Over the last few seasons Joe Girardi and the Yankees have employed the rotating DH strategy. Rather than have one set DH, they rotated their regular position players into the spot every so often to give them “half days off,” as Girardi calls them. This has caught on around the league too — David Ortiz and Billy Butler have been baseball’s only pure DHs the last few years.
This year the Yankees are unable to employ a rotating DH. Alex Rodriguez is closing in on his 40th birthday and he has two surgically repaired hips, so at this point of his career playing the field regularly just isn’t happening. Girardi has installed A-Rod as the team’s full-time DH almost because he has no other choice. Alex is too productive to sit yet too frail to play the field.
So far this season A-Rod has been arguably the most productive DH in baseball, especially since Nelson Cruz has played more right field (33 games) than DH (19 games). Here are the most productive DHs so far this year among players with at least 100 plate appearances at the position, via Baseball Reference:
First of all, that’s it, just ten players have batted at least 100 times as a DH this year. Only six have batted more than 150 times as a DH, so yeah, the full-time DH is a dying breed. Teams love that rotating DH concept.
A-Rod has been baseball’s second most productive DH this season behind only Prince Fielder — Fielder has only played ten games at first base this year — in terms of OPS+, and he is tied for the DH lead in home runs. Only five full-time-ish DHs have a better than league average OPS+, and one of them is Jose Bautista, a right fielder who only played DH because a shoulder injury limited his throwing for a few weeks. So it’s really just four DHs with a better than average OPS+.
In theory, DH is a pretty easy job because all the player has to do is hit. There’s minimal defense work, leaving plenty of time to watch video, review scouting reports, hit in the cage, the whole nine. But it’s really not that easy, especially for players used to playing everyday. Jason Giambi is a great example of a player who was always less productive at DH because he didn’t know what to do with all the downtime. He’s far from alone. Going from playing everyday to being a DH is a tough adjustment.
A few years ago MGL found that, like pinch-hitters, there’s a “penalty” while serving as the DH. Players generally do not hit perform as well at DH as they do when playing the field, the same way players are less effective when coming off the bench to pinch-hit. The penalty is around 5%, and while that doesn’t seem like much, remember that’s only the average. Some players suffer an even bigger drop. Being a DH is hard! Sitting around between at-bats is not natural.
A-Rod seems to having figured out how to be an effective DH, however. He’d never worked as a DH for an extended period of time before this season — his career high for starts at DH was only 16 back in 2013 — but he’s been able to make the adjustment this year and remain productive. There’s been no drop off in production. Quite the opposite, in fact. Alex is hitting far better than I think even the most optimistic fans expected coming into the season.
As unsexy as it is, DH is a position, and a tough position at that. The list of players who can sit around between at-bats day after day and still rake is very short. Rodriguez has figured out a way to be one of the most productive DHs in baseball, and that’s a big advantage for the Yankees, especially since they got a combined .209/.283/.340 (62 OPS+) batting line from their DH spot from 2013-14. (I checked that three times!)
The DH is there for one reason and one reason only, to provide offense, but the Yankees got minimal offense from the position the last few years. Most teams around the league aren’t getting much production from the position either because they keep rotating players in and out, and most players see their numbers take a hit as the DH. This year the Yankees have the luxury of a great full-time DH in A-Rod, who is living up to the H part of DH game after game.