When I think of major league designated hitters, I think of plodding, late-thirtysomething sluggers playing out their twilight years while avoiding a defensive position like the plague. DH would seem like the easiest position to fill, right? I mean, shouldn't the position be chock-full of mashers, seeing as how the ability to hit is the only skill they're required to possess?
Sadly, it's just not that simple. A lot of players simply don't like spending half the game rotting on the bench, and insist on playing a position, even if they are a defensive train wreck. The most famous example I can think of is Jason Giambi, or maybe Pat Burrell. A quick glance around the American League casts light on a pretty uninspiring group of DHs this year. With Manny Ramirez a question mark, Jim Thome a burned out, part time husk, and Adam Dunn impersonating a man who has forgotten how to play baseball, the title of best DH is up for grabs. Who are the top contenders?
In this corner, a veteran slugger whose career looked dead as Dillinger just two years ago, but who has bounced back to revive his status as one of the most fearsome power hitters in the game. Ladies and gentlemen, David Ortiz!
In the other corner, a former superprospect once touted as a hitting savant, who overcame a slow start to his career to fulfill a lot of the potential that scouts had raved about. I give you, Billy Butler!
These two will battle it out for the title of best DH in the league. Let's take a look at who stands to come out on top and how they can help your fantasy team.
The arrival and emergence of Eric Hosmer has allowed Billy Butler to move back into his natural habitat, the dugout pine when the opposing team heads to the bat rack. When Butler was making his way up the organizational chain with Kansas City, scouts everywhere would routinely rub their eyes in disbelief at what a disaster he was in the field. Baseball Prospectus once snarkily quipped that Butler's best position was "chair". Never has a player been so born and bred to be a DH.
But amid all the laughter of Butler's foibles afield, there was nothing funny about his bat. Butler destroyed the minor leagues and was in the majors by the age of 21, hitting .292 as a rookie. After some initial struggles, which led more than a few jaded Royals fans to believe he may have been either overhyped or mishandled by the front office, he is now the high average, doubles-power player that he was projected to be.
Those doubles make him intriguing. He has finished in the top ten in the AL in doubles the past three seasons and, as with any player in this mold, the question is if he can start to send some of those doubles over the wall instead of half way up them. If he can pump a few more over the wall to become a 25-30 homer guy, all while retaining his high average and ability to avoid strikeouts, he'll turn into one of the best hitters in the league, as opposed to just another good hitter.
Ortiz, on the other hand, is an oldie but still a goodie. After being one of the premier terrors in the American League from 2003-2008, Ortiz slipped a bit in 2009. His batting average sank, his strikeout rate shot up, and it appeared to many as if he had gotten old overnight. To make matters worse, he got the steroid stink all over him that year and had many believing his struggles were a result of him being off the juice. His career looked headed on a bullet train in the wrong direction.
Luckily, Ortiz bounced back in a big way last season. His batting average returned to the .300s, he cut his strikeout rate substantially, and he posted his highest OPS since 2007. The drop in strikeout rate is key, as it shows that Ortiz can probably age gracefully and put up another few years of good average and power as he enters his late-30's. In the loaded Boston lineup, he's still a threat for 30 bombs and 100 RBIs, complimenting it with a good amount of walks.
These two guys are your best pure DHs. It's not even close. After Ortiz and Butler, you're looking at vain attempts to scrape value from Luke Scott and Travis Hafner, or praying that Adam Dunn's bat can be resuscitated. Even though they don't field a position (Butler is first base eligible for this year, but probably not for much longer), they're still very productive, and Butler has a chance to turn into a beast, especially since the Royals lineup around him is getting pretty scary pretty fast.