Want to build a top offense? Start with an unmatched DH
Want to build an offense that perennially ranks among the best in the game? Start with a hitter whose perennial production at his position gives your team an advantage matched by virtually none other.
This is the charmed life the Red Sox have lived in the David Ortiz era. Over his 12 seasons with the Red Sox, other teams have articulated a belief that designated hitters can be found in all guises. None has come close to matching the production on a sustained basis that the Sox have received from Ortiz. In fact, a case can be made that, in the last dozen years, the Sox have enjoyed a competitive advantage from their DH spot unmatched by any other team at any other single position.
Since 2003, the Red Sox DH position has provided steady middle-of-the-order thump: A .283 average, a .380 on-base percentage, a massive .546 slugging mark, and 444 homers, all best from any AL club during that time. The overall performance, according to Fangraphs, has been worth 41.9 Wins Above Replacement. During the same span, the Yankees’ DH position has been the second most productive, forging a .255/.358/.447 line for a WAR of 23.4.
Only Cardinals first basemen, led chiefly by Albert Pujols, have enjoyed a greater separation over that span from their runner-up (27.9 WAR). And no team can match the 79.1 percent boost over the second-place team in WAR that the Red Sox have gotten from their designated hitters, chiefly Ortiz.
“One of the hardest things to find in baseball is a middle-of-the-lineup producer,” said Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “Starting from that simple point, when you have one, and have one who’s been as consistent as he has, it’s a pretty darn good start to lineup construction.”
There have been instances since Ortiz arrived in Boston when the Red Sox have been forced to confront scenarios in which they wouldn’t have the DH role on lock.
His dreadful first two months of the 2009 season forced speculation about his baseball mortality. His foray into free agency after the 2011 season — which concluded when he accepted the Sox’ offer of salary arbitration — and again after the 2012 season (when he agreed in the earliest days of free agency to a two-year deal) likewise confronted the Sox with at least some reminder that it could become necessary to seek an unwanted Plan B.
At other times, even when Ortiz was at the height of his powers, the exercise of imagining eventual successors was a necessary one for the club to contemplate. Might Mark Teixeira (when wooed in 2008) or Adrian Gonzalez (at the end of his deal, which runs through 2018) be able to move to DH if their defense declined at the end of their deals?
The possibility of homegrown successors likewise loomed. When the team did land Gonzalez to block up-and-coming first basemen, was there a chance that prospect Lars Anderson still could have a path forward as a DH whenever Ortiz was ready to step away? Could Ryan Lavarnway assume such a role?
The anticipated need to settle on an alternative has been postponed by years, arguably by half a decade or more. One candidate to replace him after another has come and gone. So, too, have most of the middle-of-the-order partners.
The Ortiz/Manny Ramirez dynamic was introduced in the middle of the 2003 season, in which Ramirez hit cleanup and Ortiz followed in the five-hole, with the two partnering in the 3-4 slots for much of the following 4½ years. There was the pairing of Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis, Ortiz and Victor Martinez, Ortiz and Gonzalez, Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Mike Napoli, and now Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez, partnerships that radiated, in the eyes of the team, both up and down in ways that anchored elite offenses.
There have been part-time, temporary, or guest sidekicks such as Mike Lowell, Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Millar, Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, John Olerud, Roberto Petagine, Jeff Bailey, and Mark Kotsay. And through it all, there has been Ortiz – the constant, the building block.
There are, in theory, roster hindrances to having a full-time DH. It limits the amount of rest other position players get. In some ways, it limits the buy-low opportunities to acquire the next Ortiz, given that if a position is occupied on the diamond, the DH spot isn’t available for a fallback.
Yet Ortiz’s mastery of his role — one in which some players never become comfortable, unable to stay focused for the time between plate appearances — has given the Sox such a profound advantage relative to their peers that the team has been more than happy to look beyond any potential drawbacks of a full-time DH.
“In his case, the unique thing is he’s a DH and full-time DH, so you’ve got to build the rest of the lineup around that, knowing you don’t have a DH spot to play with,” said Cherington. “But it’s a huge benefit to be able to count on that middle-of-the-lineup production as you’re starting your lineup construction every year.”
What happens when the Sox can’t count on that presence? Life after Ortiz is so bizarre to contemplate that the formula for doing so won’t be known until it has to be employed.
The likelihood of developing another homegrown slugger in his class, realistically, is limited. Will the team remain committed, in his absence, to a full-time DH? Will Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval become candidates to move from the field to DH?
The offseason signings of Ramirez and Sandoval were driven primarily by a desire to restore the team’s offensive swagger, but the idea of deepening the lineup was done with a mindfulness that the Sox must be ready whenever Ortiz either stops producing or decides he’s done.
“Until it’s upon us, we won’t act upon it. But of course you’ve got to think about it,” said Cherington. “[Sandoval and Ramirez] fit into the longer-term goal of keeping and retaining as much offensive talent as possible, knowing that we need that in order to withstand a loss — whether a loss to injury or a loss to retirement. The more protected we are with offensive options, the better.”
To date, the exercise of replacing Ortiz has remained academic, while the need to compensate for a declining performance has been diminished. The longer that remains the case, in defiance of any reasonable expectations the club might have harbored five or more years ago, the happier the team’s officials will be.
“We’ve fathomed what it would look like without him,” said Cherington. “At some point we’re going to see it. It’s bound to happen. But I don’t know when, and hopefully it’s not for a while.”