The designated hitter is an actual position that has been debated, discussed, probed, and prodded since the 1890s. Since the inception of the American League position 44 years ago, the DH has served it’s purpose ably: enhancing offense, while increasing fan interest. Each year, the best DH is honored with the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award. Somehow, the player who established the benchmark for excellence at the position has been kept out of the Hall of Fame and has just two remaining years of eligibility — a slight to one the finest hitters baseball has ever seen and to the position as a whole.
Martinez did not become a full-time player until the age of 27, which limited his career hit total to 2,247 and home run total to just 309, well short of top sluggers from his era. But looking deeper into the numbers, we discover that Martinez was actually one of the top and most consistent sluggers of his time — or any time period — culminating an 18-year career with an eye-popping .418 on-base percentage and .933 OPS. Jayson Stark of ESPN describes Martinez as one of the “greatest hitters of his generation.”
Martinez was just one of eight players to have 300 home runs, 500 doubles, a career batting average above .300, a career OBP above .400, and a career slugging percentage above .500. He is also one of six players to hit at least .320 for six consecutive seasons alongside Stan Musial, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, and Todd Helton. All but Helton are in the Hall.
Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe, who spends endless hours crunching numbers to evaluate Hall of Fame candidates, says Martinez is one of the top 30 or 40 hitters of all time. Martinez outdistanced David Ortiz in career WAR 68.3 too 55.4. Most consider fellow DH Ortiz a clear cut Hall of Famer, steroid issues aside. Martinez is one of 25 players with at least eight seasons with OPS+ greater than 150. All who are eligible and not connected to steroids are in the Hall of Fame except two: Dick Allen and Martinez. He also has the fourth best career OPS (.933) among right-handed hitters in the modern era … And still not enough Hall of Fame votes.
The anti-DH faction among baseball writers has weakened over the years, but is still clearly present. There are several players who have appeared extensively as a DH already in the Hall, including Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Jim Rice. But most of these players played the majority of their games at other positions — usually first base or outfield.
Elected in 2004, Paul Molitor served as his team’s DH for nearly 44 percent of the games he started. Two years ago, Frank Thomas became the first HOFer to DH in the majority of his games played. Martinez played DH for 71% of the games he started. If Martinez is not elected before his expiration date, Ortiz will likely become the first almost-full-time DH to receive baseball’s highest honor. Ortiz collected more hits, home runs, and RBI than any other DH.
The designated hitter first proposed during the 1890s as the designated pinch hitter. Connie Mack took credit for the idea in 1906. NL owners actually approved the DH rule in December 1928, but were ironically overruled by their AL cohorts. In 1940, the Bushrod League, a California winter circuit, adopted the DH. In 1969 the International League experimented with the DH for a year.
After nearly eight decades of debate between league presidents, owners, and players, the American League finally approved the DH before the 1973 season. On April 6, Ron Blomberg, became major league baseball’s first designated hitter when he drew a first-inning, bases loaded walk from Luis Tiant on a cold, windy Opening Day at Fenway Park.
A pulled hamstring forced the 24-year-old first baseman to his new position. If Matty Alou, batting third for the Yankees, didn’t stroke a two-out double in the first inning, the Red Sox Orlando Cepeda, the first player signed specifically for DH duty, would have made the history books. Although the Red Sox won the game 15-5, Cepeda, the prototype DH, went 0-for-6, the only Red Sox starter to go hitless.
AL owners hoped the DH would increase offense, give aging sluggers the chance to extend their years of productivity, and increase attendance. The three-year experiment worked. AL teams were scoring more runs, league attendance rose from 11.4 million to 13.4 million, and older stars were extending their careers.
Cepeda was exactly what the AL owners had in mind when they adopted the DH. The 35-year-old former first baseman entered the season with bad knees and 358 career home runs, and had driven in over 100 runs five times in his career.
In 1973, Cepeda played all of his 142 games at DH for the Red Sox, hitting 20 homers and 86 RBI — excellent power numbers for the time — winning the first Associated Press Designated Hitter Award.
The DH helped sluggers such as Cepeda, the 1958 NL Rookie of the Year with the Giants and the 1967 MVP with the Cardinals, achieve Hall of Fame status. Cepeda, elected by the Veterans Committee in 1999, finished his career with 379 home runs (21 as a DH) and 1,365 RBI.
The DH is now widely accepted and used in some form in most leagues from high school to the majors. The final hurdle to its acceptance as an actual position may be a deservedly wider presence in the Hall of Fame.