1-D Baseball? On the DH and Fielding

Let me begin this discussion by saying I am not a fan of the DH. Maybe it's because I grew up a National League fan, or maybe I'm just surrounded by too many people who think, quite loudly, that it's stupid, but for whatever reason, I just don't care for it (and for those who feel the need to ask, yes, I enjoy watching pitchers try to hit a few times a game). I am, however, a lot more ambivalent toward the idea than I used to be. One of the reasons I've softened my position is that the argument that it creates one-dimensional players, so often the rhetorical linchpin of those who rail against the position, rings a bit hollow to me. Off the top of your head, how many players have ascended to one-dimensional (meaning just offense, I guess, though I generally think of offense as being multi-dimensional) greatness through the grace of the DH? There's Edgar Martinez (though he did play nearly 5000 innings in the field) and Frank Thomas (over 8000 innings in the field), and then maybe Harold Baines as far as players who were primarily DH over their careers.

Now, how many offense-only stars can you think of who were stuck in the field somewhere? There's Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Richie Allen, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, etc. Generally, if you can hit well enough to pass as a DH in the Majors, especially a regular DH, you can find a spot on a team with or without the DH, even if you field like William Taft. There were and are one-dimensional players without the DH, and the DH hasn't created an abundance of players suited only for DH. Corollary to this, of course, is that had the Mariners lacked the position of DH, they'd have found a place for someone like Edgar to play, and he'd have still been a stud.

This got me thinking: if I can't think of that many great hitters who made their careers primarily as a DH, how much is the DH even used as its own position isolated from the field? A lot of teams rotate fielders into and out of the DH slot throughout the season, or use it to spell fielders for a night. Not that many teams use it to completely quarantine the iron glove of a big bat. Just how much is the DH its own singular position, and how much is it an amalgamation of other positions drifting between the field and DH?

I looked at all AL teams this decade, and for each team, I looked at every player who had at least 1 PA at DH for that team in that season. Then, for each player, I looked at how many PAs he had at DH compared to how many PAs he had total that season. From these figures, I calculated the percentage of his team's PAs at DH each player had, and the percentage of each player's PAs that came at DH. For each team, the total percentage of PAs its DHs spent DHing as opposed to in the field was found by multiplying these two percentages for each player and then summing the products. The following table demonstrates this process for the 2000 Angels:

batter PA_DH teamPA perc playerPA perc2 term
gil-b001 6 674 0.89% 343 1.75% 0.02%
palmo001 57 674 8.46% 296 19.26% 1.63%
baugj001 2 674 0.30% 23 8.70% 0.03%
glaut001 12 674 1.78% 678 1.77% 0.03%
gantr001 33 674 4.90% 103 32.04% 1.57%
spies001 192 674 28.49% 345 55.65% 15.85%
salmt001 145 674 21.51% 680 21.32% 4.59%
walbm001 2 674 0.30% 155 1.29% 0.00%
erstd001 97 674 14.39% 747 12.99% 1.87%
andeg001 41 674 6.08% 681 6.02% 0.37%
cleme001 21 674 3.12% 80 26.25% 0.82%
vaugm001 58 674 8.61% 712 8.15% 0.70%
molib001 8 674 1.19% 513 1.56% 0.02%



In the above table, PA_DH is the number of PAs each hitter had at DH, teamPA is the total number of PAs the team had at DH that season, and playerPA is the total number of PAs the hitter had that season at all positions. perc is PA_DH/teamPA, perc2 is PA_DH/playerPA, and term is perc*perc2.

In this case, the Angels used mostly fielders rotated into the DH slot. Only Scott Spiezio had more than half his PAs come at DH, and he took fewer than 30% of the team's PAs at DH. The average DH for the Angels in 2000 took only 27% of his PAs at DH and over 70% of his PAs as a fielder (or PH).

Which teams used their DHs most exclusively as non-fielders, and which teams' DHs spent the most time in the field? Here are the 5 highest and lowest percentages of the decade, along with the AL average:

year team perc
2000 SEA 92.94%
2007 TOR 92.76%
2000 TOR 91.04%
2003 SEA 90.15%
2005 BOS 88.94%
2005 ANA 26.53%
2005 TOR 26.09%
2000 KCA 25.00%
2001 KCA 23.37%
2002 KCA 19.68%

A few teams (Seattle and Toronto twice each) had their DH, on average, take over 90% of his PAs at DH. A few teams (all the Royals) had their DH average only a quarter of his PAs at DH. The average AL team this decade had its DH take roughly 56% of his PAs at DH and 44% of his PAs at other positions. While there were a handful of players who were almost exclusively DHs for their teams, most DHs this decade were splitting time pretty evenly between the field and DH. The DH who only hits and doesn't play the field, at least on a regular basis, is pretty uncommon in today's game.

I guess that's good news for those worried about the DH ruining the game by creating a class of one-dimensional players. That's just not what's happening, by and large, and when there are players who almost exclusively DH, they tend to be good enough hitters that teams have made room in the field for their type in the past anyway. Teams continue to make room for equally bad fielders if they can hit. These players may be one-dimensional, but so were countless players before them who hit a ton and couldn't field and still played. That's not an artifact of the DH.

The following tables have the information from the above tables for all AL teams this decade:

all players by team
team totals


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