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Designated hitter is now a role more than a player

Designated hitter is now a role more than a player

Designated hitter is now a role more than a player
David Ortiz wasn't even born when the American League introduced the newfangled designated hitter rule in 1973. With the one-time innovation now in its 40th season and embedded into baseball at all levels, though, no player is more emblematic of the position.

Being the DH is Ortiz's full-time job. Except when the Red Sox play an Interleague game on the road, the only glove he needs is a batting glove. Which is how the role was envisioned in the beginning. Hal McRae. Willie Horton. Don Baylor. Jim Rice. Rusty Staub. Harmon Killebrew. Rico Carty. More recently, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez.

But the designated hitter is evolving. As Bill Chuck of Billy-Ball.com pointed out recently, fewer and fewer teams have a dedicated DH anymore. Going into play Monday, only Kansas City's Billy Butler and Ortiz had played as many as 80 games there.

In the meantime, nine of the 14 AL teams have used 10 or more different hitters as their DH.

There are, it seems, two major reasons for this trend. One is that pure sluggers have become harder to find. The other is that managers recognize the value to using the spot to give their regulars a rest while keeping their bat in the lineup.

Even Big Papi recognizes that he's something of a dinosaur.

"There's not too many David Ortizes out there," he told MLB.com. "I heard a scout saying the other day that those legit power hitters coming out of the Minor Leagues, they're not there anymore. You can barely find them. Most of those guys, you never see those guys hitting 30 home runs in the Minor Leagues anymore. They come to the big leagues and start finding themselves at this level."

Butler agreed.

"I feel like there's definitely teams that don't have enough talent to just put a guy there for good," Butler said. "That's the reality of the state of most teams. If they can get a guy that could do it every day, I'm sure they would. AL teams certainly would if they could, but they're still trying to fill holes on their team and put the DH out there. There aren't that many teams in the league that have that many hitters that they can just stick there, or that could do it good enough."

Red Sox announcer Matt Stairs, who spent much of the latter part of his career as a DH, has seen a change in just the last 10 years.

"Everyone had DHs [then]," Stairs said. "But now, the game is going toward more athletic players. Back then, you didn't care if a guy was athletic or not, as long as he could be a good DH. DHs were usually -- back in the day -- a guy who couldn't play defense. So now when you have ... a Michael Young [of the Rangers] who plays 40 games at every position, including DH, it just gives everyone time off."

Even managers who have a full-time designated hitter see the value of having more flexibility in their lineup. The Rangers, for example, were happy to have Vladimir Guerrero as their DH in 2010. Without him last season, manager Ron Washington spread the playing time around. Texas went to the World Series in both years.

"I prefer the rotation," Washington said. "It's hard to take guys who are everyday players and pull them out of the lineup, especially when your supporting cast is not your strength. This allows me to keep guys fresh and give them a day off their feet.

"If I have a DH that's proven like Vlad, I'll take it. But since I don't, I'll take this rotation where I can rotate guys in and out of the position."

Washington conceded that some players adapt better than others to not being in the field.

"That's fair to say, but it's only one day, so it shouldn't matter," Washington said. "If I was to take a guy and put him there for several days, maybe it would be difficult. But one day shouldn't affect them. If you start going down that path, you start going down the path of excuses, and I don't play that."

Royals manager Ned Yost sees both sides.

"There are advantages in doing the rotating type thing, because you can give guys a half day off when you need it," Yost said. "We don't have that advantage. If we had a rotating DH, it'd be good to give [Lorenzo] Cain a half day off one day or [Alex] Gordon or [Eric] Hosmer. But when you've got a DH as good as Billy, and one as good as Ortiz, there's no disadvantage to it."

It's impossible to discuss the DH without considering money. The reality is that Ortiz will make $14.575 million this season just to hit.

But it's too simplistic to suggest that teams "save" money by not having a full-time designated hitter. It's highly unlikely that Boston's payroll would drop dramatically without Ortiz. The greater probability is that the available resources would be reallocated, and the payroll would remain roughly the same.

"Teams are going to spend their money to bring in a guy who's going to play, put up offensive numbers," Stairs said. "That's what he's paid for. He's not paid to be a defensive player, throw somebody out at home plate."

In the end, it's all about results. And as Chuck pointed out, there are different ways to achieve the same result.

In the first half of the season, Boston's designated hitters -- primarily Ortiz -- were batting .310 with 19 homers, 51 RBIs and a .994 OPS. The Yankees, who had used 11 different DHs: .308-14-46 with an .892 OPS.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Evan Drellich, Dick Kaegel and T.R. Sullivan contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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