MLB teams seem to be evolving in use of designated hitter

AP photo by Matt Slocum / Atlanta Braves designated hitter Marcell Ozuna connects for a single during an NL Division Series game against the host Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 11.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The universal designated hitter has been part of Major League Baseball for two full seasons.

Much to the chagrin of some National League traditionalists, the sport has survived and even thrived.

In a somewhat surprising development, though, many teams are struggling to get much production from that spot.

The next generation of big-bopping designated hitters — those who would follow in the footsteps of Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz and Frank Thomas — hasn't materialized, with just three players logging at least 110 games at DH during the 2023 season. That trio includes Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani, who held that role when not pitching, Atlanta Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna and Joey Meneses of the Washington Nationals.

The general consensus at this week's general managers' meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona, was that filling the position — and getting production from it — is harder than it looks.

The American League has had the DH since 1973, while the NL made the full-time switch in 2022. The NL also used the DH in 2020, when multiple rules were altered during a season delayed and shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Most hitters that you encounter don't like to DH," Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "It's an acquired taste. Most would prefer to play a position and not just wait to hit every two or three innings. And I get why: You want to stay active, you want to move around, feel like you're part of the game."

Instead of having one dedicated DH for the majority of the season, most MLB teams seem content to have several, cycling players through who might need rest or are nursing an injury.

A whopping 13 of MLB's 30 teams received production at DH that was below replacement level. The DH is unique for the widely used WAR (wins above replacement) formula because it starts with a deficit for a player providing no value in the field.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the NL pennant to reach the World Series, were one of the teams that struggled at DH, with a minus-1.4 WAR total, according to FanGraphs. The spot produced just a .676 on-base plus slugging percentage during the 162-game regular season, which was well below the team's overall mark of .730.

Arizona GM Mike Hazen agreed he'd like to see more production at DH, but he also said there are other ways to use the rule that WAR can't completely quantify.

"If you're rotating your fourth outfielder through the DH spot, or one of your primary center fielders through the DH spot to give them a day off, that's what we're using it for now," Hazen said. "We'll probably still keep doing that, because there's value in keeping guys fresh and healthy."

Farhan Zaidi, president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, said he would love to have an Ortiz-type player in the DH slot, but it's hard to find that sort of hitter. Ortiz is considered the gold standard, making the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022 after clubbing 541 homers, including 485 as a DH.

The Giants used 10 designated hitters in 2023.

"I think when you get elite, elite hitters that don't have a home defensively, you're willing to pay the price of not having that spot to rotate guys through," Zaidi said. "But that's a relatively small group of players."

Zaidi's point about roster construction is also important, because teams usually carry just 13 or 14 position players. That doesn't leave much room for a player who's not useful in the field.

"I know for us in development, no matter how good a player is offensively, you're always going to look for a home for them defensively," Zaidi said. "We don't want a player anchored to that spot, certainly early in their career."

There are a few hitters in this year's free-agent class who could be candidates for a full-time DH role. Rhys Hoskins has a homer-hitting track record and is returning from ACL surgery. Teoscar Hernández, J.D. Martinez and Jorge Soler are other examples of power bats with middling defensive value who are looking for a home.

The Milwaukee Brewers are among the teams that could use an upgrade at DH. They were the worst team in baseball with a minus-1.6 WAR at that spot.

"I'm not sure there are a lot of David Ortizes out there," Brewers GM Matt Arnold said. "But we're certainly looking for the next one."