April 24, 2014

The Case for a Designated Hitter. Yes, That Designated Hitter

Travis HafnerFrom what I can tell, there seem to be two fairly entrenched camps that have sprung up regarding the Indians’ approach to the designated hitter spot this season.

The first group seems to be arguing that the team might be better off without a full-time DH.  The thinking here goes that a designated designated hitter makes the team less adaptable; it would hamstring Terry Francona’s ability mix and match lineups by taking one spot off the table.  It would also take up a valuable roster spot that could more aptly be filled by a player with some versatility.  Travis Hafner’s onerous contract and awful performance are cited heavily in this camp, who would basically prefer to see Mike Aviles in some capacity almost every day—filling in around the diamond at various positions while allowing the regulars to slot in at DH or occasionally take the day off entirely.

The second group wants a DH.  They see an everyday spot in the lineup that will currently be filled either by Mike Aviles (.663 OPS in 2012) or Lou Marson (.635) and realize that that sort of production just isn’t good enough—not when you could add in a DH and not lose much in the way of team defense by allowing Marson and Aviles to be role-players rather than everyday ones.  This group also likes to point out that either Travis Hafner or Jim Thome will likely come very cheap, and as long as they are managed properly (i.e. not everyday players, but used in three to four games per week against RHP), there’s a chance they could stay healthy enough to post an OPS north of .850 or so.

And I guess that while I usually try to bridge the divide among warring Tribe factions and act as conciliator, I have to say I find myself falling pretty firmly in that second camp, and that the player I keep coming back to to fill the role is Travis Hafner.  There are several reasons for this.

First, I really don’t think people realize what it would mean not to add another bat.  While versatility sounds nice, it’s really only helpful if the player who’s being asked to be versatile is actually good.  Mike Aviles and Lou Marson just aren’t, no matter how much we may want them to be.

Mike Aviles:

YEAR AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ ISO BABiP wOBA
2008 0.325 0.354 0.480 0.834 121 0.155 0.357 0.360
2009 0.183 0.208 0.250 0.458 22 0.067 0.223 0.203
2010 0.304 0.335 0.413 0.748 104 0.109 0.327 0.330
2011 0.255 0.289 0.409 0.698 89 0.154 0.276 0.303
2012 0.250 0.282 0.381 0.663 76 0.131 0.269 0.288

Lou Marson:

YEAR AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ ISO BABiP wOBA
2008 0.500 0.500 1.250 1.750 337 0.750 1.000 0.730
2009 0.246 0.347 0.361 0.708 90 0.115 0.366 0.320
2010 0.195 0.274 0.286 0.560 58 0.091 0.234 0.258
2011 0.230 0.300 0.296 0.596 70 0.066 0.313 0.271
2012 0.226 0.348 0.287 0.635 84 0.061 0.289 0.296

 

Second, Travis Hafner is probably a lot better hitter than you realize.  Outside of his execrable 2008 season, he’s never had a wOBA below .340 and never slugged less than .440.  Can you guess how many times Lou Marson and Mike Aviles have done that combined?  That would be one time: Mike Aviles’ 2008 campaign where his BABiP was an anomalous .357.  So even on Hafner’s worst day, he’s a superior hitter to both Aviles and Marson.

Travis Hafner:

YEAR AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ ISO BABiP wOBA
2008 0.197 0.305 0.323 0.628 69 0.126 0.241 0.277
2009 0.272 0.355 0.470 0.825 120 0.198 0.297 0.356
2010 0.278 0.374 0.449 0.823 130 0.171 0.332 0.359
2011 0.280 0.361 0.449 0.810 128 0.169 0.332 0.354
2012 0.228 0.346 0.438 0.784 121 0.210 0.233 0.342

 

Speaking of anomalies, did you know that Hafner’s batting average on balls in play last season was only .233, suggesting some really crummy luck for a player who’d posted BABiP’s of around .300 or better over the prior three seasons?  For this reason alone, I think it’s more likely than not that his 2013 will be better than his 2012 was—and his 2012 was probably much better than anything Mike Aviles is capable of.

