Why Has No True DH Been Elected to the Hall of Fame — Yet?

This article was written by John Cronin

This article was published in the Fall 2018 Baseball Research Journal


The Designated Hitter has been the way of life in the American League since 1973. With this extensive history, it prompts the question “Why has no true DH been elected to the Hall of Fame — yet?” Naturally, the next is “Will there be a DH in the Hall, and when and who will that be?”

Edgar MartinezThe Designated Hitter has been the way of life in the American League since 1973. With this extensive history, it prompts the question “Why has no true DH been elected to the Hall of Fame — yet?” Naturally, the next is “Will there be a DH in the Hall, and when and who will that be?”

First, it is necessary to determine how many players have played enough games at DH to be considered Hall of Fame material. From 1973 to the conclusion of the 2017 season, only nine players appeared in 1,000 or more games at DH. All of them are retired from the game, and two are in the Hall of Fame: Frank Thomas and Paul Molitor. Thomas was the designated hitter in only 56.42 percent of the games he played in, while Molitor’s percentage was even lower at 43.76.

 

Player   Hits HR RBI PA AVG
Frank Thomas While DH 1288 (52%) 269 (52%) 881 (52%) 5698 .275
  Career Total 2468 521 1704 10075 .301
Paul Molitor While DH 1457 (44%) 102 (44%) 654 (50%) 5338 .308
  Career Total 3319 234 1307 12167 .306

 

Clearly, neither Thomas nor Molitor was a “true” DH. Their election to the Hall of Fame was based upon career numbers that went way beyond their DH stats. Their plaques don’t even mention their DH activities.

  Here are some other interesting facts about the players with at least 1,000 games at DH:

  • David Ortiz is the only who has appeared in at least 2,000 games, and he’s the only one with 2,000 hits, 250 home runs, or 1,500 runs batted in.
  • Only Edgar Martinez and Molitor have a batting average over .300.
  • Edgar Martinez is the only one who has an OBP of .400.
  • Four of them (Ortiz, Martinez, Thomas, and Travis Hafner) have an SLG over .500.
  • Don Baylor is the only one with an OPS under .800.
  • Only Ortiz and Martinez have an OPS over .900.

 

Table 1: Players with 1,000 or more games as a DH: Selected Stats

Player G Hits HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS
David Ortiz 2027 2191 485 1569 .289 .383 .559 .942
Harold Baines 1643 1690 236 981 .291 .370 .467 .837
Hal McRae 1426 1555 145 823 .294 .357 .463 .820
Edgar Martinez 1403 1607 243 1003 .314 .428 .532 .959
Frank Thomas 1310 1288 269 881 .275 .394 .505 .899
Don Baylor 1284 1210 219 803 .259 .344 .449 .792
Paul Molitor 1172 1457 102 654 .308 .374 .454 .828
Chili Davis 1160 1175 200 736 .282 .382 .483 .864
Travis Hafner 1043 1036 200 689 .275 .378 .504 .882

 

Table 2: Games as DH as a percentage of games played (min. 1,000 games)

Player

Games as DH

Total games

Percent as DH

Travis Hafner

1,043

1,183

88.17

David Ortiz

2,027

2,408

84.18

Hal McRae

1,426

2,084

68.43

Edgar Martinez

1,403

2,055

68.27

Harold Baines

1,643

2,830

58.06

Frank Thomas

1,310

2,322

56.42

Don Baylor

1,287

2,292

56.15

Chili Davis

1,160

2,435

47.64

Paul Molitor

1,174

2,683

43.76

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

 

As previously discussed, there have only been nine players who appeared in 1,000 or more games at DH from its introduction in 1973 through 2017. How does this compare to defensive positions  during that same time frame? Table 3 shows that there were almost four times as many left fielders and right fielders, five times as many third basemen and catchers, six times as many center fielders, first basemen and second basemen and seven times as many shortstops.

