July 22, 2011: Big bopper DH is a rare sight these days

Story first appeared July 22, 2011 in the Toronto Star.



On the first Sunday in July, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind traded places to cool down Phillies star pitcher Cliff Lee.

Though he’s the team’s everyday first baseman, Lind took over as the designated hitter that day, and singled off Lee in the eighth inning to set up Encarnacion, who had shifted from DH to first, for the massive two-run homer that sealed the Jays’ 7-4 win.

If the game had taken place in Philadelphia, a National League park with no designated hitter rule, one of the men would likely have sat that day.

But despite the extra playing time the designated hitter position provides, Lind, Encarnacion and an increasing number of American leaguers have an ambivalent relationship with it.

Both are grateful for the chance to DH — Lind for the opportunity to hit his way into the lineup and Encarnacion for the chance to shake an early season slump.

But neither sees himself playing the position indefinitely.

A generation ago, a team’s DH was also its biggest swinger and top option for home runs and RBIs. But in the post-steroid era, as pitchers have re-established dominance, the DH position has grown less specialized and less prestigious.

Once a destination for power hitters and aging stars hoping to extend their careers, the designated hitter position is now a way station.

“Sometimes it’s boring when you DH, but you have to make the adjustment,” Encarnacion says. “I don’t think any baseball player wants to be a DH. I just have to be where they want to put me. . . . But I’ve always prepared my mind to play defence because you have to play both.”

Through Wednesday, Encarnacion was batting .321 (42-for-131) in 33 games as a DH, but just .234 (30-for-128) when also playing a defensive position.

When a reporter informs Encarnacion that his batting average jumps significantly when he DHs, the 28-year-old raises his eyebrows. Then he turns to Jose Bautista, seated at a nearby locker, and relays the news in rapid-fire Spanish.

“I hit a lot better as a DH than I do when I’m playing the field,” Encarnacion says to baseball’s home run leader.

“I never knew that.”

It’s not surprising Encarnacion, a third baseman by trade, didn’t notice how much better he hits as a DH.

Across the American League designated hitters are fading into the background.

Thirty-eight years after the AL instituted the designated-hitter rule, the idea of having a player whose only job is to hit — and hit well — remains enthralling.

That’s why the Major League All-Star Game includes DHs even when the Midsummer Classic is played in National League parks.

But the day-to-day reality is that the position’s influence is diminishing.

In the mid-1980s, the prototypical DH was like former Tiger and Brewer Rob Deer, a thumper who posted power numbers impressive enough to justify high strikeout totals.

As a group, designated hitters batted just .240 in 1985, which ranked them last among position players, while their 1,496 strikeouts were second-most.

But that year designated hitters also produced more home runs (333) and RBIs (1,332) than any other position.

Fifteen years later, the designated hitter prototype was more like longtime Chicago White Sox and former Blue Jay Frank Thomas, a star first baseman for whom a lightened workload meant an extended career.

In 2000, designated hitters hit 352 homers and drove in 1,339 runs, ranking third among positions in both categories.

Since then, the position has continued to evolve even if the day-to-day work it involves remains constant.

“I don’t know if I’ve really noticed much change in (the position),” says Cleveland’s Travis Hafner, a DH who hasn’t been an everyday defensive player since reaching the majors in 2002.

“There was probably a lot more full-time DHs back a few years ago. Now you don’t see a whole lot of them.”

Batting .321 in 58 games this season, the 34-year-old Hafner is still thriving in his specialist role with the Indians.

And so is longtime Red Sox DH David Ortiz, whose slugging percentage (.557) and OPS (.938) are each at their highest levels since 2007.

But elsewhere, old-school designated hitters are struggling.

Chicago’s Adam Dunn, who figured to excel as a DH in his first season in the American League, is instead batting just .178 with seven homers in 62 games as a designated hitter. It’s a disappointing set of stats that have him talking retirement.

“I enjoy playing even though I suck, or have been sucking,” Dunn told Yahoo Sports earlier this week. “But as soon as I lose that, I’m gone, dude. . . . How many games can you play doing this? This is ridiculous.”

Seattle’s Jack Cust is a 6-foot-1, 245-pound brick wall of a man whose would have flourished in the mid-’80s.

With the Athletics in 2009, he led the league in strikeouts (197 in 598 at-bats) but also set career highs in walks (111) and home runs (33).

But this season he’s floundering, batting just .207 with three homers and 78 strikeouts.

Replacing them might be easier, except designated hitter isn’t the glamorous position it used to be.

“I hear all the time about how much guys can’t stand it,” Cust told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “It’s harder than people think it is. Guys would rather have the day off than have to do it.”

Former Jays manager Cito Gaston often said designated hitter was the best position in baseball because a player had only two tasks — hit, and think about hitting.

But for many players that disconnection from the rest of the game is part of the problem, and every designated hitter has evolved his own routine for passing the time between at-bats.

Encarnacion splits his time between analyzing video and hitting balls off a tee in the Jays’ indoor batting cage.

The strategy must have helped jolt him out of his early-season lull. Wednesday against the Mariners he went 3-for-4 with a homer and a double.

Lind, meanwhile, would spend his spare time in the dugout talking to starting pitchers who wouldn’t be working that day. He reasons that he only has a certain number of great swings in him every day and didn’t want to squander them in a batting cage.

And Hafner alternates video and work in the batting cage with stretches on a stationary bike, hoping to stay as loose and as warm as possible without isolating himself from the game.

“I just always make sure that I’m always watching … trying to get a feel for the strike zone and keeping with the flow of the game,” he says. “Some people will kind of joke that they do more when they DH. They’re out riding the bike and hitting. … They get more tired DH-ing than they do playing in the field.”

Overall, teams are much less dependent on designated hitters for offensive production. The Yankees use former star catcher Jorge Posada to DH even though he’s batting just .224.

So far this season, designated hitters have accounted for 146 home runs, placing them a distant third behind first baseman (205) and right fielders (181) through Wednesday.

The 649 RBIs the designated hitter position has produced also ranked third behind right fielders and first basemen.

Lind embodies that statistical shift. In 2009, he played well enough as a DH — .305 average, 35 homers, Silver Slugger Award — to make it clear that his future lay elsewhere. And when Lyle Overbay moved to the Pirates this past off-season, Lind replaced him as the Jays’ everyday first baseman.

“I enjoy playing first and the DH is kind of the day off for me now,” Lind said. “I’d rather play first base. I always wanted to play a position, but in order to be in the big leagues, (playing DH) was my calling.”


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