But even more than all the numbers and evidence that I can throw at you, I keep coming back to the same issue.  How could adding Hafner on a dirt-cheap contract a bad thing?  Let’s pretend he pulls a Sizemore and destroys his shoulder while cashing his first Spring Training check, preventing even one at bat next season.  Then the team will be in the exact position that some fans are already pulling for: Mike Aviles and Lou Marson will be playing major roles.  It’s not like the team is deciding how to spend that million or so bucks; basically, they’re either gonna do it or they’re not.  I don’t see what we gain from not adding him.

And why Hafner and not Thome?  I understand the optics would probably play better if we gave the job to the hero from the nineties, but I guess if you’re asking me which one of these guys is more likely to be able to handle 350 plate appearances, I’m going to go with the 35 year old over the 42 year old every day and twice on Sundays.  I still think Hafner was miscast as an everyday player during his previous contract—probably because of his previous contract.  The front office was paying the guy $13 million, and in an effort to recoup the investment, they insisted he play more often than he should have been.  I think on a more appropriately sized contract and with a new manager, the message might be sent rather quickly that Hafner should be used judiciously in order to preserve his health.  He could sit three or so games a week, and arguably be a better version than he has been in recent years.

Thome, on the other hand appears much closer to the actual end of his career.  He is 42.  Last season his ISO (slugging minus batting average—a measure of raw power) dropped below .200 for the first time in his career.  He hurt his back while playing first base (good ole Cholly, up to no good), and managed only 186 plate appearances on the season because of it.  I guess I just don’t believe in 42 year old baseball players unless they’re named Barry Bonds, and even then, the bounds of credulity are strained.

I say this knowing full-well that I also advocated signing Grady Sizemore last year.  In other words, I may have lost the right to be taken seriously by a sizable portion of the fanbase.

But that situation was different to me: the team was choosing how to spend the $5 million they had on hand—they could’ve spent it on Grady OR on a real left fielder OR on a starting pitcher.  This time, they’re either going to spend the million on a DH or they won’t add anything; they’re either going to add potential value, or they’re going to do nothing.

Perhaps it speaks to how soured the town has gotten on past-his-prime sluggers from yesteryear, but more and more I seem to be hearing people from that first camp—with more scar tissue built around their baseball psyches than Pronk’s shoulder—advocating that we just can’t go down that road again.  That sometimes, a clean break is best, no matter the cost.

  • SDA

    My only question is are these the only two players out there for this kind of money? And couldn’t we find someone that can hit from both sides of the plate?

  • LaundroMat

    Thought we re-signed Ben Francisco for this purpose?

  • JeBron_Lames

    Interesting points, but giving players like Chisenhall, Cabrera, and Kipnis more rest with the open DH slot improves the team more than just having Hafner clog up the position. It also gives an opportunity to see what the younger guys like McDade Gomes, and McGuiness can provide for the future of the team.

  • Zach

    I can definitely agree with you Jon…
    It might not be the popular opinion, but based on the premise that he will be cheap and essentially a platoon player, i see no fault in it. If he plays just against righties and bats near .300, with 10+ homers and 40+ rbi and gets on base and wears down pitchers like we know he can when functional, it is a good add. That would allow Aviles or Santana or Swisher to play DH against lefties and keep legs fresh.

  • Zach

    @cb4b0468f243019de6191243de94b79a:disqus

    good points also, I would like to see how some of those guys could handle more full-time play. Gomes is an interesting player but probably not enough pop to be a DH. McDade or McGuinnes would certainly be valid options.

  • Natedawg86

    I don’t think Hafner has been healthy for some time. I think his BABiP last year was low because he was popping the ball up more (i think?) instead of driving the ball hard into play. I think he should practice bunting to 3rd base line tons this offseason and just do that everytime they have the Hafner shift on. How much will Hafner make this season? 2M?

  • Hypno_Toad

    Lou Marson batted .500 in 2008. He’s CLEARLY the best option at DH. I mean, who wouldn’t want our DH to get a hit every other AB?

    Destroyed by your own statistics. How you like them apples Jon?

  • nj0

    Clog up? Hafner had a higher OPS+ than the three guys you list. Hafner is so much better than what people give him credit for. Put aside the prejudice, forget about the $13M/yr, and look at the numbers.

