While listening to Bill Simmons’s baseball podcast last week, I heard a guest on the show say something along the lines of, “Carlos Beltran has been a much better hitter as a DH, ever since Alex Rodriguez went on the Disabled List.” This guest is right. In 72 plate-appearances so far in 2016 as a designated hitter, Beltran is hitting .323 with a 1.100 OPS and a 189 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus — which measures a hitter’s offensive value in terms of runs, with 100 being average. A wRC+ of 189 can be interpreted as the player creates 89% more runs than the average hitter). In 119 plate-appearances at his usual spot in right-field, Beltran is hitting only .239 with a .694 OPS and 84 wRC+ (creates 16% less runs than the average hitter).
This got me thinking — does a player see greater offensive production simply from being a DH? At first glance, it would make sense that this question be answered with a “yes.” DH’s only have to focus on one task — hitting. There is no diverting attention to a defensive position, no possibility of running into the outfield wall to make a catch only to have to bat leadoff the next inning. To play devil’s advocate though, I can see how having one responsibly could be detrimental. Especially with baseball being such a mental game, a struggling hitter may perpetuate his struggles simply from over-thinking things. As a DH, there is no defensive position that can distract you from a poor at-bat. Just a spot on the dugout bench to sit, watch, and think.
In order to tackle this question, I scavenged team rosters to find players that had at least 70 plate-appearances at both the DH spot and another position. Due to the time consuming nature of this activity, I was only able to find 14 players that adhered to my qualifications (so for all you statistics folks — n does not equal 30, so take my results with a grain of salt). In the table below, I included the players’ OPS and wRC+ for when he was a DH and when he was not. Next, I subtracted the players’ non-DH wRC+ from his DH wRC+ to see if hitters saw an increase (or decrease) in performance while in the DH spot. The difference is listed in the final column. You’ll see that 10 of 14 hitters performed better as a DH. Finally, I summed the final column, and alas, found a net positive effect! In my very small sample size, hitters did perform better while DH-ing compared to when they were a position-player.
Obviously, a larger sample is needed before I can write my conclusion in stone (if you know of a more efficient way to collect this data than looking at player pages one-by-one, let me know). You’ll also see that I included five players who fit my qualifications in consecutive seasons. It’s interesting to see that two of those five (Pujols and Abreu), saw different DH-effects from one season to another. In 2014, Pujols had a phenomenal season but was a much better hitter as a DH (167 wRC+ vs. 107). In 2015, he had another above-average year but hit better while playing first base (120 vs. 109). Abreu was the complete opposite — a better hitter as a first basemen in 14′ and as a DH in 15′.