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40 years later, ranking the greatest Designated Hitters

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Rob Tringali

We missed a big anniversary a few months ago. On the 11th of January, 1973, the 12 American League franchises voted 8 to 4 in favor of adopting Designated Pinch-Hitters -- before long, the "Pinch" would be discarded -- as an "experiment" for three seasons. The National League spurned the idea.

This was an interesting turnaround, because 45 years earlier the National League had approved the innovation but the American League didn't, so the notion was completely shelved. This time, though, the A.L. would go it alone.

Which brings us to another anniversary ... Tomorrow, the 6th of April, marks the 40th anniversary of the first time a Designated Hitter appeared in an official American League game. On the 6th of April in 1973 in Fenway Park, Ron Blomberg stepped to the plate and drew a bases-loaded walk.

Blomberg -- the self-proclaimed Designated Hebrew -- finished his career with a fantastic 140 OPS+, but a severe shoulder injury limited him to just 461 games in the majors. While Blomberg was the first Designated Hitter, he was nowhere near the best.

So in 40 years, who's been the best DH? When considering a question like this, of course we first have to answer another: What is a Designated Hitter? And of course we're all going to come up with different answers. My mind tends to run toward the obvious in these matters, though, which is that a Designated Hitter is a player who spent at least half his career as (you guessed it) a Designated Hitter. Which does, unfortunately or not, leave out notables like Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor.

Then again, maybe Molitor does belong. He DH'd in only 43 percent of his career games ... but he DH'd more than he did anything else; his second-most common position was third base, but he played third in only 29 percent of his career games. So in the interest of getting Molitor into the mix, we'll bump our cutoff to 40 percent. I mean, if you're okay with that.

But it's not as simple as just making a list of guys who played 40 percent of the time as DH's, and ranking them by Batter Runs or something. What about a player whose best years came before he DH'd a lot? So I'm going to use the list as a guide, then throw in some judgment. Again, if you're okay with that.

With all that in mind, here are the 10 greatest Designated Hitters in American League history; the numbers after the names are the player's career Batting Runs Above Replacement, and the number of seasons in which he DH'd in at least 100 games (or 80, in strike-shortened 1981) ...

10. Billy Butler (88 BRAR, 4 DH seasons)
Okay, so Butler's a bit of a stretch. But if you could see the other candidates for this slot, you would understand. And Butler's really interesting, because all these years later he's essentially the first hitter deployed as a Designated Hitter almost from Day 1. Given a few more years, he's going to leap well up on this list.

9. Don Baylor (182, 8)
Just makes the cut, as most of his best seasons came before he made the switch from outfielding to DH'ing. He's often described as the first DH to win a Most Valuable Player Award, but that's a stretch. When he won the award in 1979, Baylor started 97 games in the outfield. It wasn't until 1981 that Baylor became a full-time DH, by which time he had just two or three really good seasons left in him.

8. Travis Hafner (188, 5)
Hey, he's got a chance to move up. The Yankees might need him to move up.

7. Chili Davis (230, 8)
Definitely the best Jamaican Designated Hitter. So far, anyway.

6. Hal McRae (205, 8)
When I was growing up, Hal McRae was the American League's premier Designated Hitter, and remained No. 1 -- on my list, anyway -- that I sort of assumed he would be there forever. McRae learned how to run the bases from Pete Rose, then taught George Brett. In 1982, McRae paced the loop with 46 doubles and 133 RBI. It seemed like every single time he came up with runners aboard, he hit the ball hard somewhere. I loved him for it.

5. Paul Molitor (349, 8)
Molitor's one of the few players who was outstanding both before and after becoming a Designated Hitter. He enjoyed big seasons as a second baseman and third baseman, but had problems staying in the lineup until spending more and more time in the DH slot, which did wonders for his durability. As a 36-year-old full-time DH in 1993, Molitor finished second in the MVP balloting to Frank Thomas.

4. Harold Baines (230, 11)
Harold Baines was a good DH for a long time, and a good hitter for even longer. But the push to get him into the Hall of Fame is ... misguided, shall we say? Baines finished his career with nearly 3,000 hits, but never finished higher than ninth in MVP consideration and never had anything approaching an MVP-caliber season. He was a good player for many years, but never really a great one.

3. David Ortíz (320, 8)
A few years ago, Ortiz got a plaque honoring him as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history. Which he might have been, or might be. Carl Yastrzremski was pretty good, too.

2. Frank Thomas (688, 7)
Obviously, Thomas was a somewhat better hitter than the next guy on the list. But most of Thomas's great seasons came when he was still playing first base with some frequency. Also, even early in his career, Thomas generally hit significantly better when playing first base than when DH'ing. It was a conundrum! And drops him, by a nose, to the second slot on this illustrious and glorious list.

1. Edgar Martinez (528, 9)
Edgar wasn't the player that Thomas was, but he was the better DH because all of his best seasons came at that position. Does he deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? Yeah, probably. Not because he's the greatest Designated Hitter in major-league history, but rather because he won a huge number of games for the Seattle Mariners.

Update/Correction: I mis-read Billy Butler's page; he's actually got only two DH seasons, which really does disqualify him from serious consideration for this list. I will suggest that spot should instead go to Cleveland's Andre Thornton, who gave the Tribe three real good seasons as a DH in the early 1980s. My apologies to all.

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