    Jon is right – using Hafner sparingly against RHP is the right move. And if you’re playing him only three times a week, you still have plenty of opportunity to give other guys a rest.

  • nj0

    Ben did not have a good 2012. I don’t think his signing was anything other your typical minor league deal lotto ticket.

  • mgbode

    and Ben’s best season hitting is still worse than what Hafner did last season (117OPS+ vs. 120OPS+)

  • mgbode

    but, here’s the point. even though he had a .233BABIP, he was still our 2nd most productive hitter (per AB). so, if he rebounds that BABIP to career norms, then he’s a huge get. if not, he’s still a useful part-time DH.

  • mgbode

    Jon, I’m with you. oftentimes, even when I disagree, I see the point on both sides of the debate. On this issue, the other side of the debate just doesn’t make any sense to me. If there is another DH people prefer us going after instead of Hafner for $1-2mil/season, then please present the option. Otherwise, I don’t get using Aviles/McDade/etc. in that role.

  • TD

    Please Jon…I dont care what the stats say. No more Hafner. Its time to cut the cord. You want nostalgia, bring back Thome.

  • Roger

    If we’re talking hitters, and discounting (largely, anyhow), positional value, I would rather have a hitter who does one thing very well rather than a hitter who does two or three things marginally well. Hafner, on the three year average, has an OPS of 855 against RHP. Without having the time, or real desire, to research this, I seriously doubt that there is another player out there with a split like that in free agency. He would also fill the pinch hitter role for late in the game, and allow you to maximize the value (and flexibility) of a Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, or whoever else makes this roster in one of the final spots. Signing him allows you to pull Stubbs when a RHP comes in late in the game, then insert the 4th outfielder (Carrera, Fedroff, Francisco, or whoever it is) as a defensive replacement.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    mgbode Hafner all over this like a dog on a bone! ;-)

  • nj0

    At least you admit that you don’t care about objective facts.

  • nj0

    Agree. I think people just can’t let go that Hafner underperformed his contract. Of course, that doesn’t have anything to do with his current value.

  • architrance

    Bringing back Pronk on a small contract absolutely makes sense for the Tribe. They clearly are trying to at least appear like they are attempting to field a team that’s trying to contend this year and every year (terrible sentence).

    But seriously, if ANYONE gets hurt, as they inevitably will – this gives you the flexibility to slot in Aviles into that position and still have a decent option at DH. I can’t see why they don’t make this move. It’s the type of low risk, high reward that can make a huge difference on this team.

  • Harv 21

    Jon, I’m with you, I do not have that visceral Hafner allergy, but think there’s something significant missing from your calculation. Given his recent history, even when the manager babies his shoulder/knee/internal organs, Hafner will not get through the season, not even close. So if the money requires choosing one historically healthy guy who costs a little more, or a DH-stew involving Hafner (or Thome) and someone healthier, which is most effective given the finite dollars available?

    Or maybe we go three-headed, Thome and Hafner and Branyan. Each game putting tribe fans through the emotional wringer – the warm flame of recognition, the fits of anger and the misty-eyed tug of nostalgia. Maybe try to get each one in each game. Yeah, that’s the option I want.

  • mgbode

    hey, if you do not want him back, then please explain what alternative is better. that is all I am looking for here.

  • mgbode

    and hey, I was right there with them at first. it was a couple seasons ago when I finally tried to stop thinking about his contract and only looked at what he was doing on the field. Grady actually helped me with that because, unlike Hafner, Grady wasn’t useful when he was healthy enough to play.

  • mgbode

    Hafner is averaging 93games/season the last 4 years. Now, Jon suggests above he may be able to keep healthier playing 3times per week. Either way, there is a decent change he gives us somewhere between 75-110 games this season. At his hitting production level, I think that is a coup for $1-2mil.

    Now, alot of these discussions depend on his current health.

    ——————————–

    and please indicate who this phantom historically healthy guy who might cost a little more would be.

  • Steve

    Well, we can check those numbers. Hafner did pop up the ball quite a bit more in 2012 – 10.1% of the time compared to 5.6%. He also did lose quite a few line drives, down to 17.1% from 21%. So, yes he should have lost some BABIP, but nowhere near the 100 points that he lost from 2011 to 2012. Expect him to bounce back up a bit this year.

