With the retirement of David Ortiz, the end of an era is here. Say goodbye to the DH as we know it.
One of the most noticeable aspects of free agency this year was how stalled out the market was for many position players. While the big money went to closers and relief pitching as teams look to strengthen their pitching depth, many DH type hitters (one-dimensional power hitters who have negative ratings either in the corner outfield or first base) were left sitting on the market. Players like Mike Napoli, Edwin Encarnacion, Matt Holliday, and Chris Carter all had to take pay cuts to find new teams despite big power years for three of the four. This signals a shift in thinking for teams. The DH role in the American League has changed from being a spot in the lineup for power hitters with limited defensive ability to a position of roster flexibility where teams will rotate players to keep their bat in the lineup while giving them a break from the field.
With record contracts being given out to players that are talented on both sides of the ball, teams are no longer willing to pay for power hitters that can’t play defense. Encarnacion’s stock fell so far due to his poor defensive metrics that the smaller-market Cleveland Indians were able to sign him. The Rangers got Mike Napoli, a player that hit over 30 home runs in a monstrous resurgence campaign, for about $12 million less than what he and his agent were seeking going into the off season. There were rumors that Chris Carter, the National League’s home run champion for 2016, would have to take his talents to either Japan or Korea because teams did not like his high strikeout levels or his poor defense (he eventually signed a $3 million contract with the Yankees). This is a significant moment for Major League Baseball.
Other sluggers weren’t even able to find work. There are only 15 DH spots in baseball. Back in the mid to late 2000s, those were 14 full time jobs (15 once the Houston Astros moved to the American League). Now, those jobs are few and far between. Players like Mark Reynolds (Rockies) and Pedro Alvarez (Orioles) were forced to take minor league contracts and compete for bench spots on the major league rosters. Justin Morneau couldn’t even find work and used the World Baseball Classic as a way to showcase his talents for teams looking for left handed power. Ryan Howard, who has hit 382 career home runs in the National League for the Phillies, would be a perfect candidate to move to the American League and DH. He is currently unemployed.
The end of the DH as we know it is here. No longer will we see stars retire from the field and move to the DH to extend their careers like Alex Rodriguez. The end is near for players like Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, and Albert Pujols who spend the majority of their time just hitting. With analytics being the most valued part of a team’s front office, defensive metrics have become even more critical to the construction of a major league roster.
While the stereotypical DH is disappearing, the DH role is becoming more valuable to teams. Whether or not you are a fan of pitchers hitting, teams in the National League would die to have the DH even if they wouldn’t admit it publicly. Getting a player extra at-bats during the season and being able to give them a break from the field is more valuable to teams than having a guy on their roster that might not be able to play the field every day, or worse, not be able to play the field at all. The value of the DH lies in the many options that it gives the team offensively by taking the pitcher out of the equation (and risking them getting hurt) and being able to play match-ups on any given day.
The money isn’t there for full time DHs anymore. Gone are the days of David Ortiz, Jason Giambi, and Travis Hafner where the money goes to the guy that can hit the ball 400 ft into the lower deck. Gone are the days where the veteran can extend his career by playing a few more seasons in the American League. Gone are the days of the DH as we know it.