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The evolution of the DH, and what the Yankees have to do with it

Designated hitters are hitting less and less the last couple of years, what gives?

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MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday in Queens, in the midst of an excellent start, Masahiro Tanaka pulled up lame after scoring a run on a sacrifice fly. Tanaka ended up leaving the game, was placed on the DL with hamstring problems, and is looking at about a month on the sidelines. All because the National League can’t get around the idea of a designated hitter, a position the AL has used for almost 50 years.

Recently, though, the DH has undergone a bit of a metamorphosis. It’s no longer the domain of an Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz, where one player occupies the slot for 155 games in a season. Increasingly, the DH is used as a revolving door, where teams - aside from the Seattle Mariners - forego a “regular” DH in favor of a rest system. You’re familiar with the idea; give a player a “half-day” off by letting him hit while avoiding playing the field. Like a lot of recent developments in baseball, the Yankees have been at the forefront of the revolving DH phenomenon.

Carrying the contracts of Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Carlos Beltran over the past decade have forced the Yankees’ hand in this area. As players age and become unplayable in the field, it becomes more and more important to slot them at DH. However, with other players needing half days off or battling minor tweaks, it creates something of a log jam at DH. In fact, since 2010 the Yankees have used at least four men in the DH slot in five seasons, and at least five men four times, including already in 2018.

This is a trend across all of baseball, but hasn’t necessarily led to better performance from the designated hitter spot:

You can see here, for example, the Yankees’ DH production has tracked pretty closely to the overall league, save for two key seasons. 2015 was the year of Alex Rodriguez’ renaissance, and although he officially retired after a brutal 2016, I like to think of the season preceding as A-Rod’s great sendoff in baseball. And then of course, comes 2018.

The big difference in the designated hitter’s slot this season is Giancarlo Stanton. The big man has played almost half his games as a DH, and despite the numerous takes that he doesn’t hit like a DH, has acquitted himself rather well:

For this comparison, rather than look at Stanton vs. all DHs, I thought it would be prudent to only compare him to players who accrued 200 plate appearances as DHs, or in the case of 2018, at least 80. This filter means that we can actually grade Stanton against other regular, and usually better, DHs—the kind we could expect the Yankees to go out and acquire as a real asset, not just as lineup filler.

In every season except an injury-shortened 2016, Stanton has outhit regular DH production across his entire career. Even in 2018, with evidence that Stanton really is pressing, and having to adjust to an entire league worth of pitchers, Stanton’s been better than the majority of designated hitters in baseball.

This doesn’t touch on the fact that both Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez have seen their share of DH starts, and given that both of them are true-talent All-World hitters, goes a long way in explaining where the Yankees got their DH mojo back. Designated hitters exist to boost a team’s offensive output, and after a number of seasons where Yankee DHs left runs on the table, it looks like the team has figured out the proper way to rotate players through the slot.