while slugging .453.
ONE-SIDED STORY: Reggie Jefferson, career .300 hitter? You bet. The “Hit Cat” was a devastating weapon against RHP (.316 career average, .869 OPS), and did his best work with the Red Sox from 1995-99 as a middle-of-the-order presence who slugged .505 in that time.
MOVE ALONG: Cliff Johnson hit twice as many homers in his 30s (132) than his 20s (64) simply because he was free to move about the AL and lend his DH services to the likes of the Yankees (.816 OPS), Indians (.797), A’s (.762), Blue Jays (.837), and Rangers (.773).
SOCKING IT: The lumbering Sam Horn spent parts of eight years in the majors and played just 12 games in the field. So his role was to swing away, and that’s what he did, first as a rookie phenom with the Red Sox in 1987 and then for a few seasons with the Orioles (.469 slugging).
Five DH situations from the inaugural group of 1973 that eventually came to define modern uses of the position:
AGING SUPERSTAR: The long-irrelevant Angels acquired 37-year-old Frank Robinson from the cross-town Dodgers to help an offense that hit just 78 home runs the previous season. Robinson hit 30 homers for California, but the Angels still finished with a league-low 93.
INJURY PROTECTION: Tony Oliva played in just 10 games in 1972 because of season-ending knee surgery. So when the Twins got their eight-time All-Star back the next year, he became their DH (92 RBIs in 146 games) and didn’t play once in the field in his final four seasons.
LEAGUE-SWAPPER: After 15 seasons in the NL that earned Orlando Cepeda a future spot in the Hall of Fame, “Cha Cha” swung his way into Red Sox fans’ hearts at age 35 by playing in 142 games, hitting .311 at Fenway, and finishing second on the team with 86 RBIs.
MOLD-EN GLOVE: Over his first nine seasons, Alex Johnson boasted a .292 career average and won a batting title. He also played for five franchises in that time, leading his league in errors by a LF five straight years. On his sixth team, Texas, he DH’d and set a then-franchise record with 179 hits.
PLATOON PARTNERS: Longtime Tiger Gates Brown finally found a role other than lefthanded pinch hitter once 1973 came along. Of his 433 plate appearances, only 16 came against LHP. That duty fell to Frank Howard, who even in his final season had an .894 OPS vs. LHP.
Five players who can partially credit the DH rule for their Hall of Fame:
SWING VOTES: Considering it took Jim Rice all 15 years on the ballot to gain induction, his DH stats meant a lot. He appeared at the position in all but two of his 16 seasons, and in 1977 he spent 116 games at DH, hitting .316 while piling up 64 extra-base hits and an OPS of .984.
IT DIDN’T HURT: Frank Thomas entered the majors a polished power hitter, a two-time MVP by age 26. But the big guy was a terrible first baseman, and Thomas was relegated to full-time DH from ages 30 to 40. Fifty-one percent of his career homers and RBIs came in 1,310 games as a DH.
CROWNING GLORY: Was Dave Winfield really a first-ballot HOF? He led his league in a major offensive category just once and never really came close to winning the MVP. But while pinballing through the AL as a DH in his 40s, Winfield had a throwback year in 1992 with the title-winning Jays.
STEADY AS HE GOES: A career-twilight return to the AL likely put Eddie Murray over the top in his HOF bid. Without the 433 hits and 63 homers he picked up primarily as a DH from 1994-97, he wouldn’t have reached the 3,000-hit, 500-homer plateaus that augmented his legacy.
COUNTING UP: Paul Molitor spent the final eight seasons of his 21-year career playing almost excusively at DH, and over that time he managed to increase his career slash line by going .316/.380/.462. His 1,171 games at DH are the second most among HOF players, behind Thomas.
Five top seasons by a DH (statistics for the position only):
SAVING A FRANCHISE: The woebegone Mariners made the playoffs for the first time in 1995 despite Ken Griffey Jr. missing more than half the season. Much of the credit goes to AL batting champion Edgar Martinez, who hit .360 at DH and set a position record with a 1.120 OPS.
PRONK!: To call Travis Hafner hot in 2006 is like describing the Sahara as balmy. The menacing Indians DH, who for the year slugged .649 and homered every 11.2 ABs at DH, had one of the more destructive months on record in August: 13 homers, 30 RBIs, and a mind-blowing 1.339 OPS.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: In 1979, to vote someone who played more than a third of their games at DH as AL MVP was ... well, unprecedented. Don Baylor shook that stigma by leading the Angels to the AL West title and leading the league in runs and RBIs. His DH slash line: .349/.427/.663.
336 TOTAL BASES: The Red Sox won the World Series the season before, and David Ortiz set the franchise record for homers the season after, but in 2005, Ortiz logged the most total bases ever as a DH. Forty-three dingers aside, Ortiz had the second-most RBIs as a DH with 141.
HAL OF A YEAR: Consider Hal McRae the Ortiz of his time. A durable slugger on a perennial contender in the Royals, McRae finished top-five in MVP voting twice, including a fourth-place finish in 1982 with career highs of 27 homers and 133 RBIs, plus a league-best 46 doubles.
Five promising DHs who flamed out too fast:
THE NEXT ... NOBODY: With a .902 OPS as a rookie in 1990, Kevin Maas had Yankee fans thinking “superstar.” Then Maas’s HR-per-AB pace dropped from 12.1 to 21.8 to 28.6, and Year 4 was his last in pinstripes, with the lefty slugger down to a .191 average vs. RHP.
OVERSEAS SENSATION: Troy Neel had the size and plate discipline to be a feared DH, and he was for the A’s from 1993-94 (combined .837 OPS). Then the strike happened, and Neel was never seen again in the majors — he was too busy posting an .882 OPS in six seasons in Japan.
HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Aside from being the first DH to appear in a game, Ron Blomberg ranked fifth in the AL from 1973-74 with an .876 OPS. But as he was entering his prime, injuries cost Blomberg his career. He played in just 96 more games before retiring for good in 1978.
HE HAD A HAMMER: The husky and bespectacled Bob Hamelin was a worthy AL Rookie of the Year in the strike-shortened 1994 season with 24 homers and a .987 OPS that ranked fifth in the league. In four seasons after that, though, he batted just .235 for three franchises.
THE OTHER BROTHER: During his brief prime — long before he was named in the Mitchell Report — few players got on base like Jeremy Giambi. In 2002, the year before he was acquired by the Red Sox, Giambi had a .414 OBP. He played in just 50 games with Boston, his last account in MLB.