Seth Smith and the Challenges of Being Designated to Hit

Happy Friday everyone! Welcome to 2012 Oakland A's baseball, pt.2. Whether you're rooting for playoffs or draft picks, the campaign starts up again against the lowly (except when they play us) Twins at 5:10 PDT.

The astute readers may note that today's front page is not being presented by your usual Friday morning host, baseballgirl. BBG is on vacation, so AN management has invited me, Ciderbeck, to sub in for the next couple of weeks.

I suppose by way of introduction, I've been an A's fan since the late 90's, when I first started really following baseball sometime around middle school (as a young child my favorite player was supposedly Will Clark, but luckily I grew up in a household free to make my own choices later in life). My first, fondest memory was reading boxscores and wondering who the heck T. Hudson was and why he was so awesome. These days I study statistics in college and like to apply what I learn to own of my favorite passions - A's baseball. My favorite ice cream flavor in mint chip (I'm also addicted to parentheses).

As the title suggests, today I want to share with you fellow fans some research regarding this particular 2012 stat split put up by a certain new Oakland Athletic:

Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS
as LF 136 0.295 0.412 0.571 0.983
as RF 25 0.300 0.44 0.500 0.940
as DH 94 0.185 0.287 0.235 0.522
as PH 11 0.200 0.273 0.200 0.473
as PH for DH 2 0.500 0.500 0.500 1.000

Well, that's a pretty big difference. Unusually so? Find out after the jump.

I heard it repeated in in many different places that playing DH is surprisingly demanding. Not physically of course, but for all it eases on one's body it's equally hard one one's psyche. It's pretty easy to image just how rough being a DH might be. Wanna try?

Go sit in your closet for the next 4 hours. Every hour, come out for exactly 3 minutes. First time out, solve this problem:

A milkman has two empty jugs: a three gallon jug and a five gallon jug. How can he measure exactly one gallon without wasting any milk?

Didn't get it? You're 0-1. Dwell on that for the next hour. Ooh, it's hour two. You get to come out again. Another three minutes. Try this one:

You are in the dark, and on the floor there are six shoes of three colors, and a heap of twenty-four socks, black and brown. How many socks and shoes must you take into the light to be certain that you have a matching pair of socks and a matching pair of shoes?

BZZZZ. Timer's up again. Back to the closet. Miss again? You're 0-2. (note: solutions may be found at the end of the article)

Okay, you get the idea. It's rough to have only about 10 minutes of work in a 3-4 hour stretch. DH's can hit the batting cage, ride the stationary bike in the clubhouse, maybe chat with the bench coach. But mostly the job entails sitting on pine wood. And when you fail, that's it. Most players, if they aren't hitting well, can at least hope to help the team by playing some solid defense. That's one of the classic baseball adages. If you're not hitting, help team in every other way. Hustle, play smart, get a sac fly. DH can do some of that, but there's not many other facets to their game. They have only two jobs. Hit and Sit.

Now this is the tale you here in the media. But it's only a tale. Does the fairytale Smith the Woeful DH actually hold up? Do players truly perform worse when they don't get to stay engaged by playing in the field?

To answer the question, I compiled a list of player seasons where a player spent time at both DH and LF. I went with LF only to eliminate one variable from the study. It probably doesn't matter which position a guy plays vs. DH, but why add that fuzziness in? Actually, I'll admit up front the results I have are far from conclusive, though still enlightening. Quick as I can, I'll go over the methodology and then we can get to the good stuff!

Methodology

The data I'm after here is fairly obscure. First off, I chose not to look at career numbers. There's a benefit of increased sample size (sample size is always a challenge in split-stat studies) but those numbers would include a whole lot of career arcs from young left-fielder turned older DH-only type journeys. That means the stats would split not just by field vs. DH but also by age (young v. old) and we're trying to specifically isolate the DH effect.