  • Harv 21

    - Playing 93/year or active?

    - The phantom guy? It’s me. My shoulder only hurts a little. I have zero pop but no infield shift will mess with my swing and I’m available, real available.

    - You have a Hafner Home Run Primal Scream poster in your man cave. No no, please don’t respond. I know it, we all know it. Your denials aren’t good here.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Which aging/injured/retread DH will the Tribe pick? I’m on the edge of my seat.

    I love rooting for a house-poop baseball franchise. This whole conversation is why I have such a hard time following Indians hot stove talk. At least when the Browns sign someone in free agency, he fails as a result of unrealized expectations. The Indians take the opposite approach by taking mediocre talent and hoping they all outperform their historical norms.

    Sorry to be such a downer. It’s a rainy Monday in Columbus.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Ha! Should say “house-poor.”

    Probably still accurate though.

  • mgbode

    regardless of the posters that may or may not be present, the logic is on my side as well :)

  • Vindictive_Pat

    The only 2 things that have bugged me about having Travis Hafner on our roster was 1) his absurdly fat paycheck clogging things up and 2) the Tribe’s manager forcing him into the lineup in situations where he has proven to be poor for several years now. I’m talking about lefty on lefty action. At this stage in his career, Hafner is purely a situational guy… and that’s when there is a righty starter on the mound (or as a pinch-hitter against a righty closer or something). His batting with runners in scoring position last season was infuriating, but I’m willing to chalk that up to bad luck. Something I like about him even if it is somewhat intangible… pitchers still seem to fear him. He’ll still draw an intentional walk sometimes whether it’s reasonable or not.

  • ThatAlex

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I’m of the camp that would like to re-sign Hafner, and you perfectly explained my reasons why. Good work.

  • http://twitter.com/GreatestHurley Jason Hurley

    If you sign Hafner, we’ll be graced with using Aviles in the DH role, as Hafner will be on the DL half the time anyway. That way, we all win, really.

  • Kildawg

    My option is having 1B and DH split between Reynolds and the Rule 5 pick McGuiness. Might as well see what he can do, because he has to be on the 25 man roster, or we have to send a player to original team or offer him back.

  • mgbode

    plenty of room for him on the roster. he still has to earn the spot in ST though. that is an intriguing option if we think McGuiness will replicate Hafner’s stats (or even 90% value of them), then I would be all for it. but, I’m leery to think he could.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I just love giving you a hard time I mean look at all of the posts you’ve made on this subject. If I didn’t know better I’d day you were either a long lost relative of Project Donkey or better yet affiliated with his agent in some fashion lol. I really don’t care whether he’s the DH or not IF he’s signed at a very friendly team contract.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It doesn’t say WFNY_TD otherwise I’d have said save this comment for the future. J/K TD.

  • Kildawg

    The biggest advantage McGuiness has over Thome/Hafner is that he can play the field (1B/maybe OF), and he is a younger (cheaper) option. Thome might be best suited as a hitting instructor/coach, he would make an awful good one IMO.

  • mgbode

    that advantage only matters if he hits though. thome & hafner both struggled initially when they got up to MLB. if McGuiness hits under 90OPS+, then it’s not helping the 2013 team just because he can play 1B.
    if our management feels he or one of the other youngsters can hit even 115OPS+ for the season, then i’m all for giving the chance to do it. i just have very high doubts any of them can.

  • ObieMassillon

    While I am not necessarily a Hafner advocate, I think his 2012 stats are impressive given that he starts every count down 0-1. I think he could significantly improve his numbers if he were to confuse pitchers and swing at the first pitch every once in awhile. If he commits to that, I give him a little dough.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    question, and this is legit not snarky… is BABiP affected by the fact that teams play a shift on Hafner? When I think about it, I think that his in-play area must be smaller than most batters, so it would make sense for his batting average to be lower based solely on the smaller in-play area?

  • Kildawg

    Thome and Hafner may have struggled initially, but the Indians still took a chance on them. You never know unless you try (and MLB 2K13/The Show 13 don’t count, games due out mid-March).

  • mgbode

    and there will be plenty of room to try even if they sign a more surefire DH :)