5 players who could have been stars with the DH rule
After three months of baseball with a universal designated hitter, the National League has more than caught up with its use. Through July 10, 12 of the NL’s 15 teams have a designated lead hitter who has played in at least 25 games. The AL has just 10 such teams, with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros each having two players who qualify with 25 games played and at least 50 percent designated hitter.
Some of the game’s biggest stars benefit from the universal DH rule. Prior to sustaining a more serious injury, Bryce Harper was playing at MVP level despite being sidelined with an arm injury. Nelson Cruz and Albert Pujols play in their 40s as the NL’s leading designated hitters. Even AL stars such as Yordan Alvarez and Shohei Ohtani would have had radically different careers had they come before 1973.
While some designated hitters bring speed or base running, this will focus on pure hitters who have been forced into the field (usually a first base or outfield corner). Players are only eligible if they have a career OPS+ above 100 and negative runs.
The goal is to also find players who could have extended their career by going to primary DH. Players such as Babe Herman, Mickey Vernon and Cy Williams played until age 42 without the DH rule.
Some players have had their careers ended with injuries, but for that it is assumed that years as a main DH would prolong their careers and prevent some of the daily wear and tear.
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 had no opportunities 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 displayed poor defensive moves. He had -113 points from the field, posting only four seasons better than -2. He had five seasons below -10.
On the other hand, Yost has been a staple machine his entire career. It had a ridiculous 17.6% walk rate, crossing the 20% threshold three times. Yost had 12 seasons with an OPS+ above 100, including a pair of seasons above 130. He led the AL in the march 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 at 35. In his final season, he slashed 0.240/0.412/0.346 for an OPS+ of 110 in 52 games. Had Yost played in an era that encouraged on-base percentage (.394 career) rather than batting average (.254 career), Yost could have fired several more seasons, especially as a designated hitter.
Cravath played for four teams over 11 seasons from 1908 to 1920 (missing 1910 and 1911). He made his debut at 27 and played his last match at 39. Cravath played all three spots in the outfield, but posted -21 points from the field. He had a range factor per game of 1.70 in his career while the average outfielder in his era posted 2.17. Over the course of his career, that would be more than 500 defensive players 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 the 1913 MVP vote and he got votes in 1914. In a world with an average ISO of 0.081, Cravath posted an ISO of 0.191 for his career, cracking 0.200 four times.
As Cravath neared 40, he was still a productive hitter. In 46 games in 1920, Cravath reduced .289/.407/.467 for a 147 OPS+. Maybe his batting stats would have been even better had he been able to DH for some games.
Fournier was a solid hitter for 15 seasons. He played for five teams, but peaked near the end of his career with Brooklyn Robins. He was a primary first baseman, playing 1,315 games there. He posted -31 points from the field, ending his career with nine consecutive negative seasons.
However, Fournier was a terrific hitter. His 45.1 oWAR at first base is currently the same as potential Hall of Famer Freddie Freeman. He led the league once in homers, walked once and hit once. His career game best streak from 1923 to 1925 when he notched 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 with .283/.368/.422 with 30 extra hits and 119 OPS+. In the 1920s, Fournier was fifth in MLB in OPS+, sandwiched between Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb. He probably could have lasted several more seasons with the designated hitter rule.
Wagner played from 1958 to 1969, bouncing on five different teams. He primarily played left field, but he also had 232 appearances as a pinch hitter. The southpaw had a career 120 OPS+ and possessed good power for the time. His career ISO was 57 points above the MLB average. His defense, on the other hand, was disastrous. He had four seasons with -10 points or less on the field.
Wagner had five seasons with 25 or more homers, 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 points in the field to left field for -2.6 dWAR. Perhaps the biggest indictment of Wagner’s defensive ability is that he’s had more pinch-hit appearances in two different seasons.
Wagner played his last season at just 35 years old. If his career timeline had been shifted a decade into the future (1968-1979), he probably could have become a designated hitter and played until his 40s.
Doyle played 14 seasons in MLB, making his debut days before his 21st birthday. He was just a second baseman, playing his 1,728 keystone defensive games. He was an uneven defender, posting five seasons below -5 points from the field and three seasons above +5 points from the field. In total, he made -22 runs in the field and had a career -2.2 dWAR.
Doyle was an ultra-productive bat for the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs. With the Giants, he led the league in hits twice, doubled once, tripled once and won a batting title. With the Cubs, he posted 109 OPS+ in 144 games.
In his senior season, Doyle slashed a respectable .285/.352/.363 with an above-average walk rate and league-average ISO. His 106 OPS+ during his 33-year-old season wasn’t necessarily overwhelming, but he was a solid contributor to the team with the second-best record in the NL.
Howard’s career lasted just long enough to play as a designated hitter. During his 36-year-old 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 the outside corner and he played over 300 games at first base. Howard was a particularly abysmal defensive player, posting below-average runs in each of his last 13 seasons. Among the 181 players with 50 oWAR, Howard ranked fifth in points from the field.
Howard had 14 consecutive seasons with above-average OPS, and he had several spectacular seasons in his prime. He made four All-Star teams and he won two home run crowns. In 1970, he led the AL in home runs, RBIs and walks. He led the Majors in total goals twice. He had three consecutive seasons with an OPS+ above 170 at ages 31, 32 and 33. Only 11 other players in MLB history have matched his trio of 170 OPS+ seasons at age 31 or older.
Howard played in an American league with a DH rule in effect, but he might have been able to play several more seasons if he hadn’t suffered cumulative wear and tear playing on the field. Even one more season would have likely put Howard in the 400 homer club.
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