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GOING, GOING ... GONE?

April 11, 2011
April 11, 2011

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April 11, 2011

LEADING OFF
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GOING, GOING ... GONE?

Adam Dunn is powerful, plodding, productive and very well paid—and in today's game, he's a dinosaur. In an era that values run prevention and lineup flexibility, the DH as we knew it is a dying breed

This is an article from the April 11, 2011 issue

It may seem like a dream job. And maybe in another era it was. You stepped up to the plate, took your best cuts against the opposing pitcher and retreated to the clubhouse, where you kicked back until your next turn. You were probably one of your team's highest-profile players and certainly one of the most richly compensated. Once upon a time in the American League, when middle-of-the-order mashers with forearms the size of fire hydrants were the kings of the game, being a designated hitter was glamorous. But now? It may be the Worst Job in Baseball.

Here's the truth about the DH: Today's ballplayers hate the gig. "I hear all the time about how much guys can't stand it," says Mariners DH Jack Cust. "It's not that DHs don't make what they used to. It's harder than people think it is. Guys would rather have the day off than have to do it."

The worst part is the waiting. Each player has his own way of killing time between at bats. Cleveland's Travis Hafner hangs out in the clubhouse video room, where he does his homework on pitchers. Minnesota's Jim Thome takes swings in the indoor batting cages. Cust runs on a treadmill with one eye on a TV screen with the game on, though he admits he is often as checked out from the action as the BlackBerry-addicted bankers in the stands. "Reporters after the game will be like, 'So, what'd you think of that hit?' I'll nod and say, 'What a great hit,' and have no idea what they're talking about," says Cust.

Adam Dunn has yet to develop a routine. In December, after 10 seasons in the National League, Dunn signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the White Sox, but (to hear him tell it) he might as well have been signing his own death sentence. "Let's be honest," he says, "being a DH these days—it's like having one foot out the door. You're one step from the retirement home." For years scouts who watched the 6'6", 285-pound Dunn's lineman-sized body lumber around the field said he was destined to become a DH. The 31-year-old spent his career running from his destiny—it almost seemed as if he stayed in the National League as a poor-fielding first baseman and an even worse outfielder just to prove that he wasn't Greg Luzinski.

Dunn's day of reckoning finally came this winter. He was coming off another monster season at the plate (his seventh straight with at least 38 home runs), but the Nationals offered only a lowball deal in their halfhearted effort to re-sign him. Four other teams wanted him. They were all from the American League, and they were all repeating what have become the most dreaded words in baseball: We want you to DH.

When the curtain lifted on a new baseball season last week and he stepped to the plate for the first time as Chicago's number 3 hitter—he banged a home run in his second at bat, drove in five runs in his first two games and was the general menace he is being paid to be—Dunn officially became the latest member of baseball's dying fraternity. Like the milkman and the mom-and-pop bookseller, the everyday designated hitter is an endangered species. "You're seeing a movement away from the traditional DH, that premium hitter who you could pencil in for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a year," says Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski.

"There just aren't too many Jim Thomes anymore," says Twins closer Joe Nathan. Thome, Minnesota's 40-year-old slugger, was one of just three players—Boston's David Ortiz and Baltimore's Luke Scott are the others—who had an on-base plus slugging percentage over .900 at the position last year (minimum of 300 plate appearances). In 2010 the American League averages for DHs in on-base percentage (.332) and slugging percentage (.426) dipped to their lowest levels since at least 1993, and batting average (.252) its lowest since 1990.

The falling value of the DH was reflected in the winter's free-agent market, as—with the notable exception of Dunn—one-dimensional sluggers such as Thome (who reupped with the Twins for one year at $3 million), Manny Ramirez (one year, $2 million with the Rays) and Hideki Matsui (one year, $4.25 million with the A's) settled for cut-rate deals. Vladimir Guerrero, who agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles less than a week before spring training, hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs last season—and Texas still declined to pick up his $9 million option. "It's ridiculous," says Cust. "Vlad puts up big numbers and helps Texas get to the World Series, and he has one offer from Baltimore. You look at Adam Dunn, there's no one with his pop anymore. And it was still a struggle for him to get a multiyear deal."

