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Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls; It Tolls for the NL DH

Depending on the news outlet, the designated hitter coming to the National League is either a foregone conclusion, or something that will never, ever happen.  Regardless of which outcome is true, it’s still a fine idea to think about, and it’s also fun to try to identify which current 2016 teams might most benefit from the inclusion of a DH spot on their roster.

To create a manageable list of names, I searched for player-seasons since 2013 that resulted in an offensive runs above average (Off) value of 25 or greater, a defensive runs above average (Def) value of -5 runs or less, and filtered for National League teams.  My thinking was that by FanGraphs’ own rule of thumb, 25 Off is a notch below great, and -5 Def is starting to make its way into the poor range.  The results are as follows:

Player Qualifying Seasons
Paul Goldschmidt 4
Freddie Freeman 3
Joey Votto 3
Jayson Werth 2
Andrew McCutchen 1

This is interesting for a couple reasons.  The first of which is that this once again proves that the answer to pretty much any question about baseball can be “Joey Votto.”  The second of which is that most of the names on this list are generally thought to be acceptable, sometimes even exceptional, fielders.

Andrew McCutchen’s lone appearance on this list is somewhat of an outlier: a -8.6 in 2014.  He’s been below average defensively in the past, but this is his low water mark for the past five years, going beyond the lower boundary of my arbitrary cutoff of 2013.  I think that we can ignore this for another reason: his bat doesn’t play at DH going forward at 2016 levels of production, rendering his inclusion moot for this purpose.  His contract extends to 2017 with an option for 2018, so I doubt we’ll see NL DH at bats for McCutchen on the Pirates before then.

Jayson Werth shows up twice, but outside of his defensively tremendous 2008 season, I don’t think that anyone would put him in the company of elite defenders.  Like McCutchen, Werth also is only under contract until the end of the 2017 season, which would qualify him for a maximum of one year of Nationals DH service.  I think that he can be dismissed from the list.

In his first full season with the Braves in 2011, Freddie Freeman was a disaster at first base (-23.6).  He was better in his second year with a -13 Def.  He’s gotten better over the intervening years, with his high water defensive mark coming in 2015 with -3.9 Def.  He has gone from an awful defender to a below-average defender, and playing for a Braves team that won’t be good for a couple years will probably stay at first even with the inclusion of a DH spot.  But, being that he is under contract until 2021, should the DH rule be put into effect, we may see him getting meaningful at bats as a DH before the end of the decade.

Signed through 2018 with a club option for 2019, Paul Goldschmidt’s defensive rating seems to be a victim of positional adjustment more than anything.  His worst defensive performance was -11.5 Def in 2012, his first full season in the MLB.  Since then his performance has been within the run adjustment for his position, outside of this current season.  He is on pace to have a truly bad defensive year in 2016.  But, he’s not even the most eligible DH candidate on his own team.  The Diamondbacks would likely be better served putting Yasmany Tomas at DH and let Goldschmidt continue to play most days in the field.

The third first baseman on the list is Joey Votto.  Like Goldschmidt, he is penalized heavily for being a first baseman.  But, dissimilar to Goldschmidt, he is on the wrong side of 30 and signed to an immensely long and expensive contract.  Of all the teams with players on this list, the Reds might be one of the best-positioned to take advantage of the DH immediately.  Outside of a magnificently terrible start to 2016, Votto has shown that he is still an offensive juggernaut, with a skillset that doesn’t seem to be deteriorating at all.  His defense, on the other hand, peaked in an injury-shortened 2012 season and has gotten progressively worse in each full season he’s played since.  For the 2016 season he’s performed at his worst in the field, with a -13.6 Def.  He accounts for 100% of the Reds’ currently committed payroll for 2021, and is still signed for two more years beyond that.

I’m sure there are more teams that would benefit from the addition of the DH, and I’m sure there are teams that would acquire other talent to man their DH positions.  Realistically, I think that most teams would end up using the DH much the same way as it’s been used in the AL for decades: as an extension of a hitting career, and a half day off for players while still keeping their bats in the lineup.  But, among the teams that met the criteria laid out above, I think that the Reds would be the team most suited to immediately improve through the designated hitter.

Of Glass Hammers and Paper Tigers

I grew up watching baseball in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It was the antecedent micro-era of hyper-inflated monsters roaming the field, destroying baseballs with mere flicks of their pharmaceutically-enhanced forearms.  What I mean to say is that I have a skewed perception of the home run.  It runs deep: Even after years of conditioning myself to not see the home-run number as a major thing, but rather a minor piece of a much larger whole, I still get impressed by big numbers.

In talking to a friend of mine, I was wondering who had the most home runs, but the smallest net benefit to a baseball team.  After all, my whole life I’ve been hearing about guys “doing damage,” and disregarding whatever other detriments they may have as long as they can sniff out them ribeyes.  I started pretty basically, searching for players who had hit 35 or more home runs and amassed 3 or less WAR, and how many seasons they had accomplished this Herculean feat.  This achievement has been completed 68 times in baseball history, so to do it multiple times is a thing in its own right.  The leaders are as follows:

Seasons Player


Adam Dunn


Dave Kingman


Sammy Sosa


Carlos Delgado


Cecil Fielder


David Ortiz


Manny Ramirez

Interesting!  A little unsurprising that Dunn is up there, given that he was one of the harbingers of the “Three True Outcome” player, and was never known as a defensive maven.  But he had some good seasons!  I remember them being good; surely he couldn’t be as bad defensively so as to totally wipe out his offensive contributions.  It turns out, that no, no he was not.  Of those five seasons, he had a collective WAR of 8.1, from .6 WAR to 2.9 WAR.  Not a world burner, by any means, but not terrible.  One season he barely qualified for this haphazard study!  Certainly a one-dimensional player, but the kind of guy you’d like to have if the price were right.

Let’s take a look at the other five-season player on the list.  Dave Kingman was known for one thing: hitting home runs.  His nickname was “Kong,” presumably because he…consumed baseballs like they were giant bananas?  Kidnapped and absconded with them to the tops of large buildings?  Or it was alliterative and evocative of power.  One of those, take your pick.  Of his five seasons on the list, two were completely decent: above-average wRC+, WAR above 2, traditional numbers of a kind that the writers would like.  His worst two seasons, however…man.  It’s some bad news on all fronts in 1986 and 1982: below-average wRC+ (86 and 97), negative WAR (-.8 and -.5), but still the writers would have been pleased with his performance.

The point of all this, I suppose, is not to say how bad Adam Dunn and Dave Kingman were at baseball.  Quite the opposite!  They were great, at a very specific thing, which was to beat the bejesus out of a baseball until nothing was left but its constituent atoms.  By traditional counting stats, Dunn is T35 and Kingman is solo 40 on the all-time HR leader board.  This is very good!  Collectively, they have hit as many as 904 home runs more than anyone reading or writing this article.

The point, as always, is to make observations about edge-case phenomena and give them a snarky name for future use.  To this end, I am proposing that a player hitting 35+ homers while accumulating 3 or less WAR be referred to as the “Dave Kingman Glass Hammer” award.  As an extension of the Glass Hammer, I am also proposing the “Ryan Howard Paper Tiger” award, for when a player completes a Glass Hammer, but finishes in the top five of the MVP voting (see Ryan Howard, 2008 for further data).