 

Table 3: Players appearing in 1,000 or more games by position or role (1973–2017)

Position

Number
of players

Shortstop

65

Second Base

54

First Base

53

Center Field

52

Catcher

48

Third Base

47

Right Field

38

Left Field

34

Designated Hitter

9

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

 

Based upon this analysis, designated hitter has not been a “full-time” baseball role like the positions. The DH has been considered a one-dimensional player throughout its 45 year-history, and carries a stigma as such. It starts with the fundamental ideology of baseball. Wade Boggs said it best recently:

I think everyone who plays this game wants to be recognized as a complete ballplayer, not as a one-dimensional player. It’s everything rolled into one. Basically, you have two jobs. One of them is four or five plate appearances each game; the other is playing defense for eight or nine innings.1

Baseball is a game steeped in tradition and slow to change. Boggs’s statement echoes this mind-set.

The DH was not considered a career option in the period from 1973 to 1990.

Players in the DH role during that time frame can be divided into five categories.

  • Players such as Molitor, Harold Baines, and Andre Thornton, who transitioned to DH after beginning their careers as everyday players in the field. The reason for the switch was usually an injury that would have resulted in the end of the player’s career if not for the new DH rule. This category would also include players such as Tony Oliva, who after years of wear and tear on his knees would have been a defensive liability if he had been forced to play in the field to keep his bat in the lineup. Oliva was able to extend his career for four years (1973–76) by becoming a full-time DH.
  • Older players like Reggie Jackson and Ted Simmons, who began their transition by playing some time in the field and some at DH to give them what is today considered a half-day off to rest their legs.
  • Former National Leaguers such as Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, and Billy Williams, who switched to the American League to extend their careers as designated hitters.
  • Players like Greg Luzinski, who would be classified as “professional hitters” because they were a liability to their team defensively.
  • A few players, such as Thomas and Eddie Murray (who both also fit in the second category above), who started out as designated hitters to get their bats in the lineup before their defensive position became available.

Prior to the introduction of the DH, the players in the first three categories had two options, either retire or become a pinch-hitter limited to one at-bat a game. Now, as a DH, they could get four or five at-bats per game. A new mind-set for the player was created since he no longer played a defensive position. The best way to describe this mind-set is the advice given to Ron Blomberg, major league baseball’s first DH, by Elston Howard, his coach on the New York Yankees, who gave him these sage words: “Go hit and then sit down.”2

The data in Table 4 support what was just discussed. Clubs for the most part have not had full-time DHs since its inception. To clarify, a full-time DH is a player who has enough plate appearances in that role during the season to qualify for the league’s batting title. Since 1973, only 25 percent of American League teams (158 of 627) have employed a full-time DH. The rest have rotated players in that job. Further review discloses a low of 0 percent in 1980 to a high of 43 percent achieved in four seasons (1982, ’91, ’94, and 2007). It is hard to fathom that no team utilized a full-time DH during the 1980 season! In five seasons (1976, ’80, 2008, ’12, and ’14), fewer than 10 percent of the teams had a full-time DH, with three of those five seasons occurring within the past 10 years. Throughout its history, the DH has largely been a rotational position used to give players a semi-day off.

 

Table 4: Enough plate appearances as DH to qualify for the batting titles

Year Qualifying
DHs
Teams Pct with
full-time DH
DHs 35 or older Pct of DHs
35 or older
1973 4 12 33.33 2 50.0
1974 3 12 25.00 3 100.0
1975 4 12 33.33 3 75.0
1976 1 12 8.33 1 100.0
1977 5 14 35.71 1 20.0
1978 4 14 28.57 2 50.0
1979 3 14 21.43 2 66.7
1980 0 14 0.00 0 N/A
1981 5 14 35.71 1 20.0
1982 6 14 42.86 2 33.3
1983 4 14 28.57 2 50.0
1984 5 14 35.71 3 60.0
1985 5 14 35.71 3 60.0
1986 2 14 14.29 2 100.0
1987 3 14 21.43 1 33.3
1988 2 14 14.29 1 50.0
1989 3 14 21.43 2 66.7
1990 3 14 21.43 2 66.7
1991 6 14 42.86 3 50.0
1992 4 14 28.57 2 50.0
1993 4 14 28.57 2 50.0
1994 6 14 42.86 4 66.7
1995 3 14 21.43 2 66.7
1996 5 14 35.71 4 80.0
1997 3 14 21.43 2 66.7
1998 5 14 35.71 2 40.0
1999 4 14 28.57 2 50.0
2000 3 14 21.43 1 33.3
2001 2 14 14.29 1 50.0
2002 2 14 14.29 1 50.0
2003 3 14 21.43 2 66.7
2004 4 14 28.57 1 25.0
2005 2 14 14.29 0 0.0
2006 4 14 28.57 2 50.0
2007 6 14 42.86 3 50.0
2008 1 14 7.14 1 100.0
2009 2 14 14.29 1 50.0
2010 3 14 21.43 1 33.3
2011 4 14 28.57 3 75.0
2012 1 14 7.14 0 0.0
2013 4 15 26.67 1 25.0
2014 1 15 6.67 1 100.0
2015 6 15 40.00 2 33.3
2016 4 15 26.67 3 75.0
2017 4 15 26.67 2 50.0
TOTALS 158 627 25.20 82 51.9