Between 2007 and '09 only five players in the AL hit more home runs than Cust did during those years for Oakland, and yet when the '09 season was over, the A's dumped him onto waivers, where, Cust says, "any team could have picked me up at that point, and no one did." Cust ended up re-signing with Oakland for one year and this past off-season, after the A's neglected to make him an offer, signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Seattle in December. "I get that it's a changing game," he says. "But wouldn't you think with home runs down, getting guys with pop would be even more important?"

With a bat in one hand and a slight hitch in his step, Harold Baines shuffles around the Camelback Ranch baseball fields in Glendale, Ariz. The early spring sun is shining brightly on the South Side's famous Quiet Man, now the White Sox' first base coach. Baines is 52, still trim and fit, still looking like he could step into the batter's box and rip the ball to the opposite field. "I'm thankful the DH was around when I was playing," says the six-time All-Star, who retired in 2001 after logging more at bats at DH (5,806) than any player in history. "I had knee problems my ninth and 10th seasons. I couldn't play defense, but I could still hit, and without the DH, I would have been out of baseball. Instead, I played another 12 seasons."

Since the introduction of the designated hitter, in 1973 (the rule change was put in place to boost American League scoring and attendance), the position has served mostly as a repository for old war horses such as Baines, Hal McRae, Don Baylor, Paul Molitor, Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas—premier hitters who had lost a step in the field, or didn't have one to start with. Until very recently the DH was a premium offensive position. In 2006 AL teams received an average of 28 home runs and a .469 slugging percentage from their DHs, making it the highest-producing position. The designated hitter was also typically the game's highest-paid player, earning an average of $8.5 million in 2007, nearly $3 million more than the next-highest-compensated position, third base.

But last year, as player salaries reached unprecedented levels, DHs made less ($7.4 million) than both first and third basemen. Says Cust, who has been a DH since he was pegged as a below-average fielder early in his career, "My agent told me that if I could just go to a National League team and play for a full year and not even hit much, maybe 18 or 20 [home runs] and .270, then I'd make more money than hitting 30 home runs [as a DH] in the American League."

As baseball moves further from the steroid era, teams continue to emphasize pitching and defense and building around younger, cheaper, more well-rounded players. Chicks may still dig the long ball, but teams no longer do, at least not as much as they used to. "The aging curve got so out of whack with steroids, you now suddenly no longer have guys late in their careers who are capable of doing what they used to do," says an American League general manager. "Power doesn't age well. There are still guys who can give you good power, like an Ortiz or Guerrero. The problem is teams now want guys who play both sides of the ball. If your DH doesn't hit, he doesn't give you any other value, and you're stuck."

The slot in the lineup has become a time-share that allows managers to play matchups and keep their stars fresh. "It's basically turned into a utility position," says Baines. Last year the Rays won the AL East with their DHs batting .239 with a .323 on-base percentage and 17 homers, with only the light-hitting Willy Aybar logging more than 90 at bats at the position. (Aybar, 28, is currently jobless and out of the game.) "Having flexibility in the lineup is huge," says Dombrowski, whose Tigers will slot catcher and new free-agent acquisition Victor Martinez at DH but will also use the position to give outfielder Magglio Ordoñez and first baseman Miguel Cabrera days off from the field. "Victor can also catch for us, and that frees up a spot for other guys. Magglio is 37; you're just not going to play him on an everyday basis out there. But you want to keep his bat in the lineup. We can keep Cabrera fresh without having to sit him, either."

Only a few teams are now willing to invest in a traditional DH. The Red Sox picked up Ortiz's $12.5 million option after the Boston icon returned from the dead to hit 32 home runs last season. But paying top dollar for a DH has too much risk for teams that can't afford to miss when they sign a high-priced player—the Indians inked Travis Hafner to a four-year, $57 million extension in 2007, and at this point "they would do anything to unload him," says an AL general manager. "A contract like that can sink your team if you're not the Yankees or Red Sox."

