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Evaluating a Designated Hitter

Edgar Martinez
With Edgar Martinez's Hall of Fame candidacy (and legitimate candidacy at that, with the percentage of votes he got the first time on the ballot), debate about the value of a designated hitter has heated up. Mostly, when it comes up, people seem to try to guess what Edgar's offensive numbers would have looked like if he played the field, or what other Hall of Famers' numbers would have looked like as a DH.

I don't like either of those methods at all. The Hall of Fame should be about what a player accomplished. Ted Williams might have hit .400 a couple more times, if not for World War II. Babe Ruth might have hit 800 home runs if he had been an everyday position player at the start of his career. Conversely, Ruth might have won 300 games if he had stayed a pitcher. That's not why either of them are in the Hall of Fame though. Their cases, like everyone's, were built on what they actually did.

A designated hitter should be treated the same way. To a degree, a DH's accomplishments are easier to evaluate. Only hitting needs to be considered.

That is only the first step to evaluating a designated hitter though. There are a couple fundamentally different ways to approach the lack of fielding inherent to the designated hitter position. It is similar to classes with pop quizzes.

We have all had classes with pop quizzes that can't be made up at a later date, or at least had friends with classes like that. Teachers handle missed pop quizzes in two distinctly different ways: 1) A missed quiz neither counts for or against the final grade; it is simply dropped altogether. 2) Any missed quiz counts as a zero, or some predetermined grade, in the grade book.

In essence, a designated hitter misses out on fielding, and there is no way to make up for that. So, there are two fundamentally different ways to deal with that: 1) Hold the missed opportunity neither for nor against a designated hitter, making their hall of fame case entirely dependent on their hitting prowess. 2) "Give them a zero," which opens up a whole new can of worms. However, it is clear that it would penalize the DH position, and thus hold the player to higher hitting standards than other Hall of Fame position players.

In a classroom setting, I think the first option is the way to go. It is an acknowledgement that there is simply no way to know how the student would have performed, and that they should be graded based on what they exhibited. Translating this to the designated hitter debate, taking this option leads to the conclusion that a designated hitter could have been an atrocious fielder, a gold-glover, or anything between. There simply is no way to know, so throw defense completely out the window.

However, while there is no way to know exactly how well a designated hitter would have fielded, it is reasonable to think that they would have been out in the field if they were a gold-glover at some position. If their fielding was valuable to the team, it is reasonable to expect the team to use it, instead of wasting it in the DH spot on a regular basis.

That leads me to option two. A designated hitter should be penalized for their lack of fielding, because it is reasonable to assume that there is a reason playing the field would detract from the player's value. Simply put, if it did not, they would be on the field.

Now comes the tricky part: how much should a designated hitter be penalized?

I don't have a good answer as of yet. However, I have a couple of thoughts about it:
  • A designated hitter should not "take a zero" with fielding. I could go out on a major league field and through dumb luck record some outs. Even the worst of fielders make some outs and prevent some runs. Maybe a DH should take the equivalent of a 50% on a test. That's still awful, but it is very different from a zero. The bottom line is that it is reasonable to assume a DH could do something on the field.
  • Batting and fielding should be weighted about equally. Basically, an average hitter takes about 1/9th of lineup's plate appearances in a game. Defensively, there are seven positions, not counting catcher and pitcher. On the surface, that makes defense more important. To make the two equal, the pitcher and catcher must account for roughly 2/9 (22%) of a team's outs. Between strikeouts, pickoffs, caught stealings, and dribblers between the plate and the mound, I think that's pretty close to true. Maybe one day I will look at the data to see how reasonable that is. For now, either accept or reject it. In my head, that leaves 7/9ths of the outs accounted for by 7 positions, which comes out nicely to an average defender accounting for about as many of a team's outs as an average hitter accounts for a team's at-bats. So, batting and fielding should be weighed equally, especially in the case of a DH, where we assume that we do not know what position they would have played defensively.
When it comes to determining a designated hitter's Hall of Fame case, my thoughts lead me to an obvious conclusion: a designated hitter should be considered a below average fielder when considering them, and that makes a significant difference. Maybe this doesn't sound earth-shattering, but many voters do not approach it this way.

Instead, many try to suppose what a DH's offensive numbers would be if they played every day, or what a fielder's offensive numbers would be if they were primarily a designated hitter. Those are questions we will never know the answer to. It is similar to asking what Ted Williams would have done if he hadn't gone to war, or what Babe Ruth would have done if he had been an outfielder all along, or a pitcher his entire career. Exploring those questions will never lead to firm, satisfying conclusions.

We can reasonably suppose that a designated hitter was a bad fielder though, and that hurts his overall value. We now have a skillset to use for comparison: good hitter but bad fielder.

Therefore, when considering any designated hitter's Hall of Fame case, they can most directly be compared to Hall of Famers that were great hitters and bad fielders. Some of the more famous examples of players that fit this mold are Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. There are plenty of Hall of Famers that made it to Cooperstown on the strength of their bat alone.

Returning to the debate over Edgar Martinez, it is indeed a knock against him that he did not play the field regularly, as every other Hall of Fame position player has for the majority of their career. As a result, he should only be considered for the Hall of Fame if he is a better hitter than even most Hall of Famers. That is the real question at hand.

I think Edgar is among the most elite hitters of all-time, but it isn't my call to make. We will find out tomorrow if he is any closer to enshrinement.