So, that leaves single-season stats. To combat SSS-S (small sample size syndrome, SSSS is almost as useless as AAAA players) I used the baseball-reference.com play index finder to search out players who at spent at least a quarter of their season at each of DH and LF. I used a 300 PA overall cutoff for my search and only used seasons where a player had 100 PA at each position as a cutoff for inclusion. Why? It's admittedly arbitrary. But I had to search players one-by-one and didn't want to spend all day finding ideal candidates. A more thorough study would likely have higher cut-offs. But what the heck, major trends can show up even at smaller sample sizes over a large enough population. The full list can be found here:

For single seasons, From 1901 to 2012, Played 25 games at LF and DH, (requiring At least 300 plate appearances), sorted by greatest On-Base Plus Slugging

There is no database I could find that would display EVERY players position/batting splits all at once and thus attack as a population study. I had to instead resort to sampling individual cases. For lack of any better idea, I went with the ole rule of 30 for sample size and gathered 37 player-seasons from 22 different players. This is an A's blog so my "random" selection process was vague random clicking with an eye to include a lot of players who saw time with the A's (we may the know the hitter better and better relate to the results). So yeah, selection bias. No way I wasn't bringing Jack "lightening rod of controversy" Cust along for the ride. Come at me with pitchforks if you must, I'm looking for general trends, not the full solution. Whew. Enough stats chat , time for an answer.

Results

Survey says ...

IT'S REAL. Well,"very likely a real thing but maybe not" is the most certainly I'm willing to vouch for.

Here's the list of players. For simplicity, I used OPS as my hitting metric since it's the best all-around offensive stat baseball-reference provides in the split-stat format. And I reiterate, this is just a simple first look study at the issue, not a full in-depth analysis.

For every player, I made a table like this:

Player/Season Position PA BA OBP SLG OPS DH OPS minus "In-field" OPS
Jose Canseco LF 562 0.257 0.311 0.474 0.785 -0.030
1987 DH 129 0.256 0.302 0.453 0.755

That last column, that provides a means of comparison between players. In '87 it looks like an occasional fill-in at DH for Canseco hardly affected his hitting. Note that a negative number denotes "Produced a better OPS when playing in the field". Here's the full list.

Seth Smith 2012 -0.461 Jim Rice 1976 -0.102 Jose Canseco 1987 -0.030
Jose Canseco 1990 -0.327 Mike Young 1985 -0.099 Marty Cordova 2002 -0.016
Mark Quinn 2000 -0.232 Johnny Damon 2000 -0.093 Jack Cust 2008 -0.010
Greg Vaughn 2001 -0.226 Roy White 1974 -0.092 Ivan Calderon 1989 0.001
Johnny Damon 2010 -0.210 Jose Canseco 1998 -0.088 Jack Cust 2009 0.018
Carl Yastrzemski 1979 -0.209 Jim Rice 1975 -0.087 Lew Ford 2005 0.023
Larry Hisle 1978 -0.175 Carl Yastrzemski 1978 -0.080 Manny Ramirez 2001 0.039
Don Baylor 1980 -0.164 Greg Vaughn 1993 -0.073 Jim Rice 1977 0.054
Tony Phillips 1997 -0.159 Larry Sheets 1990 -0.062 Don Baylor 1977 0.092
Mike Young 1986 -0.150 Manny Ramirez 2002 -0.057 Ben Grieve 2001 0.278
Jim Rice 1978 -0.146 Mike Young 1987 -0.053 Don Baylor 1979 0.317
Jack Cust 2007 -0.123 Hal Morris 1998 -0.043

Carl Yastrzemski 1980 -0.118 Alex Johnson 1973 -0.036

Again, negative value means "worse numbers while playing at DH".

Let's break it down histogramattically. Out of 37 player seasons, the count of ...

100+ point OPS drop: 14

OPS drop, <100 point: 15

OPS increase, <100 point: 6

OPS increase, 100+ points: 2

Less than a quarter of the players had better OPS numbers as a DH than as a fielder. If you take any player with less than .100 OPS swing (ex. .800 OPS as LF vs. .700 OPS as DH) as a case of "stayed the same", the breakdown can be viewed as:

Worse at DH: 14

About the Same: 21

Better at DH: 2

Discussion

I'd say we've detected a pretty solid trend here. Given that this was just a smallish random selection of the population, I find it amazing that only 2 players played significantly better at DH while 14 were significantly worse. 14 to just 2? That's about as good an evidence as we can hope to get from a study like this.

I would say it's very, very likely the conventional wisdom about DH holds true. It's tough mentally and often players have a tough time adjusting. I'd caution against reading too much into only 8 guys overall increasing their OPS. We're talking about very small sample sizes. Anyone with less than a 100 point OPS drop could very well have been performing same as usual. And that's how I'm choosing to read the results:

A number of players do seem to struggle with DH to some degree.