The White Sox are taking a big gamble on Dunn, whose new deal is the second largest ever given to a DH (after Hafner's). With the Chicago DH platoon among the worst in the American League last year (.247, .396 slugging and 18 homers), the White Sox stand to benefit from a big increase in production. Dunn is one of the game's premier home run hitters—only Albert Pujols has hit more since 2004—and fans of the Pale Hose have reason to be salivating over the mere thought of what Dunn can do at U.S. Cellular Field, the most home-run-friendly ballpark in baseball. Still, did the White Sox pay too much for a player who will be 34 in the final year of his contract? "There's still nothing wrong with a guy who hits 35 home runs," says an AL executive. "But paying top dollar for a guy that just does that one thing? Those days are probably over. Maybe if Dunn has a few MVP-type seasons in Chicago, that will change people's minds. I think there's a lot of interest in seeing how that turns out."

There are never any guarantees that a player will make an easy adjustment to DH—everyone from Dave Winfield to Jason Giambi to Pat Burrell has struggled with making the transition. Dunn has gone to his new first base coach for advice, though Baines says he doesn't have much wisdom to offer. "I tell him that every player is different," he says. "I was on a one-year contract every year in the last part of my career, and I didn't have time to fail. So I really had to study my craft to be successful." He adds, "I always thought I could pick up something, from a pitcher or how the catcher is calling the game. When you don't have to worry about defense, you can really study the craft."

Even in retirement Baines's legacy is affected by the changing perception of his longtime position: In January he was dropped from the Hall of Fame ballot when he failed to receive 5% of the vote. (With 1,628 career RBIs, Baines has the second most, after Rafael Palmeiro, among players eligible for the Hall who have not been inducted.) Edgar Martinez fared better, but he still received just 32.9%, far short of the 75% needed for election. Martinez, who spent the last 10 seasons of his career as Seattle's DH, is one of 26 players in history with a career OBP higher than .400 and a slugging percentage better than .500 (minimum of 5,000 plate appearances).

"[The DH] has been a position for over 30 years, so why not recognize it as one?" asks Baines. "I'm not saying I'm a Hall of Famer, but just recognize it as a position. Someone should be there. I know if it were up to the National League, they'd get rid of it. But if you want to see some of the great hitters continue to hit, you better keep it around."

The position itself isn't going anywhere anytime soon, even though baseball purists would like nothing more than to watch it die. No one, however, knows whether the everyday DH in the Harold Baines mold has any place in the game's future. The fate of the DH could very well rest with baseball's remaining few—with players such as Dunn, Ramirez, Ortiz and Guerrero. "Once you're pegged as a DH, it seems like you're always one," says Cust, who, once again, is playing for a new contract. "The game has changed a lot, and that's unfortunate for guys like me. But you kind of just have to accept that it may never go back to what it once was."

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CUST'S AGENT TOLD HIM HE COULD MAKE MORE HITTING 20 HOME RUNS AND PLAYING DEFENSE FOR AN NL TEAM THAN HE COULD AS A DESIGNATED HITTER WHO HITS 30.

DETERIORATED HITTERS

DHs get paid to do one thing—and, as measured by overall OPS, they're getting worse at it. Here is how DH productivity in the AL has fallen since 2000 (yearly rank among all positions in parentheses)

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

2000 .825 (2nd)

2001 .786 (2nd)

2002 .788 (2nd)

2003 .788 (4th)

2004 .791 (4th)

2005 .778 (3rd)

2006 .819 (T-1st)

2007 .802 (2nd)

2008 .774 (3rd)

2009 .780 (T-3rd)

2010 .758 (4th)

PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN BIEVERNARROWING HIS FIELD Dunn is an elite slugger, but his one-dimensional game drew contract offers only for something he wanted to avoid: DH duty.PHOTOTOM DIPACEDIME-STORE SLUGGERS Once upon a time, aging, slow-footed mashers could cash in, but this year (from left) Guerrero, Ramirez, Thome, Cust and Matsui are all playing under cut-rate deals.PHOTOFRED THORNHILL[See caption above]TWO PHOTOSBRAD MANGIN[See caption above]