Since 1973, the designated hitter has been a part of life for the American League. It’s been widely debated from the moment Ron Blomberg consummated its existence by walking with the bases loaded for the New York Yankees 42 years ago. In the four-plus decades the position has served as a lightning rod, with supporters firmly planted on either side of the fence. For the offensive-minded types, the DH brings life to the game by taking the bat out of the pitcher’s hands. For the purists, the DH ruins many strategic aspects of the game.
The designated hitter has yielded exactly two Hall of Famers. Only one player who took the majority of his career at-bats as the designated hitter, Frank Thomas, has been enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Of Thomas’s 10,075 career plate appearance, 5,698 came while serving as the DH. Paul Molitor, who took 5,334 out of 12,167 trips to the plate as a DH is also in the Hall. Although the DH has been widely accepted by most, the position is still shunned when it comes time to vote for Cooperstown.
The debate has only picked up steam as David Ortiz blasted career home run number 500 this weekend. With that home run, Ortiz joined Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson as the only players to hit 500 home runs and win three World Series. Despite lingering questions about PED use, many view Ortiz as a surefire candidate for the Hall. Those who do not view Ortiz as a Hall of Famer cite either the fact that over 80 percent of his plate appearances have come as a DH or the possible stain of steroid use as reasons to keep Ortiz out.
David Ortiz has played only 272 career games at first base. He has managed to look slightly better than the dancing bear some would try to make him out to be when playing the field. Ortiz has made only 22 errors in his career at first base, good for a .990 fielding percentage. Yes, his range factor is below league average, and the advanced metrics will tell you he’s cost his team runs at first base, but for the most part, he’s been passable when forced into action in the field.
Edgar Martinez has gradually seen support for his Hall of Fame bid die. He received only 27.0 percent of the required vote on the 2015 ballot, down from a peak of 36.5 percent in 2012 (still less than half of the required 75 percent). Martinez checks all of the boxes when it comes to attempting to predict the likelihood a player will see himself inducted, but he played the final ten years of his career primarily as a DH. Martinez did not check off any of the big Hall of Fame boxes. He did not reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs. His Seattle Mariners never played in a World Series. Had Martinez been able to stick with the Mariners before the age of 27, he would surely have reached 3,000 hits, but he did not.
David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez are Hall of Famers. The story of baseball in the first two decades of the 21st Century certainly cannot be told without Ortiz. He has been the driving force behind three World Series championships. The same could be said of Martinez. The annual award the league gives out for the best DH is named after him for crying out loud! In the end, Ortiz will likely reach the Hall of Fame after some debate over his perceived use of steroids. If Ortiz reaches Cooperstown, that could be good for Martinez, but how exactly the voters will justify tripling his vote total when it has been in constant decline is beyond me. If Edgar Martinez becomes a Hall of Famer because David Ortiz receives the honor, does that not mean he was a Hall of Famer the whole time?
The incessant debate over whether or not a full-time designated hitter belongs in the Hall of Fame needs to stop. The DH is a legal, legitimate position in the American League, and has been so for over 40 years. If you don’t like it, too bad. Has the DH rule extended the careers of players like Ortiz and Martinez? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. Ortiz and Martinez have had their careers extended by the position. Ortiz may never have morphed into a World Series hero if he was forced to play first base every day, but the Red Sox would likely not be three-time World Series winners without him. Both Ortiz and Martinez were able to play into their forties because of their ability to maintain a high standard of offensive production. Their teams could literally have picked anyone on the roster to do their job, but never did.
Is it easy to DH every day instead of play the field? Maybe. Is it easy to hit .312 for 18 seasons with a .418 OBP? That’s a definite no. How much more valuable to a team is a slugging DH than a Gold Glove shortstop who cannot hit? That’s impossible to say. That same shortstop is never compared to a Silver Slugger at first base, so why should a DH be held up against players who take the field. That is not in his job description.
The Major League rulebook clearly defines the DH as a position in the lineup, and it is not going away. What I wish would go away is the nagging debate. Designated hitters are part of the game, and as such, belong in the Hall of Fame.