In outfield, he may have hit upon something
The subject on my mind was the designated hitter, but in the course of research it became apparent that perhaps the more intriguing question was, where have all the great outfielders gone?
People in the game have been kvetching for years over the decline in superior outfield arms, expounding all kinds of theories as to why there are so few guys with howitzers attached to their shoulders. Making full allowances for the way all of us tend to romanticize the past, no matter the topic - the Burt Lancaster character rhapsodizing about the faded grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean in “Atlantic City’’ being an extreme example - it remains a given that outfield arms just ain’t what they used to be.
It turns out the bats ain’t so swell, either.
Thump is in relatively short supply. I had it in my head that the DH production was in a crisis mode, as opposed to whatever I presumed to be DH’s Good Old Days, but the DHs are holding their own against the outfielders when it comes to mashing the ol’ pea around the ballyard.
Counting the National League, there are six times as many outfielders as regular DHs, remember. Keep that in mind as you gaze at this little chart, which annotates the number of DHs and outfielders in both leagues who have had an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in excess of .700 as of midweek:
I’m not going to get into the DH or no DH debate, not that I lack an opinion. I think it will have to come to a head if and when there is realignment and we are left with two 15-team leagues. This would give us an interleague game every day, and at that point common sense dictates the rules would then have to become uniform. Or am I asking too much?
The fact is we have had the DH in the American League since 1973 and we are quite used to it. We are also used to having quality DHs. I almost forgot that the first full-time Red Sox DH was exactly the kind of guy people figured would benefit from the rule. Is not the prototype DH an aging slugger who can still swing the bat but who cannot be entrusted to do anything positive with a glove on his hand and who, more than likely, runs as if he is carrying each and every last one of the Boston Pops on his back. Orlando Cepeda, come on down!
Cha Cha’s one year here wasn’t what you would call spectacular. It surprises me to learn he didn’t even slug .500 (.444). But he did have 20 homers and 86 runs batted in, and he did tie a major league record one day by hitting four doubles, and he did put a little punch in the lineup.
Most of the original DHs from the 1973 season were, as Dennis Green might say, exactly who you thought they were. Baltimore’s Terry Crowley had been a pinch hitter extraordinaire, as was Detroit’s hulking Gates Brown. Milwaukee’s Ollie “Downtown’’ Brown was another certified grip-and-ripper.
And how about Rico Carty of the Texas Rangers? That man did not merely hit baseballs; he abused them. Talk about a born DH. Oh, and who was the first Minnesota DH? Oh, c’mon, this is easy. Yup, Tony Oliva. By that time it was sad to watch him run, but he could still swing the bat.
That’s the heritage, and from that original group we eventually developed such quality DHs as Don Baylor, Hal McRae, Edgar Martinez, Paul Molitor, and our own David Ortiz, whose annual quest to get into non-DH interleague road games has been made more difficult by the presence of Adrian Gonzalez, who must be in the Sox’ lineup on a daily basis, lest the skipper be confused with the village idiot.
Papi and his DH cohorts are upholding the honor of the profession. But what kind of a world is it when, among all big league outfielders, only Jose Bautista and Matt Kemp are over 1.000 in OPS, with Curtis Granderson the only other outfielder over .900 at .944?
If this is strictly a weaning-off-steroids story, how do we account for the fine showing of first basemen? They are far more productive proportionately than outfielders:
With only one-third as many first basemen as outfielders, there are more first basemen with OPSs over 1.000, as many with OPSs of over .900, and only four fewer with OPSs of over .800. Yes, first base is supposed to be a power position, but the corner outfield spots are likewise supposed to be power positions, and over the years we’ve seen some center fielders with a little pop. And if you think it’s a bit unfair to cite DiMaggio, Mays, and Mantle because they are regarded as demigods from another era, what about Ken Griffey Jr. averaging 52 homers over a four-year span in the late 90s? And nobody ever accused him of anything, if you know what I mean.
OK, so the outfielders can’t throw and they can’t hit. In their defense, I will acknowledge there are a lot of guys out there nowadays who can really go get ’em. There are probably a half-dozen great catches every night. But it would be nice if someone would throw a guy out or hit a ball into the seats every now and then. That used to be part of the job description, too.