Conversions to designated hitter and their applicability to Jose Vidro’s suckiness
I’ve been trying to find comps for Vidro’s conversion. Ideally there’d be a guy named Joe Victor, a good-hitting 32-year old shortstop who got banged up for a few years and converted to DH in 2004. Yeah. Turns out there aren’t. There are a couple of problems with this kind of exercise:
Survivor bias. Players who don’t hit don’t get to hit for too long. Even noted clubhouse leader Carl Everett got thrown off the team. So looking for guys who made a conversion, the only data worth looking at will be cases where they weren’t terrible.
Sample size. Turns out since the designated hitter sprang like Athena fully-formed from the leg of Bowie Kuhn, there haven’t been all that many full-time DHs. Going through team seasons, I found many cases where time was split between two or more players, and I wanted at least 100 games to try and figure splits.
DH composition. Teams have historically used the DH to hide their worst defensive player far more frequently than protect injury risks. The history of conversions is a long series of teams deciding “this lumbering ox is so horrible defensively we can’t even bear to see him play left field or first base”.
That Edgar Martinez converted to DH from third base after two injury-racked seasons at 32 doesn’t mean Vidro’s going to suddenly hit .356/.479/.628 and finish 3rd in the MVP voting. Or, even better, Paul Molitor converted to DH full-time at 34 in 1991 after playing sixty games at second the year before (of 103 total), and then reeled off three of his best seasons before starting to decline in 1994, at 37. Two Hall of Famers experiencing late-career resurgences at DH doesn’t make conversions to DH a guarantee of late-career resurgences.
And I could argue about the validity of the comparisons: Edgar, in those injury-hampered 92-94 seasons, hit about .309/.392/.501, while Vidro hit .287/.353/.423. The takeaway lesson there would be that Edgar could still hit, and Vidro, for whatever reason, has not been able to.
Because there aren’t really good, argument-ending examples of players who made this kind of move. There’s particularly no Joe Victors. I’m going to discard the quest for a second. There’s a larger assumption at play here, and that’s that moving to easier defensive positions, by reducing wear and tear on a player, help their offense, and that moving to DH, by removing that entirely and allowing them to focus on hitting, is the best of all moves. A counter argument is that moving to DH, by taking a player off fielding, hurts their concentration or strains their intangible gland or whatever.
If moving from first base or the outfield to designated hitter does help, you’d expect to see those conversions hit significantly better after moving.
These are testable propositions:
– Does moving to an easier position improve offense?
– Does moving from a fielding position to DH improve offense?
Now these, these we know something about. I’m trying to work out a much larger, serious study on this, but here’s an early cut:
Including 2002, here are all the players who played more than 100 games at DH in a season:
See what I mean about the trouble finding an adequate sample? 10 guys in 5 years. In any event: for players who moved, how big was the bump in offense (measured using EQR to adjust for park, league but not position) the year they converted?
Carl Everett (2005, age 34, from OF). Played twice as many games, about doubled offensive contributions from injury-limited 04, but was still way off career highs.
Edgar Martinez. You know this one, or you should. (1995, from 3B). Had his first healthy season since 1993, was about 20 runs better than his 1992 position-playing peak.
Ellis Burks (2001, at 36, from OF). Nope. Dropped about ten runs from the previous season. Rate stats down.
Erubiel Durazo (2003, age 29, from 1b). Tough. His first full season, with over twice as many ABs as previous years, so his total contribution was way up… but his rate stats actually all went down, his power significantly.
Frank Thomas (1998, age 30, and the records say he played first base, thooough…). Dropped 26 runs from the previous year. Rate stats all dived.
Raul Ibanez (2005, age 33, from OF). Added about 18 runs to return to the level of the best seasons with KC (2002-2003). However, he converted back to LF the next year and got even better, at +14. Soooo.. yeah.
(David Ortiz, Jonny Gomes, Josh Phelps, Travis Hafner all drop because they didn’t play other positions full-time or a good chunk of the time before moving)(Even Thomas played 97 games at 1b vs 49 at DH the year before).
So for those six conversions, here’s their total line:
Year before: 2,233 at-bats, .309/.395/.529
Year converted: 3,176 at-bats, .281/.379/.489
That’s not a huge sample of players, no, but it doesn’t support the assertion that the DH revitalizes hitters. If they’re supposed to be converting and healthy off injury years, well, we do see the playing time jump, but their hitting doesn’t seem to improve. Do their performances decline because they’re simply a year older? If so, then we should at least acknowledge that their move to DH didn’t overcome that, and certainly didn’t put them back on age-27 career years.
There’s only one remaining argument for a revitalization of Vidro that isn’t undermined by a reasonable look at the evidence of DH shifts. Those guys were old? In their conversion years, those guys were 29, 30, 32, 33, 34, and 36. Coming off injury? So were they. A special hitter? So were they. They were distracted by the move from fielding? Vidro’s going to face the same problem, if you believe it exists. And so on, and so on.
It’s that 2B is way more taxing than 1B/OF, and that his offense was thus held down more than those guys. Accept the premise that a player’s defense holds down their offense for a minute. First, sure, the position may be more taxing – a second baseman might make 600-800 plays that result in an out being made over the course of a season, while a left fielder can get away with under 200 (though he has to be immobile) and 250-300 is more reasonable.
But players who shift to easier positions don’t see significant offensive increases, either. If 1B is less taxing than 2B and so on, we should see players who move from one position to an easier one spike their offense. And if the reason that there’s no spike from 1B/LF to DH is that those positions are so much easier that they’re like DHing already, then we should see players who move to 1B/LF spike. And that’s not there either.
Take Nomar Garciaparra, a good Vidro comp for this discussion though a shortstop: he’s a middle infielder who hit for a high average, didn’t take a lot of walks, with good power. After a long string of injuries, he moved to first base this year at age 32. He was healthy and experienced an offensive resurgence, but it was still 30-40 runs of offense off his best years in Boston which he racked up while playing shortstop.
There’s no reason to expect that Vidro, moved to DH, is going to have a good year, and it’s extremely improbable we’ll see a return to the performances of his best seasons.
I’ll have more on all this later.