 

1) To qualify for the batting title, the rules require 3.1 at-bats for every game the team plays. For a 162-game season, 502 plate appearances are required.

2) The 1981 and 1994 seasons were shortened by strikes. For those seasons, the number of plate appearances was calculated for each team based upon the number of games played.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

 

Table 4 also supports the thinking that the DH is for older players whose defensive skills have deteriorated. As it shows, 52 percent of the full-time DHs since 1973 were 35 years old or older. This ranges from a low of 0 percent in three seasons (1980 , 2005, and ’12) to a high of 100 percent in five seasons (1974, ’76, ’86, 2008, and ’14). Furthermore, in 18 of the 45 seasons (40 percent), the full-time DHs over 35 made up 60 percent or more of the total. Those statistics begin to explain why there have been no DHs elected to the Hall of Fame.

In order for the Baseball Writers of America to elect a player to the Hall of Fame, the player must have been active for 10 major-league seasons. If you consider that 1,000 games over 10 seasons is 100 games, or about 62 percent of a season’s games, that does not leave many full-time DH candidates eligible for consideration. A better yardstick would be to see how many DHs over the 45-year span had at least 10 seasons where they had sufficient plate appearances (502) to qualify for a batting title.

 

Table 5: Most seasons as DH with 502 plate appearances

Player

Seasons

David Ortiz

11

Edgar Martinez

9

Chili Davis

7

Paul Molitor

6

Frank Thomas

6

Don Baylor

5

Harold Baines

4

Travis Hafner

4

Billy Butler

4

Kendrys Morales

4

Rico Carty

4

Hal McRae

4

Brian Downing

3

Dave Parker

3

George Brett

3

Jim Thome

3

Willie Horton

3

Andre Thornton

3

Dave Kingman

3

12 Players Tied

2

35 Players Tied

1

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

 

David OrtizA review of the table explains why no true full-time DH has been elected. There has been only one true full-time DH with a career of at least 10 seasons. David Ortiz is that one player, but he is not even eligible for election to the Hall of Fame until 2022. Edgar Martinez is probably the other best-known DH, but two key points to keep in mind are the fact that he only played 68.27 percent of his games as a DH, and he only had nine seasons in which he had enough plate appearances as a DH to qualify for the batting title.

Baseball, in addition to being a game governed by statistics, has a subjective and intangible nature to it. So while we look at the statistics for answers, there are other factors that provide clues to why no true DHs are Hall of Famers yet. When asked this question, John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, replied by quoting Branch Rickey:

Baseball people are generally allegoric to new ideas; it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms, and it is the hardest thing in the world to get Major League Baseball to change anything — even spikes on a new pair of shoes — but they will eventually. . . . They are bound to.3

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, answered the same question this way:

The BBWAA has the daunting responsibility of determining which players earn election to the Hall of Fame. The electorate has elected three players who spent a great deal of time as designated hitters, Paul Molitor, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome, who played more than 800 games as a DH. Edgar Martinez, who has had great support, spent more than 1,400 games in that role. So designated hitters do get consideration for Cooperstown and are represented, and rightfully so.4

This begs the question “Does a DH belong in the Hall of Fame”?

