Forty years ago today, the evolution of baseball took a big step. For some, it was a huge stumble back and the beginning of the end of the purity of the sport, at least in the American League. For others, it was a giant leap forward.
I’m talking, of course, about the designated hitter: On April 6, 1973, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became the first DH in Major League Baseball history.
I admit that I’ve never known Indians baseball without the DH, but living in Cubs/Cardinals/Reds country for a few years I’ve become friends with enough NL fans that I can understand the appeal, at least academically. I think it comes down to what each fan finds exciting. For some of my NL friends, it’s the prospect of seeing what a manager will do with runners at first and third, two out scored tied 0-0 and the starting pitcher (with a pitch count still in the 80s) due up. I get that. And the NL fans love it even more when the manager sticks with the pitcher and that starter “helps his own cause.”
But for me, I’d rather see a pitcher keep going until the opponent, or his pitch count, knocks him out. I’d also rather see what a professional hitter can do in that same situation, because it sure as heck won’t be hit .150, which is about what pitchers as a whole hit each year.
Sure, I remember the thrill and crazy fun of the occasional C.C. Sabathia home run, but I shudder when I think about the raw number of at bats that are just given away through the course of the year in NL and interleague play.
But the 40 year anniversary of the DH is more than a time to wax poetic about the despair of watching pitchers try to hit. It’s a chance to look back at the best designated hitters in Indians history. And the truth is, for the Indians at least, there haven’t been many. Only seven Indians have made 1,000 plate appearances for the club with at least 50 percent of those coming at DH: Andre Thornton, Travis Hafner, Rico Carty, Oscar Gamble, Eddie Murray, Ellis Burks and the immortal Chris James (who much to my shock, set the Indians single game RBI record back in 1991 against Oakland with nine. Though he started 58 games as DH that year, he was at first base the day he set the record.)
In fact, only 24 of those 40 seasons have the Indians have what would amount to a regular DH (for my purposes I considered a full-time DH any player with 400 or more plate appearances in a given season with at least 50 percent of those coming at DH). Most of those seasons belong to Thornton and Hafner, who had five each.
I had expected Murray to have better numbers, but despite playing on those offensive juggernauts he had a fairly pedestrian .787 OPS and 50 homers in his 1,200 plus PAs as an Indian. Still, I will always remember and appreciate his 3,000th hit, the game winning hit in Game 3 of the 95 series and the Greg Maddux incident in Game 5 of the series that brought both benches out. Who knows, without Murray maybe the Braves sweep the Tribe.
But when you get serious about the DH list, it’s really only Thornton and Hafner. And, (please note the usual disclaimer about all offensive numbers from the 90s or early 2000s) Hafner’s numbers were better across the board, with a higher OPS as an Indian (.890 to .809), 45 more doubles and only 14 fewer homers in 500 fewer plate appearances.
That’s not to diminish Thornton at all, who played in an era where hitting 30 homers was truly a great season, was an All-Star, Silver Slugger and otherwise the only bright spot in an otherwise dark, dark period of Indians baseball. Every time I’ve seen him interviewed he seems like a great guy who really did appreciate being an Indian, even in the bleakest of eras.
But given the way things ended for Hafner in Cleveland, and the fan vitriol based on his big contract and subsequent lack of production, it’s easy to forget just how good his peak was and why the Dolans paid the man in the first place.
Pronk’s 2004-2006 seasons are the top three for an Indians full-time DHs, whether you look at WAR, (5, 5.5 and 5.9 respectively) or OPS (.993, 1.003 and 1.097).
And 2006 was one of the best seasons for a full-time DH ever.
In MLB history, 316 seasons meet my criteria for a full-time DH. Here’s the complete list of players who can claim a better single seasons than Hafner’s 2006: Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas and David Ortiz. That’s it. In terms of WAR it’s the seventh best season for a DH in history, and it’s second only to the great Martinez’s 1995 in terms of OPS.
Even when you look at career totals for players with at least half their games at DH (which admittedly knocked out Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who played about 40 percent of his career as a DH), Pronk’s overall WAR is still seventh, even given the injuries and ineffectiveness at the end of his time here.
I didn’t start this post intending to write a Pronk-retrospective (Pronkspecticus?), but I admit to being a little surprised at how few Indians spent their time primarily as a DH, and how incredible Hafner’s numbers were, even in the steroids era.
Given the way more and more teams are using the DH role as a way to rest starters while keeping their bats in the lineup, the Andre Thorntons, David Ortizs, Edgar Martinezs, Frank Thomases and Travis Hafners of the world are worth celebrating once in a while, and what better time than the 40th anniversary of the great offensive experiment.