There seems to be a stigma in baseball attached to the position of designated hitter. The DH, which celebrated its 40th year in existence last season, is a legitimate position on just about every baseball team in this country above Little League, with the archaic exception of the National League. The designated hitter is as much a part of today’s baseball game as any other position on the field. Why is there a sense of negativity about players who predominantly only play DH?
Hitting a baseball at the major league level is arguably one of the hardest skills in the sports world. People are expected to hit a small round ball, thrown from a short, elevated distance, with a round bat. Add in the fact that nearly all of the pitched balls are traveling over 80 mph and moving in a sometimes unpredictable fashion. Players are considered successful if they can hit safely three times out of ten, and if a player can be consistently successful a third of the time, he is considered an elite hitter.
So why are players who are good enough to be successful at a position that specializes in this rare skill not treated with more respect? Why are these players considered “just DH’s”, or “only a DH”? Why are they not good enough to be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame? Is it just because they can’t play the field? Most could but wouldn’t excel at it. Isn’t a player more valuable if he rakes at the plate and isn’t hurting the team in the field? (By the way, I think closers also suffer from this same taint of specialization).
There have been many great designated hitters. Hal McRae, Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, and David Ortiz, just to name a few. There are several players in the Hall of Fame who were able to lengthen their careers as productive designated hitters – Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, again just to name a few. There is one hitter in the majors right now who is probably the next great DH. His name is Billy Butler and he plays for the Kansas City Royals.
Last season, the torch appeared to have passed from the aging and oft-injured David Ortiz to Butler as the best designated hitter in the game. Butler won the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award for the first time. Ortiz won it six times but is in the twilight of his career and probably won’t win it again. Butler may be the only everyday DH in the American League but that doesn’t explain why that is considered to be a bad thing. It is a plus that the Royals have such a good hitter they can place in the middle of their lineup everyday and count on him to produce. On top of his hitting skills, Butler can play the field. He is not the most accomplished glove man in the business but he did play first base twenty times in 2012 without embarrassing himself. It is great that Kansas City has an option defensively in young Eric Hosmer, who is hoped, will improve offensively and defensively very soon, but Butler could play there if necessary.
Another interesting thing about Butler is how he compares favorably to Kansas City Royal legend, George Brett through the same age period. It is easy to forget that Butler is still a young hitter having just finished his 26-year old season. A comparative look at some stats between Butler’s pre-27-year old career and Brett’s reveal some interesting facts. Butler has 275 fewer plate appearances than Brett but Billy Butler has more doubles, home runs, RBI, and walks than Brett did in those amazing early years. Of these, most are relatively close except for home runs, which Butler leads by a significant margin, 103-74. Of course, Brett dominates in a couple of statistics – runs scored and triples. George Brett had an amazing 73 triples through his 26-year old season and an outstanding 20 triples in the 26-year old season. That accomplishment is a topic for a whole other article. Butler is also close in batting average in these years – Brett is ahead .310-.300.
Billy Butler is not the next George Brett and it’s an unfair comparison to make in many ways. Brett was one of the greatest hitters of his generation, after all. However, it is fair to use these statistical comparisons to prove Butler is an outstanding hitter at a young age in his own right. George Brett did play defense every day in those years but it cost him games to injuries from getting banged around on that concrete hard playing surface used in the 1970s. He missed 57 games in 1977 and 1978 and 35 more in 1980. This was an issue throughout his career because of the way he played. Butler has only missed 11 games in the last four seasons. It is incredibly valuable to be able to pencil Butler’s bat in the lineup every, single day.
Butler does have his weaknesses. As noted earlier, he isn’t the greatest fielder in the world but can get the job done when pressed into service. He certainly can clog the base paths with his total lack of speed. These foibles aside, Butler is a terrific hitter just entering his prime. He should be celebrated as a fine hitter instead of not being given his due because he is a designated hitter. Billy Butler exemplifies the very definition of the term, and the position, of designated hitter and should be recognized as such. Billy Butler is coming into his own and should grow into a team leader for the 2013 edition of the Kansas City Royals. His bat already speaks for itself.