Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Drawbacks of DH'ing

Many Red Sox analysts -- this one included -- have theorized that Mike Lowell might fit nicely as a full-time designated hitter for the Red Sox next season. The Red Sox could sign Chone Figgins or Marco Scutaro to play on the left side of the infield alongside Jed Lowrie, and David Ortiz could shift from designated hitter to designated over-the-hill power bat off the bench.

Lowell then could play the field once in a while but DH most of the time, coming up to bat four times a game and hitting line drives and home runs. It's a role that perfectly fits a veteran who can't run and can't move laterally in the field but who still can rake.

Here's the problem: Lowell doesn't necessarily want to be a designated hitter every day. He sees himself as a guy who should play third base as often as possible, and he sees DH'ing more as a chance to take a break than as something he wants to do on a regular basis.

"I think I'd pull my hair out if I had to do it all year," Lowell said back in late July. "But here and there, I enjoy it. For me, it's really a half day off."

Terry Francona has given Lowell plenty of half days off and full days off in the last month and a half. The extra rest, coupled with a stint on the disabled list, appears to have done Lowell some good. The third baseman hit .282 and OPS'ed .789 before the All-Star break, and he's hitting .328 and OPS'ing .959 since.

Even better, he's OPS'ing .829 as a third baseman but OPS'ing 1.110 as a designated hitter. According to the numbers, he's a better hitter when he doesn't have to play the field.

The average American League hitter this season is OPS'ing .763. The average American League designated hitter is OPS'ing .783. You can expand the hypothesis. Not having to play the field allows a hitter to flourish. Make Mike Lowell your designated hitter next season. Game, set and match.

Wait a minute. Hold on. Not so fast.

The sample size we're using is unbelievably small: Lowell has just 23 plate appearance as a designated hitter this season. You can't draw any conclusions based on a sample size of 23 plate appearances. Joe Mauer went 2-for-23 as recently as mid-July, and he's still going to win the American League batting title.

The idea of using designated hitter splits has its problems, too. For one thing, teams routinely put subpar hitters in their lineup because they bring other attributes to the table -- namely an ability to catch the ball when it's hit to them. Those players drag down the overall numbers. Designated hitters, on the other hand, have to hit and thus would be expected to have better numbers.

For another thing, comparing the way David Ortiz is hitting this season with the way Jason Bay or Jason Varitek is hitting isn't going to tell you anything about how being a designated hitter would affect Mike Lowell. Those players all hit the ball differently and are affected by different things that have nothing to do with what we're trying to determine here.

Another small sample size, in fact, seems to indicate the opposite. Edgar Martinez, the greatest designated hitter in the game's history, played third base full-time and DH'ed 28 times in 1992. He OPS'ed .948 that season -- including 1.002 when he DH'ed, a run not unlike the one Lowell is enjoying now. When he suffered a career-threatening knee injury, though, the Mariners made him their full-time designated hitter -- and he saw his OPS drop to .869, including .823 when he DH'ed. He hit worse as the designated hitter than as a third baseman. It wasn't until the next season, his first fully healthy season, that his numbers began to rebound.

With all of that in mind, let's expand the sample size and eliminate the background noise and draw some conclusions.

Here's the question: Does DH'ing improve or detract from performance at the plate as compared to playing in the field? Does an average hitter put up better numbers as a designated hitter than as a position player?

Here's the method: Let's look at players who played a substantial number of games in a season -- let's say 30 percent -- both in the field and as a designated hitter. That eliminates much of the background noise because that player ought to be similarly able to hit a fastball and ought to be enduring the same types of ups and downs whether he's playing in the field or not.

There were 33 players between 2000 and 2008 who played at least 30 percent of their games in the field and as a designated hitter. We're ignoring 2009 because the season isn't over yet and thus the statistics are still in flux, but the rest of the decade is fair game.

