The first significant move of the Oakland Athletics 2014-15 offseason was to sign Billy Butler for three years and $30 million, betting that the bad body hitter turning 29 could return to the form he enjoyed not that long ago for the Kansas City Royals. There was an older bad body hitter also coming off a bad season the A's could have gone after, Kendrys Morales, that the Royals ultimately did sign. The A's guessed wrong, and the Royals come out looking like geniuses.
There's no one right way to go about using the designated hitter position. The A's, like the Red Sox, Yankees, Royals, and Astros, have concentrated more than 400 designated hitter plate appearances in one player. This is fine if your designated hitter is good. This is not fine if your designated hitter is bad. Here are those five designated hitters:
|Battling lines as the designated hitter, 2015 (thru Aug. 25)|
For the A's the designated hitter position is not fine. Only the Angels had a worse OPS+ out of the designated hitter position, and that's mainly because C.J. Cron has been their designated hitter when Albert Pujols was playing first base.
A dedicated designated hitter makes some sense if your first basemen and corner outfielders actually happen to be good defenders. In Ike Davis, Josh Reddick, Ben Zobrist, and Coco Crisp the A's had hopes of being able to maximize their potential defensive abilities.
If you're using a player with defensive value in the designated hitter spot, you're still paying for that defensive value but not using it in the game. A traditional designated hitter has little defensive value, with salary spent solely on that player's hitting skills. Such is the case for David Ortiz, Kendrys Morales, Evan Gattis, and Billy Butler. As for Alex Rodriguez, his salary is paying for his previous years of both good defense and a serviceable third base.
The risk in having a dedicated designated hitter is that it concentrates the risk into one player, and if he doesn't hit, that destroys the position for the year with few opportunities to try alternatives. In the context of contracts, $10 million a year for three years is not much at all. Even the A's can write something like that off. In the context of roster flexibility, a terrible hitter that can't field and can't be demoted to the minor leagues handcuffs the club.
Kendrys Morales and Billy Butler were both bad body designated hitters coming off down years. The A's bet on the younger of the two (Morales turned 32 this season, Butler 29), the Royals the other. It didn't work out for the A's, though I'm not sure what the solution would have been other to sign a better hitter. Consider the cavalcade of players they tried as designated hitter in 2014, when they mainly used it as the "half-day off" position:
|Batting lines as the designated hitter, 2014 Oakland A's|
Only Seattle had a worse OPS+ at the designated hitter position in 2014, a putrid 54 because they had Corey Hart and (whaddayaknow) Kendrys Morales taking the bulk of plate appearances at designated hitter. Oakland's strongest offensive performers had too much defensive value to be used as a designated hitter.
One thing dedicated designated hitters do equally well is that they don't play defense. Compare the Fangraphs WAR of Alex Rodriguez, who has played just 17⅔ innings of third base this year, with Billy Butler, who has 41 innings at first base. Rodriguez is rated a 2.4 WAR player while Butler a minus-1.3 WAR player. There's a divide here, but it's not like Alex Rodriguez is a 6.0 WAR player just because he hits better than the average designated hitter.
The A's certainly were hurt by Billy Butler being bad at his one job, but it's just one of many things that have to improve for the A's to compete in 2016.
So what can the A's do? They could just go back to simply using the designated hitter for the worst fielder or a player needing a half-day off.. That means not specifically looking for a "can't fielder" with the idea that they save money by not spending on unused defensive value.
By not looking specifically for a designated hitter, the idea is that an improved offense taking the field generally improves the offense overall. Sure there's some defensive value being left on the table, but players need days off all the time. Coco Crisp seems like the ideal sort of player for that role given his ongoing injury issues, and the A's could turn back to the cavalcade of hitters. It will be up to the A's to upgrade the rest of the offense.