The offensive part of our Yankees By the Decade retrospective is coming to an end. After looking at the eight position players, we’ve landed on that catch-all designated hitter spot. Through the 2000s, the Yanks used 61 players at least one at the DH spot. From A-Rod to X-Nady, nearly everyone had a chance to DH. To whittle down the candidates, the chart shows those with at least 10 games as a designated hitter.
What leaps out at me from this chart is how the Yanks’ designated hitters weren’t that great at hitting. Most of the regulars who DH’d hit well below their career averages, and the team never really had a true DH this decade either. Jason Giambi led the pack with 22.3 percent of all DH at-bats, and Hideki Matsui was second with 16.4 percent. Beyond those two, the Yanks used the DH spot to rest regulars and give aging stars a spot in the lineup.
Early in the decade, the Yanks went after sluggers for the DH spot. They used a Glenallen Hill/Jose Canseco tandem in the second half of 2000 to some stellar results. Hill, acquired on July 21, 2000, from the Cubs for Ben Ford and Oswaldo Mairena, turned in a 175 OPS+ in 143 at bats, and around half of those came as a DH. Canseco, acquired on August 7, 2000, in a waiver move designed to block him from going to the Red Sox, had a great power spurt too. The duo combined for 15 home runs in just 175 DH at-bats.
After that though, the Yankees used the DH as a spot of convenience. They tried Chuck Knoblauch there in 2001 and Nick Johnson to some success in 2002 and 2003. After Johnson was traded, the Yanks turned to Jason Giambi, and he surprisingly hit significantly worse as a DH than he did as a first baseman. As the first baseman of the decade, Giambi hit .280/.420/.567. As the DH, he hit .234/.384/.458. That’s a swing of .145 OPS points.
Back in my younger and more ignorant days as a rookie baseball blogger at Talking Baseball, I explored the differences amongst hitters when they DH and when they play the field. My study then confused causation with correlation, but I’ve always believed that many hitters are better when they play the field too. Giambi always said that he preferred to play first because it kept him more in the game. It kept him warmer and more ready to bat. The decade’s numbers seem to bear him out.
At the same time, though, Giambi DH’d when he wasn’t healthy enough to play the field, and he would, in all likelihood, hit better when healthy. He DH’d, when he could, in 2004, 2006 and 2007 when sapped by injuries, and he played first in the years he was healthy. Somewhere, somehow, it’s probably a mixture of both.
Beyond Giambi, the Yankees’ DH numbers really highlight their love for the concept of the rotation DH. Hideki Matsui took over with great success over the last two years, but the team has used A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada as the DH enough times to put them on this list. A-Rod, it seems, just loves to hit.
And so as Nick Johnson prepares to take over the DH mantle, I will anoint Jason Giambi as the Yanks’ DH of the decade. Had Hideki closed the playing time gap, he probably could have stolen this one from the Giambino; after all, he put up a better DH-only OPS this decade. But with over 300 at-bats, 28 home runs and approximately 43 runs created separating the two, Jason takes the crown but only barely.