Designated Fielders and Free Pinch-Runners

Most of the all-time great hitters, since I’ve been watching, are terrible fielders.  Sorted by wOBA, here are the top 15 hitters since the year 2000 and their cumulative career defensive scores.

Barry Bonds -37.7
Manny Ramirez -212.6
Larry Walker -7.2
Albert Pujols -78.8
Mike Trout 10.8
Miguel Cabrera -143
Todd Helton -88.6
Joey Votto -49.7
Alex Rodriguez 41.5
Jim Thome -145.5
Lance Berkman -109.9
Jason Giambi -150.8
Carlos Delgado -149.8
Chipper Jones -32.3
Paul Goldschmidt -37.2

 Here’s the top 15 cumulative defensive scorers, along with their ISO scores. Jim Thome had an ISO of .288, for reference.

Adrian Beltre 0.196
Yadier Molina 0.116
Andruw Jones 0.235
Placido Polanco 0.101
Scott Rolen 0.207
J.J. Hardy 0.159
Juan Uribe 0.164
Ivan Rodriguez 0.170
Jimmy Rollins 0.155
Chase Utley 0.199
Russell Martin 0.145
Ramon Hernandez 0.155
Jack Wilson 0.101
Brian McCann 0.195
Craig Counsell 0.089


The guy who can knock the crap out of the ball and the guy who can make the SportsCenter highlight defensive plays are usually different people.  Unfortunately, this tradeoff only really hurts fans.  The ‘defensive replacement’ comes in late in games and is rarely noticed.  We like web gems, and we like bombs, why not have both?

We’ve probably never seen the world’s best defensive player.

Hitting an MLB fastball is hard.  It’s a very specific, rare skill set.  Playing outfield, however, is something to which athletes from other sports could adapt.  I bet Cam Newton could play right field, for example.  There are some soccer goalies who could probably play shortstop.  There are guys at every position that are wasting away in the minors or worse because they can’t hit the elite pitching.  If there’s a freak athlete that can jump and catch balls three feet over the wall, I want to see it.

The designated fielder prevents injuries and keeps the stars in the game.

I’m having trouble finding data, but my guess is that a fair portion of playing injuries happen on defense.  Especially for outfielders running into each other and walls.  A designated fielder takes guys prone to aches and pains off the field but lets them contribute on offense, even in the National League.  It also makes big contracts less risky in the National League, which might lose out on an aging slugger like Albert Pujols.

It adds an element of strategy.

There will be tremendous temptation to play a catcher as your designated fielder.  They make your pitchers better and prevent stolen bases.  That said, what if you had a second-best catcher who could hit but an excellent outfielder who can’t hit?  The decision gets cloudy.  Teams might strategize based on the potential base-stealing skills of the opponent versus their expectations of fly balls.

A designated baserunner too?

My vision of the designated baserunner is more like a once-a-game power up you can use rather than a permanent fixture.  I’ve always though it was sort of lame that you had to take a guy completely out of the game to get somebody to run for him.  Currently, that dooms pinch-runners to the eighth or ninth inning.  Well, I and most fans enjoy stolen-base attempts and guys stretching a hit for an extra base.  It’s one of the more exciting parts of the game.  We know Albert Pujols isn’t going to steal too often.  Most catchers aren’t exactly speed demons either.  So, I propose, once a game, managers will be able to pinch-run without making the guy leave the game.  Could you imagine Usain Bolt on the base pads?  If teams wanted speed bad enough, it’s possible.

The right equilibrium.

I like to see baseball with a constant ebb and flow of teams threatening to overtake each other.  The designated fielder adds one more guy who can hit to the lineup.  Defensive shortstops and catchers won’t be weakly grounding out and popping up quite so often.  The ball will be in play more often and will sometimes be negated by amazing plays by the designated fielder.  Catchers with rocket arms will be behind the plate more often.  But, they’ll face more elite baserunners.  Would you pitch around Giancarlo Stanton, if you knew an elite baserunner would run for him?   Do you bring on a lefty to hold the runner on?

I favor letting pitchers hit, however.  I see this as a National League first experiment.  The sacrifice bunt attempt is a pretty exciting part of play, and the shock of watching a hurler rope a hit to left-center is worth it.  I don’t want to be inundated with offense; just enough to spice things up a little.

Any thoughts?

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It’s odd to be for these things and against the DH. In middle school, we had designated runners. Our team got the running back on the football team to do it. He’d literally never played baseball. He didn’t get a great lead or jump, but basically never got thrown out.


It’s just that, if you had a designated fielder, who didn’t have to hit, and could handle the position of any player, and -no- DH, then that designated fielder would pitch, and Manny Ramirez would be listed as the starting pitcher. The designated fielder only makes sense with a DH in place.

Barney Coolio
Barney Coolio

“We’ve probably never seen the best defensive players.”

I have long considered this. The Gold Glove awards are not truly, “the best defensive players,” but really “the best defensive players among those who hit well enough to warrant starting jobs.”

Just like the Academy Award for Best Actress is really “the best actress among those who are hot enough to get lead roles.”


Hidden lede: why Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen belong in the Hall of Fame


How about lineup flexibility. The manager can put who ever he wants up to bat as long as everyone gets a turn before anyone gets a 2nd turn. For example Mike Trout is batting third, but the 1st and 2nd hitter get an out let you weak hitting MI bat with 2 outs and no one on and save Trout for a better spot. Benefits: 1. Better hitters getting more at bats with runners on. (almost every high leverage situation would include an elite hitter and if it did not you could scream at your manager for wasting Harper’s at… Read more »


Your premise is flawed. Fangraphs’ equivalent of dWAR (Def) already puts in the positional adjustment. Albert Pujols, for example, has been a net positive defender at 1B for his career, but the 1B positional adjustment gives him a negative Def regardless of his actual defensive abilities.


“the 1B positional adjustment gives him a negative Def regardless of his actual defensive abilities.”

This is not how positional adjustments work. It just shows that Albert Pujols is a below average defender, despite being an above average first basemen defensively. While historically it is very difficult for first basemen to have a positive def score, that is largely because of the fact that first basemen indeed are not above average defenders when considered against the rest of MLB.

Pirates Hurdles
Pirates Hurdles

Sorry, but these are terrible ideas. The DF is essentially the DH where the pitcher is the DF. Even if you say it can’t be the P you are just adding a DH to the NL. The Free runner destroys the basic balance of the game which is a key part of its beauty – sluggers generally don’t run well, fast guys generally don’t have power. Its a key balance on the game that keeps baseball from becoming too one-dimensional. With your suggestion teams would resemble slow pitch softball teams with a designated fast guy to do the running in… Read more »


I think it’s a nice thing to think about, but I think it would result in more Ryan Howards and Ben Reveres. Guys who just aren’t all around good players but have one or two skills that they focus on. There would be less incentive to focus on your all around game.

I dream of a world where all of the best athletes play baseball. It would be incredible to see some of these freak WR’s, power forwards, and NHL wing players in the field.