Let's sort those 33 players by what we'll call the "DH Advantage": The number of points their OPS improved while they were DH'ing as compared to their overall OPS for that season. Starting from the top:

1. David Ortiz, 2003: .961 overall, 1.089 as a DH: 128 points
Well, that should be no surprise. The slugger who will go down as one of the best designated hitters in the game's history saw his performance spike when the Red Sox took him out of the field and allowed him to focus on hitting clutch home runs against the Yankees.
2. Vladmir Guerrero, 2008: .886/.969: 83 points
3. Scott Hatteberg, 2002: .807/.885: 78 points
As detailed by Michael Lewis in "Moneyball," Hatteberg was terrified of playing first base when the Oakland Athletics signed him before the 2002 season. It makes sense that he hit better when he didn't have to worry so much about fielding throws from across the diamond after having spent his whole life as a catcher.

Let's skip ahead a bit past Randall Simon and Garret Anderson and Jason Kubel and Dmitri Young:
8. Lew Ford, 2005: .716/.739: 23 points
What's amazing isn't that Ford saw his OPS improve by 23 points when he wasn't playing in the outfield. What's amazing is that Ron Gardenhire saw fit to make Ford his designated hitter 44 times. What's not amazing is that the Twins finished in third place and finished last in the American League in runs scored.
9. Mike Sweeney, 2005: .864/.882: 18 points
10. Manny Ramirez, 2001: 1.014/1.029: 15 points
You forgot that Ramirez spent so much time DH'ing back in the day, didn't you? Manny Being Manny actually appeared in more games in 2001 as a designated hitter (87) than as a left fielder (55). (Who says Jimy Williams didn't know what he was doing?) Remember some of the other players who had at-bats as the designated hitter for the worst Red Sox team of this decade? Among them: Dante Bichette, Morgan Burkhart, Israel Alcantara and Calvin Pickering.
11. Raul Ibanez, 2005: .792/.792: 0 points
It's somehow fitting that one of the streakiest and most inconsistent hitters in the game today once managed to put up the same OPS in 234 plate appearances as a left fielder as he did in 425 plate appearances as a designated hitter.
12. Garret Anderson, 2008: .758/.756: -2 points

That's right: This list has 33 names on it, and only 11 of those names either saw a benefit when they were the designated hitter or, in the case of Ibanez, broke even. Let's keep moving on down the line:

16. Aubrey Huff, 2007: .778/.765: -13 points
17. Jack Cust, 2008: .851/.829: -22 points

Still going:

23. Jason Giambi, 2006: .971/.904: -67 points
24. Bernie Williams, 2004: .795/.726: -69 points
25. Tim Salmon, 2003: .838/.762: -76 points

And still going:

31. Jason Giambi, 2002: 1.034/.886: -148 points
32. Jim Thome, 2000: .929/.764: -165 points
33. Jason Giambi, 2005: .975/.771: -204 points

If you tally up all the numbers and average them out, the 33 players on this list lost an average of 28.45 points off their OPS numbers when they DH'ed as compared to their overall numbers. Two-thirds of the players in the study saw their production suffer when their managers took their gloves out of their hands.

There might be something about the rhythm of the game affecting a player's rhythm at the plate. If a player has grown up playing a position in the field, as every player has, it's a big change to sit in the dugout and effectively pinch-hit for the pitcher four times and then go back and sit down. He can't atone for a strikeout with a big defensive play. He can't go run around and keep his body warm. He can't do much except chew gum and spit and take some swings in the batting cage every couple of innings to try to stay loose.

Research has indicated that managers should expect pinch hitters to lose something from their typical performance when they come in cold off the bench. The above numbers demonstrate that many hitters lose something from their typical performance when they're employed as a designated hitter.

Lowell might stay on the same type of run he's on now if the Red Sox make him their full-time designated hitter. It's more likely, though, that he'll see his numbers suffer quite a bit if the Red Sox don't let him play third base and stay in the rhythm of the game. If the numbers are right, Lowell should expect to lose 25 or 30 points off his OPS.

Then again, if Lowell continues to play statue-esque defense at third base, it's worth absorbing that hit at the plate to make a huge upgrade in the field.

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