As we move higher up in #MLBRank -- and arrive at Red Sox slugger David Ortiz in particular -- one question piques my interest: What would the ranking of the top 100 players of all time look like if we didn't have the designated hitter?
Right off the bat, you wonder whether Ortiz gets to have the kind of career that puts him into this conversation. Does his having to play the field -- badly -- handicap his chances at having a career, let alone getting that five-year deal (four plus an option, actually) through 2007-11 that gave him job security while he saw his production dip to .238/.332/.462 in 2009? Maybe, and maybe not. Because what little we've seen from Big Papi afield hasn't been pretty.
To put Ortiz at his worst in perspective, among all-time first base/DH types with at least 3,000 plate appearances, Papi has been worth less afield (minus-21.2 dWAR) in terms of career defense-only WAR than all but three men: Willie McCovey, Don Baylor and Frank Thomas. Keep in mind: Defense-only WAR is a counting stat -- "contributed" in just 277 of more than 2,300 games. That's historically awful when you put him against the totals of the other all-time baddies in this group.
Baylor played almost 1,000 games in the field, many of them with the injured elbow that ultimately forced him to DH, while McCovey spread his defensive impact across 2,300 games in 22 seasons. We'll get to the Big Hurt in a moment, but he played almost four times as many games at first base as Ortiz.
In short, if not for the existence of the DH, you'd have to ask the original "Dr. Strangeglove," first-base horror Dick Stuart, to hand over his title. From what little we've had to see, Ortiz could have been the all-time worst regular at first base in the history of the game.
If the DH was originally invented more than 40 years ago to give aging or injured stars the opportunity to continue to contribute (and draw fans), Ortiz is something truly different: A man whose ability to contribute was guaranteed by the DH rule, and perhaps only by the DH rule. And when his at-bat-only contributions dipped down around one or two WAR per year in that 2008-10 stretch, if he's also wreaking damage in the infield to erase even that value, would we still get to enjoy his raking at the plate these past few seasons?
It's unknowable, but let's be grateful we never saw that brand of DH-less baseball. Of course, Papi isn't the only player in this ranking we should thank the DH rule for. Today's tranche of #MLBRank players includes Thomas, Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield, and how different would their careers be without the outlet of the DH as an opportunity to keep kicking in offense?
If you remember the part of Thomas' game that most folks in Chicago would rather forget, you accepted the bad hands and lived in fear that he'd be asked to make any throw longer than the flip to first base because of what he could do at the plate. Fortunately for fans of Frank, he spent 1,310 games at DH against just 971 at first base. He was done as a regular first baseman after 1997, but he played 11 more years in the majors, putting up a .904 OPS with 264 home runs, playing just 131 games at first over that time, and none after 2004.
Even if you think he could still play first base without exacerbating the injuries that hampered him in the second half of his career, he's probably long gone before we get to talk about tacking on those last four seasons and 85 homers he hit for the White Sox, Athletics and Blue Jays. Without the DH rule, he's not just out of this ranking, he may not even make it to Cooperstown.
In Murray's case, being able to DH gave him the opportunity to get to 500 home runs, because after being the Mets' regular first baseman in 1992-93, he played just one game in the field in those final four seasons. They weren't great years -- Murray hit a combined .272/.328/.436, with an OPS+ of just 95 -- well below what you want from a DH.
But they got him to 504 career blasts and probably pre-punched his ticket to Cooperstown for those who might have forgotten the first decade of his career, when he was among the best players in baseball. Ironically, that career started when he won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1977 while mostly playing DH, because the job at first belonged to veteran Lee May.
Finally, while Winfield didn't spend a huge chunk of his career at DH -- he returned to the outfield for two seasons in his comeback from career-threatening back injury that shelved him for all of 1989 -- the opportunity to DH is what put him on the Toronto Blue Jays team that won the first of back-to-back World Series titles in 1992. Since that was Winfield's one ring, I suspect he's pretty happy that DH-ing was an option during the tail end of his career.
Taking all of that into consideration, I'd say it's a great (perhaps only) reason to thank former Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley for suggesting that the AL adopt the DH back in 1973. Without it, we would not have gotten to enjoy Papi or the Big Hurt for what they could do, without having to endure what they could not.