Now I want to be very clear on this next point. This does not mean there's some automatic offense lost when a player switches to DH. Most of the seasons were something similar to Smith's situation, a guy who would ideally just play LF but is shifted to DH because someone has to play the position. Over time, could a player to thrive in the role? I don't know, this study did not test for such a thing. It's a very different question. It's also possible that a player does have the proper mental fortitude and suffers no loss. But I think there's enough evidence here to show that the phenomenon of DH being a threat to negatively affect hitting output is a real hurdle that needs to be overcome.

Bringing it Back to Smith

You probably noticed that I snuck Smith in with the rest of the player/season population on my table. And you also probably noticed that only Jose Canseco in 1990 was anywhere near as bad. Smith has an off-the-chart split and I'm going to absolutely attribute it to small sample size. At 264 PA, Smith is well behind the other study players in playing time. (the cut-off was 300 PA+, most of the season listed are full 550+ PA). It seems likely he's regress. I did a quick calculation and if Smith hits at his season-to-date numbers the rest of the way though equally split between DH and LF his final line will look like:

Future Smith Position
PA BA OBP SLG OPS DH OPS minus "In-field" OPS
LF 337.6 0.283 0.381 0.524 0.905 -0.1525
DH 228.4 0.240 0.318 0.403 0.753

That lumps him squarely in the bottom third of the study group but no longer an outlier. How much better might he hit playing solely LF? Given his already wacky heavy platoon usage and small sample size, I'm not at all qualified or ready to throw a prediction out there based his playing history. You go ahead if you like. But I'd bet he truly does perform worse in the DH role and would advise going forward that he stay in LF.

And Now For Something Truly Controversial

One final thought. This is where it's time to go full-blown "Moneyball going against the grain" crazy. A good DH is a surprisingly rare commodity. This mental aspect affecting hitting may be part of the reason but even if you don't buy that theory it's still a fact that "great DH hitter" is not a phrase seen often. Think about it, the DH has been around since 1973. Can you even name 10 All-Star quality DH guys? Only half of MLB has a DH, but over the same time, at twice the number of potential players, I can easily count 20 great 1B, 2B, SS, ect. since 1973. DH is undervalued.

So here's my crazy plan. In absurdly short sample sizes, Cespedes has hit equally well at DH and OF. He's also been a question mark defensively. Not horrendous, but maybe not a plus defender? Up for debate. Thing is, if Carter doesn't pan out, next year I'd say it might be worth converting Cespedes to the DH role.

WHAT?! Yes. Every year 3-4 AL teams finish with a DH hitting below league average. League average, not position average. Teams should be able to find a guy who can manage to hit better than the overall average player right? It's the whole job title. But most MLB quality hitters can also field. Turns out there might not be 14 (er 15 next year) above average MLB hitters who shouldn't be fielding. Or at least not 14 who can still hit well while at DH.

Put Smith at LF and let Cespedes DH. This assumes Carter doesn't pan out, and even if he does hit like a monster (TROGDOR!) I'd just as well see if he can handle 1B. With Cespy at DH you're down a CF once Crisp leaves (2014, if not sooner). I'm going to say, right now, CF would be an easier spot for the A's to fill than DH. Think about it.

We have Crisp, who's turned it around a bit. Cowgill looks promising. Then there's Choice and Green in the minors. CF free agents? Michael Bourn and Miguel Cabrera (a likely pipe dream for the A's, but the point is real options are out there). At DH you could maybe put Carter there. Miles Head is a long way from MLB but is a future option. Free agents? The same old veterans, and I do mean old, that the A's usually sign. And that's worked, what, twice ever? Kingman and Thomas in 25 years of off and on trying the vet to DH move?

An above-average DH is a great asset. Especially on a team with strengths of pitching and defense. I'll take DH-Cespedes and plus defense/no-hit CF lineup any day over CF-Cespedes and more years of Matsui/Garciaparra.

Puzzle Solutions:

1)The milkman filled the three gallon jug, and then emptied the contents into the five gallon jug. He then filled the three gallon jug again, and continued to fill the five gallon jug until it was full. The milk remaining in the three gallon jug was precisely one gallon.

2) Three socks and four shoes would guarantee that you would have a matching pair of each. Since there are only two colors of socks, it doesn't matter how many are in the heap, as long as you take at least three, you are certain to have two of the same. As for the shoes, you must pick four, because selecting only three could result in one shoe in each of the three colors!

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