Expansion to Present (1973-2010)
I selected two designated hitters for the Hall of Very Good. The Hall of Merit chose one: Edgar Martinez. That’s partly because Paul Molitor, who’s listed as a designated hitter for the Hall of Fame, was classified as a third baseman due to his time in the field.
Brian Downing (1973-1992) played for the White Sox, Angels and Rangers. He started out as a catcher, transitioned to left field in 1981 and was a full-time DH by 1987. Downing specialized in drawing walks, getting on base and especially getting hit by a pitcher. He was top ten in on-base percentage 3 times, in walks 4 times and in hit by pitch 8 times. He had a career OPS+ of 122 in 9309 plate attempts and seasons over 130 in ’79, ’82, ’86, ’87, ’91 and ’92.
Harold Baines (1980-2001) had three separate stints with the White Sox and three more with the Orioles. He also played for the Rangers, A’s and Indians. Baines has a career OPS+ of 121 in over 11,000 plate attempts. He hit for an OPS+ of 140 or better in ’84, ’89, ’91 and ’95 and 130 or better in ’90, ’93, ’96 and ’97. Baines is 30th all-time in RBI, 37th all-time in total bases, 41st in hits and 64th in doubles.
Lingering Doubts and Second Guesses
Over at Baseball Think Factory, there’s a recurring argument about whether or not Designated Hitter qualifies as a position. It’s a semantic argument and, as far as I’m concerned, irrelevant. When you’re working on a project like the Hall of Merit or the Hall of Very Good, you end up examining more than a 1000 players. But you can’t look at 1000 players all at once. You need a way to sort them, to consider them in smaller groups. So is designated hitter a position? Who cares? It’s a category, a classification. It’s not as if there’s a quota for designated hitters. I’m not going to be worried if I elect fewer designated hitters than players from other positions. But the best players who were primarily designated hitters should be considered for the Hall of Very Good (and the Hall of Fame) and, if worthy, enshrined.
WAR (Wins Above Replacement) likes Brian Downing a lot. He earns 47.8 over his career. Downing picks up a lot of value from starting his career as a catcher, even though he spent more time in left field and as a designated hitter before he was done. Downing also picks up a lot of value from his on-base percentage which is 100 points better than his batting average. I’m not quite as enamored with Downing. For someone who’s supposed to be an on-base specialist, only three appearances in the top ten is somewhat lackluster. And, although he spent significant time as a catcher, he wasn’t a particular good one with -2 fielding runs for his time there. Yet, despite my reluctance, I finally inducted him after several years on the ballot.
On the other hand, WAR does not like Harold Baines. He’s credited with only 34.0. That strikes me as incredibly low for someone with Baines’ career. Baines is hurt by his lack of defensive value- he played right field before spending the larger part of his career as a DH. But it’s not simply a defensive question. Baines and Downing have similar OPS+: 121 and 122. Baines had more seasons with an OPS+ over 140 (4 to 1) and over 130 (8 to 6). Baines played significantly more: 11,000 plate attempts to 9,300. Downing has the better on-base percentage, .370 to .356, but Baines’ advantage in slugging percentage is more than double that, .465 to .425. Yet somehow Downing is credited with 50.0 offensive WAR and Baines with only 36.0. That gap seems unreasonable based on their respective offensive profiles.
Then, of course, there is the defensive penalty. Baines is penalized -212 positional runs for being a right fielder and DH. Downing is penalized -108 positional runs for his time in left field and at DH. That’s partly due to playing time- Baines had 11,000 PA at low defensive positions and Downing 6,700. Yet even then, the gap should be narrower. If they were both penalized 106 runs over 5500 plate attempts- which is half of Baines’ total- then Downing was only penalized 2 for his next 1200. To me, it’s stunning that Downing is considered more valuable than Baines at all, let alone that he beats him by a full 14 WAR. WAR may not think Baines is a deserving candidate but I strongly disagree and elected him as soon as he was eligible.
Surprising Omissions and Near Misses
Baines and Downing weren’t the only designated hitters that I took a look at. The one who has come the closest to induction is Chili Davis. Davis looks a little bit like Downing and a little bit like Baines. Davis started out at a position with a lot of defensive responsibility- center field, where he spent most of his time in ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’87. He then transitioned to right field before finally becoming a DH. (I could actually classify Davis as a right fielder since he logged more time at the two outfield spots combined than he did as a DH.) Davis has a 121 OPS+ (the same as Baines) and 9997 plate attempts, right between the other two. WAR doesn’t like Davis anymore than Baines, giving him only 34.2 for his career. Once again, despite almost identical numbers to Downing, Davis is credited with only 35.3 offensive WAR. And once again, I think the DH penalty is too high. Davis was in the middle of my last ballot and should eventually be inducted into the HoVG.
Don Baylor is next. Like Baines, he always played low defensive positions like left field, right field and first base. However, Baylor didn’t have as many good years as Baines, didn’t play as long and ended with an OPS+ of only 118. While I think his 24.4 WAR is low, he falls short of the HoVG in any case. Hal McRae spent more time as a designated hitter than any other candidate- approximately 75% of his career. And he does have a good OPS+: 123, higher than Downing or Baines. But he didn’t have as many big years- only four with an OPS+ over 130. And he didn’t play as long, with only 8000 plate attempts. His 24.7 WAR is a good match for Baylor.
That’s it for the near misses. Yet there are a few more designated hitters who are active or recently retired. Mike Sweeney is eligible in 2016. Sweeney’s big problem is playing time. He didn’t become a regular until he was 25 and was back to part-time duty at 32. He only has seven seasons with more than 100 games played and only three with more than 130. With only 5848 plate attempts, Sweeney needs a much better OPS+ than 118. Travis Hafner is struggling with the same issue of playing time. He has only five seasons with more than 100 games player and only three over 130. However, he’s still active and could add to that total if he stays healthy. Plus, he has much better rate numbers. His OPS+ to date is 132. That’s good for 22.4 WAR, which trails Baylor and McRae. He’s not HoVG material yet though he could still get there.
David Ortiz is the big name on the horizon. He has the best OPS+ by far, with 137 (though HoMer Edgar Martinez has 147 and Frank Thomas 158). He has six complete seasons with an OPS+ over 140, four over 150 and two over 160. With 7600 plate attempts, he’s not a short career guy either. He’s an easy choice for the HoVG- if he’s eligible. There’s always the possibility he gets chosen for the HoM but with only 36.0 WAR (which is low, if you ask me), it’s more likely that I get him for the HoVG.