Three months into baseball with a universal designated hitter, the National League has more than caught up in their utilization. Through July 10, 12 of 15 NL teams have a primary designated hitter who has played at least 25 games. The AL only has 10 such teams with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros having two players each who qualify with 25 games played and at least 50% at designated hitter.
Some of the game’s biggest stars are benefitting from the universal DH Rule. Before sustaining a more serious injury, Bryce Harper was playing at an MVP level despite being kept from the field because of an arm injury. Nelson Cruz and Albert Pujols are playing into their 40s as primary designated hitters in the NL. Even AL stars such as Yordan Alvarez and Shohei Ohtani would have had dramatically different careers if they came before 1973.
While some designated hitters bring speed or base-running, this will focus on pure hitters who were forced to play in the field (usually a first base or a corner outfield spot). Players are only eligible if they had a career OPS+ above 100 and negative fielding runs.
The goal is to also find players who could have extended their careers by moving to primary DH. Players such as Babe Herman, Mickey Vernon, and Cy Williams played to their age-42 seasons without the DH rule.
Some players had their careers ended with injuries, but for this, it is assumed that years as a primary DH would prolong one’s career and prevent some of the day-to-day wear.
With that said, let’s look at five players who could have been significantly better in a league with a universal DH Rule. These five players played before 1973, so they did not have any opportunity as a DH.
Yost played 18 seasons in the American League with the Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, and Los Angeles Angels. He played 2,000 games at third base, but he posted poor defensive metrics. He had -113 fielding runs, posting just four seasons better than -2. He had five seasons below -10.
On the other hand, Yost was an on-base machine for his entire career. He had a ludicrous 17.6% walk rate, crossing the 20% threshold three times. Yost had 12 seasons with an OPS+ over 100 including a pair of seasons above 130. He led the AL in walks six times, finishing in the top three in three other seasons.
While Yost played 18 years in the Majors, he was out of the sport by age 35. In his final season, he slashed .240/.412/.346 for an OPS+ of 110 in 52 games. Had Yost played in an era that incentivized on-base percentage (.394 career) rather than batting average (.254 career), Yost could have tacked on several more seasons, particularly as a designated hitter.
Cravath played for four teams over 11 seasons from 1908 to 1920 (missing 1910 and 1911). He debuted at 27, and he played his final game at 39. Cravath played all three spots in the outfield, but he posted -21 fielding runs. He had a range factor per game of 1.70 in his career while the average outfielder of his era posted 2.17. Over the course of his career, that would account for more than 500 defensive players that the average outfielder would have made.
However, Cravath could rake. He led the league in runs once, hits once, home runs six times, and RBI twice. Cravath posted a career 151 OPS+, leading the NL three times. He was second in 1913 MVP voting, and he earned votes in 1914. In a world with an average ISO of .081, Cravath posted an ISO of .191 for his career, cracking .200 four times.
While Cravath was nearing 40, he was still a productive hitter. In 46 games in 1920, Cravath slashed .289/.407/.467 for a 147 OPS+. Perhaps his batting stats would have been even better if he had been able to DH for some games.
Fournier was a sturdy hitter for 15 seasons. He played for five teams, but he peaked near the end of his career with Brooklyn Robins. He was a primary first baseman, playing 1,315 games there. He posted -31 fielding runs, ending his career with nine straight negative seasons.
However, Fournier was a terrific hitter. His 45.1 oWAR at first base is currently the same that potential Hall of Famer Freddie Freeman has. He led the league in home runs once, walks once, and slugging once. The best stretch of his career game from 1923-1925 when he rattled off three seasons with a 160 OPS+. He was ninth in MVP voting in 1924.
Fournier played his last MLB games days after turning 35. He had just finished a season slashing .283/.368/.422 with 30 extra-base hits and a 119 OPS+. In the 1920s, Fournier was fifth in MLB in OPS+, sandwiched between Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb. He likely could have lasted several more seasons with the designated hitter rule.
Wagner played from 1958 to 1969, bouncing to five different teams. He primarily played left field, but he also had 232 appearances as a pinch hitter. The lefty had a career of 120 OPS+ and possessed good power for the era. His career ISO was 57 points higher than the MLB average. His defense, on the other hand, was disastrous. He had four seasons with -10 or fewer fielding runs.
Wagner had five seasons with 25 or more home runs, and he had three seasons with a slugging percentage over .500. His best season came in 1965 when he posted a 143 OPS+ and 4.6 oWAR. Defensively, he had -16 fielding runs at left field for -2.6 dWAR. Perhaps the greatest indictment of Wagner’s defensive ability is that he had more pinch-hit appearances in two different seasons.
Wagner played his final season at just 35 years old. Had his career timeline been shifted a decade into the future (1968-1979), he likely could have latched on as a designated hitter and played into his 40s.
Doyle played 14 seasons in MLB, debuting days before his 21st birthday. He was a second baseman only, playing all 1,728 of his defensive games at the keystone. He was an uneven defender, posting five seasons below -5 fielding runs and three seasons above +5 fielding runs. All told, he accounted for -22 fielding runs and had a career -2.2 dWAR.
Doyle was an uber-productive bat for both the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs. With the Giants, he led the league in hits twice, doubles once, triples once, and he won a batting title. With the Cubs, he posted a 109 OPS+ in 144 games.
In his final season, Doyle slashed a respectable .285/.352/.363 with a better-than-average walk rate and a league-average ISO. His 106 OPS+ in his age-33 season was not necessarily overwhelming, but he was a solid contributor to the team with the second-best record in the NL.
Honorable Mention: Frank Howard
Howard’s career stretched just long enough to play as a designated hitter. In his age-36 season, he played 76 games as a DH for the Detroit Tigers. In the first 15 seasons of his career, Howard played over 1,400 games in corner outfield spots, and he tacked on more than 300 games at first base. Howard was a particularly dreadful fielder, posting below-average fielding runs in each of his final 13 seasons. Among the 181 players with 50 oWAR, Howard ranked fifth-worst in fielding runs.
Howard had 14 seasons in a row with an above-average OPS, and he had several spectacular seasons during his prime. He made four All-Star teams, and he won a pair of home run crowns. In 1970, he led the AL in home runs, RBI, and walks. He led the Majors in total bases twice. He had three seasons in a row with an OPS+ above 170 at ages 31, 32, and 33. Only 11 other players in MLB history matched his trio of 170 OPS+ seasons at 31 or older.
Howard did play in an American League with a DH Rule in effect, but he perhaps could have played several more seasons if he had not had cumulative wear from playing the field. Even one extra season likely would have put Howard in the 400 home run club.
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