Should teams pay top dollar for a part time player?
There is no greater debate in Major League Baseball than that of the designated hitter. Should the American League get rid of it and make pitchers hit the ball just as every other position player? Maybe the National League should accept it once for all and include it in its franchises’ hitting lineups? There is not a golden answer to what should be the solution to the presence of designated hitters in baseball, and there will always be people in favor or against it no matter what. “It makes baseball worse because it removes the strategy involving the pitcher being part of the lineup.” “It is great because it puts great sluggers in the hitting rotation.” And so on, until…
“It usually comes at a premium cost.”
There is no salary cap in baseball. There are rich teams, then there are less rich teams, and finally, there are teams spending a minimal fraction of what the golden boys are burning. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the Detroit Tigers have the biggest payroll among MLB teams during the 2017 season at $173M. The Cubs, Yankees, and Giants follow them all being over $168M. On the other side of the spectrum, we find San Diego ($18M), Oakland ($45M) and Milwaukee ($53M). If we split the MLB into two halves by the money they are spending, we find eight American League franchises in the first half (bigger expenders) and 7 in the second one (smaller expenders). The average salary sum of an American League franchise comes out at $114M, while that of an average National League franchise sits at $111M. Not that big of a difference. Looking at the standings (all data was extracted at the All-Star break), there are nine AL teams among the 15 best MLB teams and 6 between the 15 worst. Not really unbalanced. The question to answer is, then, to what point does designated hitters affect AL franchises in terms of salaries and wins and are they really worth the money they are getting in relation to their production?
The following list contains the 15 most-used designated hitters during the 2017 season up to the All-Star break, one per each AL team, ordered by Plate Appearances and including their team, age, and current salary:
- Mark Trumbo (BAL): 31 years old, 377 PA, $11.5M
- Corey Dickerson (TBR): 28yrs, 370 PA, $3M
- Edwin Encarnacion (CLE): 34yrs, 367 PA, $14.6M
- Albert Pujols (LAA): 37yrs, 354 PA, $26M
- Shin-Soo Choo (TEX): 34yrs, 345 PA, $20M
- Nelson Cruz (SEA): 36yrs, 344 PA, $14.25M
- Ryon Healy (OAK): 25yrs, 344 PA, $537.5k
- Kendrys Morales (TOR): 34yrs, 340 PA, $10M
- Carlos Beltran (HOU): 40yrs, 313 PA, $16M
- Hanley Ramirez (BOS): 33yrs, 309 PA, $22.75M
- Victor Martinez (DET): 38yrs, 286 PA, $18M
- Robbie Grossman (MIN): 27yrs, 286 PA, $552.5k
- Matt Holliday (NYY): 37yrs, 276 PA, $13M
- Matt Davidson (CHW): 26yrs, 257 PA, $536.5k
- Brandon Moss (KCR): 33yrs, 200 PA, $3.75M
What can we get from the list and the players on them?
- Even at first sight, the definition of a “designated hitter” pops out, and it correlates with the preconceived idea anyone has in mind: old, experienced sluggers making tons of money to just stand in the plate and hit the ball without having to worry about the defensive side of the game.
- Eight out of fifteen of these DHs are posting an SLG of .424+ (the league average per 600 PA).
- Ten have an OPS of .748+ (LgAvg/600PA).
- Twelve of them have a positive oWAR (used over the full WAR value in this article due to the offensive nature of the designated hitter position).
- Of the fifteen players analyzed, seven were signed as free agents for the sole purpose of playing as designated hitters: Brandon Moss (KCR), Carlos Beltran (HOU), Edwin Encarnacion (CLE), Kendrys Morales (TOR), Mark Trumbo (BAL), Matt Holliday (NYY) and Victor Martinez (DET). The average salary of those players (in 2017) is $12.4M. The average salary of the other 8 players analyzed (acquired via free agency, trade or Amateur draft) stays at $10.9M.
- Only four players are at or under 28 years of age. None of them is being paid more than $3M nor is between those named in the last point (they’re still capable of contributing on defensive duties playing field-positions), three are posting +1.1 oWAR seasons, and all of them have positive oWAR values. Their average salary is just $1.1M but they’re almost overproducing almost every other designated hitter studied.
One simple thing we can do to see if teams are overpaying designated hitters or not and if they are receiving the correct amount of dollars is to calculate how much money teams are paying them per oWAR point (in 2015 each WAR point was estimated to cost around $7.7M, given the production of every league player and their salaries, so we can use the $8M/WARpt figure as a good estimate for the 2017 season). This would put things into context and allow for comparison with the rest of the league and the market. Next is the last list, only now it includes the oWAR (up to the All-Star break) of each player and the dollars per oWAR point the team is paying for him, ordered from least to most $/oWARpt (think of this as a list of value-price of designated hitters, from best to worst):
- Ryon Healy (OAK): 1.2 oWAR, $447k /oWARpt
- Robbie Grossman (MIN): 1.1, $502k
- Corey Dickerson (TBR): 2.6, $1.1M
- Matt Davidson (CHW): 0.4, $1.3M
- Nelson Cruz (SEA): 2.0, $7.1M
- Matt Holliday (NYY): 1.4, $9M
- Edwin Encarnacion (CLE): 1.4, $10.4M
- Mark Trumbo (BAL): 0.9, $12.7M
- Carlos Beltran (HOU): 0.0, $16M
- Shin-Soo Choo (TEX): 0.9, $22.2M
- Hanley Ramirez (BOS): 0.6, $37.9M
- Brandon Moss (KCR): -0.8, -$4.6M
- Albert Pujols (LAA): -0.8, -$32.5M
- Victor Martinez (DET): -0.4, -$45M
- Kendrys Morales (TOR): -0.1, -$100M
Again, what can we get from this data?