Thorn responded to that:

Yes, because this is the way that the game has been played for 45 years. Resistance is akin to that once facing relief pitchers, which prompted me to write The Relief Pitcher eons ago.5

Idelson answered:

I believe that all eligible players should be considered for Cooperstown regardless of position and I am very comfortable with whomever the writers chose to elect. They have done a fabulous job.6

Looking into the baseball crystal ball, it would appear that Martinez will be the first “almost” true DH to be enshrined in Cooperstown. The definition of a true DH for this article is a player who has at least 10 seasons with enough plate appearances as a DH to qualify for the batting title. Martinez, as previous discussed, had nine. Even though Martinez has been classified as an almost-true DH, there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered. First, Martinez’s career started with cups of coffee in 1987 and ’88, and then he played mostly third base from 1989 to ’94. Then, from 1995 to his retirement after the 2004 season, he was the DH in 1,323 of the 1,403 games that he played. This represented 94.30 percent of those games. Also, he may have gotten the 10 seasons with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title if he had not ruptured his left hamstring, requiring surgery, in 2002. Martinez was limited to 97 games (91 as a DH) and had 407 plate appearances that season.

During the period from his first year of eligibility in 2010 to 2015, Martinez had a low of 25.2 percent of the votes in 2014 to a high of 36.5 percent in 2012. Beginning with the 2016 election, his candidacy picked up steam, with 43.4 percent, followed by 58.6 percent in 2017 and then 70.4 percent in 2018 — 20 votes short. The only caveat is that 2019 will be Martinez’s last year of eligibility for election by the BBWAA writers.

If Martinez cannot gain the necessary 75 percent of the votes in 2019, it appears that Ortiz will be elected as the first true DH when he becomes eligible in 2022. His career stats at DH, including a .942 OPS and 485 home runs, are generally better than those of Martinez.

After that, who could or would be next? Table 6 lists the most games as a DH among active players through the end of 2017. The player’s age has been included in order to do an interpolation to try to determine if the player will have enough games at the end of his career to qualify as a true DH.

 

Table 6: Most games as a DH among active players (through 2017)

Player

Age at end of 2017 season

Games as DH

Victor Martinez

38

801

Kendrys Morales

34

643

Edwin Encarnacion

34

607

Albert Pujols

37

509

Nelson Cruz

37

501

Adam Lind

34

418

Evan Gattis

31

291

Joe Mauer

34

287

Mark Trumbo

31

267

Carlos Santana

31

222

 

No player is even close to the 1,000-game mark. Victor Martinez has announced that he will retire as an active player after the 2018 season, so he will not appear in 1,000 games as a DH in his career. Only five active players even have 500 games or more at DH. It is interesting to note that the average age of those five players is 36, so one wonders how many more games they’ll play. There is quite a drop off at sixth place, with 418 games, and then another in seventh through 10th place. They are all in the 200-game range. The average player’s age in this group is 32. The stats in this table further solidify that the DH is a rotational position.

As analytics continue to be utilized, baseball executives believe that it is best to limit the starting pitcher to facing the opponent’s lineup about two times. Along with this thinking, they feel it is best to use a series of hard throwing relievers in the final innings of the game. Therefore, there is a constant need for bullpen help. A consequence of carrying more pitchers on the roster is that teams are playing games with a bench of three or four players. It becomes necessary that these bench players can play multiple positions. As a result, a full-time DH has become even rarer than in the past.7

Martinez and Ortiz are not only likely to be the first players to enter the Hall of Fame as designated hitters, they also may be the only such players inducted into Cooperstown for the foreseeable future.

JOHN CRONIN has been a SABR member since 1985 and has published several articles in the “Baseball Research Journal.” He serves on the Minor Leagues Committee and its Farm Club Subcommittee. His current research efforts are pre-1930 farm clubs. Cronin is a lifelong Yankee fan with an MBA in Accounting from St. John’s University. Cronin resides in New Providence, New Jersey, and can be reached at jcroninjr@verizon.net.

 

Notes

1 Hal Bodley, “Horse Sense – Triumphant Image of Wade Boggs on Horseback Remains a Lasting Memory of a Hall of Fame Career,” Memories and Dreams 40, no. 2 (2018): 33.

2 George Vescey, Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game (New York: Random House, 2006), 181.

3 John Thorn, email correspondence with the author, May 10, 2018.

4 Jeff Idelson, email correspondence with the author, May 2, 2018.

5 Thorn, email.

6 Idelson, email.

7 Buster Olney, “Hitters Who Can’t Beat The Heat Getting Left Behind,” ESPN.com, May 20, 2018. http://www.espn.com/blog/buster-olney/post/_/id/18519/olney-hitters-who-cant-beat-the-heat-getting-left-behind.

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