- Only five designated hitters are being underpaid (less than the $8M/oWARpt we set as the expected WAR-point value).
- Four players are posting negative oWAR numbers and therefore preventing wins for their franchises while receiving top-dollar money.
- The best-value designated hitters (those under $2M/oWARpt) were acquired via trade (Davidson and Dickerson) or drafted (Healy), except Robbie Grossman who was signed as a free agent this past offseason after being released by the Houston Astros and is the only FA-signee with a $/oWARpt of less than $7M.
- Only Nelson Cruz is below the $8M/oWARpt figure while making more than $10M in 2017. He’s due $14.25M this season, but at the time of his signing and for multiple seasons he contributed on defense playing in the outfield.
- Houston is paying a 40-year-old Carlos Beltran $16M for producing basically nothing (0.0 oWAR).
- Kendrys Morales is, by far, the worst designated hitter in terms of value-price. The Blue Jays signed the slugger to a lucrative three-year contract that is costing them way more than any other of those analyzed here given the negative production of the Cuban native.
To this point, we have kind of described the designated hitter spot, found some of the economical issues they bring with them, and explored the best and worst deals of today’s most-used American League DHs. On top of this, we can compare their numbers with those from the rest of the league players, no matter their position and with at least 200 PA, in order to see where they rank in different categories and observe if they are actually worth the “premium price” they’re often attached to. As we want to find and compare our hitters with others that are getting similar performances, we can create a bottom-threshold based on the worst value for each of a few statistics being achieved by our fifteen designated hitters. The baseline we’ll work with looks like this (stats extracted, again, at the All-Star break):
- Minimum of 200 plate appearances
- 35 hits and 6 home runs
- 16 runs batted in, and 13 bases by balls
- A slash line (BA, OBP, SLG) of at least .193/.265/.366
Of the 1230 players in the dataset, only 184 (15%) meet the criteria. 15 of those 184 (8%) are our designated hitters. We can now try and compare how our group of designated hitters is performing in comparison to the rest of the players found in different categories. Here are some notes of what I could find:
- The average slash line of the 184 players looks like .270/.344/.475. The average slash line of the 15 DHs is at .255/.327/.448, which is below the global average for every represented statistic.
- Only seven designated hitters have values over the DHs’ slash line numbers. Just two DHs have a BA over the global average (Corey Dickerson and Nelson Cruz), seven a better OBP, and six a better SLG.
- Sorting the 184 filtered batters by BA, the first designated hitter comes at the 20th position (Corey Dickerson). The next one, Nelson Cruz, ranks 49th.
- Sorting them by OBP, Robbie Grossman is the first DH to make an appearance in the list at the 29th spot. He’s followed by Edwin Encarnacion (37th) and Nelson Cruz (41st) among the first 50 ranked players.
- Finally, sorting by SLG (supposedly one of the best attributes of the prototypical designated hitter), we don’t find a DH until the 32nd position (Corey Dickerson). Victor Martinez, the DH from the Tigers, ranks dead-last among all ranked hitters.
Another interesting set of comparisons can be made by looking only at batters that have played at least two-thirds of their teams’ games at the same position. This way we can see how the analyzed designated hitters of our dataset perform in comparison to other starting, established players. Even after applying this filter results doesn’t get much better for the DHs. We can, therefore, conclude that although this role may be seen as an important and valuable one, it is not as close to the money teams are spending on it as it should.
One final thing to do is to run a simple set of queries that would allow us to know the true economical impact of designated hitters in their teams’ payrolls. Given that they don’t perform much better than any other position player, the results should correlate between their salaries and the global team payroll. This is, the more the team is spending, the more the designated hitter should be paid, without much difference between them.
But this is where things look bad for pretty much every team in the American League barring a few reasonable cases. First of all, we can add every team payroll into a single figure, which comes out at around $1.7 billion dollars for the 2017 season. Then, we calculate the percentage of that figure for each team in relation to their own payroll. The Detroit Tigers are first, making up for 10.1% of the full figure. The Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox and Angles close the top five. On the flip side, Oakland is the team with the lower percentage of the league salaries being paid at 2.7% followed by Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Chicago and Seattle.
Next to this, we can calculate the percentage of each team payroll its designated hitter is taking. In this case, Los Angeles and Texas are the teams allocating more money to designated hitters (those being Albert Pujols –19.4% of their payroll– and Shin-Soo Choo –19.1%–) while the White Sox and Twins are the ones spending the least on them (Matt Davidson, 0.7%; Robbie Grossman, 0.8%). Besides the two latter teams, only Oakland, Kansas City, Baltimore, Toronto and New York have their designated hitters at a payroll-percentage lower than that of the team in relation with the AL. While the comparison doesn’t use the same scale, it highlights a glaring problem: designated hitters are being paid a lot by more than half the AL teams, something that shouldn’t be happening given their production.
While this exploration wasn’t meant to reveal any concrete conclusion about the designated hitter, it looks like they are definitely not more valuable than any other position player. They often come at a premium cost given their production and the only thing going in their favor is that their salaries are usually carried from earlier stages of their careers when they were productive in defensive positions. Even with that, buyers beware. Designated hitters do not provide extra punch on offense and they don’t contribute a nail on defense, so it would be better to pay those extra dollars to a complete-package player and find some replacement-level one to slot in the DH position than the opposite.