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Hitting as a DH vs hitting as a first baseman

Posted by Andy on October 27, 2007

Kingturtle posted a suggestion about quantifying whether players truly hit better when playing the field instead of DHing. See his comment here.

I looked into this a little. Click through for the details.

I started by identifying players who played at least 200 games at 1B and 200 games at DH in their career. I did that by using the PI Batting Season Finder, clicking the bubble to sum over career, then specifying at least 200 games at the "position" of DH and the position of 1B. I also limited the search to 1973 and after to avoid getting players who only played DH toward the tail end of their careers.

The full list of 33 such players is here.

Right away, there are several problems/limitations with my analysis:

  • I picked 1B only because I had to limit it somehow initially. Sean could write a script to compare every single player's performance at DH vs a true defense position, but I am just using the same searches available to all PI subscribers. Also, as you see below, I used split data to compare performance by position. If I used outfield, then that data is further split by outfield position. I used 1B for an easy direct comparison of two stat lines.
  • By picking guys who played at least 200 games at DH, I am already selecting for guys who must have had some decent ability to hit as a DH. In other words, if some player out there couldn't hit for crap as a DH because he "couldn't get in rhythm" or whatever, then in theory he'd never have played DH. Such an aspect is totally absent in this study.
  • This search also doesn't consider whether the guy played an entire season at DH, then an entire season in at 1B, or whether he switched from 1B to DH every day. That also has implications about how well he hits in each role.
  • I picked 200 games because that seems like a fairly decent sample size, but who knows.

That being said, here is what I did. For a bunch of players on the list, I clicked through to that player's career splits, and I listed below his BA/OBP/SLG for hitting as an first baseman, and the same three numbers for hitting as a DH.

First, here are those numbers for the top 10 HR hitters on that list:

Name                as 1B                     as DH
Palmeiro           .291/.373/.517             .275/.374/.538
F Thomas           .337/.453/.625             .277/.396/.512
Thome              .282/.412/.587             .270/.407/.544
Murray             .289/.363/.480             .282/.344/.460
Kingman            .219/.288/.451             .236/.293/.453
D Evans            .242/.356/.442             .241/.356/.462
Giambi             .309/.433/.575             .246/.385/.476
J Clark            .268/.420/.517             .235/.370/.418
Fielder            .259/.348/.500             .247/.339/.451
Brett              .306/.383/.487             .273/.331/.430

(editor's note: that's Darrell Evans, not Dwight Evans)

So a quick look at this list would suggest that just about all of these guys hit better as a 1B than they did as a DH. Palmeiro and Evans both slugged about 20 points better as a DH, but pretty much all other categories are, statistically speaking, identical or worse as a DH for all players.

But, there a couple of obvious things wrong with this simplistic study:

  • It doesn't take yearly league-average performance into account. Those 20-point SLG differences I just mentioned could simply be league-wide fluctuations. Similarly, a player with an identical number at both positions may have actually performed quite differently if league conditions were different.
  • For the most part, these are still players who DH'ed later in their carees when their skills had dwindled some. Frank Thomas is an example of someone who has DHed almost exclusively in the second half of his career, after playing 1B almost exclusively in the first half. Giambi has DHed mainly since he missed time after whatever he apologized for (many presume he stopped using steroids in the interim.) Jack Clark didn't DH until late in his career, after spending all his early years in the NL. The examples go on and on.

So, unfortunately, I'm not sure that this initial study shows us much. It would be helpful to come up with other ways of looking at this. Anybody have some ideas?

3 Responses to “Hitting as a DH vs hitting as a first baseman”

  1. kingturtle Says:

    Wow. That was quick. And a very interesting way to go about it.

    You know, just that full list of 33 DHs is very interesting all by itself. A variety of strategies using the DH have been tried through the past 30 years or so. Platooning DHs, full-time DHs, old-age DHS, etc. The DH is definitely a power-hitter's position, and not used as much for speed or contact hitting. It is fascinating to see Gene Larkin and Craig Kusick. There's a story in there somewhere!

    To deal with league fluctuations and dwindling careers, it might be interesting to expand the study into single-season OPS+, comparing 1B and DH, with at least 45 games at each in a season.

  2. Andy Says:

    I agree that OPS+ would be useful, but unfortunately I don't think split OPS+ data is available, unless by years. So in other words, we could manually compared one player's OPS+ numbers in years where he primarily DHed vs the OPS+ numbers in years where he primarily played the field, but the actual split data isn't available. (I think because you can't break OPS+ up by games...for example if a guy played 75 games at 1B and 75 games at DH in a year, how would you know which data to use to normalize his OPS? There IS only yearly data, not day-by-day data. So, as an approximation, a guy's OPS+ could by split by position only insomuch as it conveniently splits by years.)

    Let's look at Frank Thomas. He played almost exclusively 1B in 1992, 1993 and 1996. He played almost exclusively DH in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2007.

    His OPS+ in 1992, 1993, and 1996 were 174, 177, and 178. (wow, pretty consistent.) His OPS+ in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2007 were 125, 118, 140, and 125.

    So you could make an argument that he played a lot better in the field. BUT, all of the DH seasons came later in his career when he was both older and had suffered certain (perhaps fully-healed) injuries. It's also true that his huge years in 1992 and 1993 came before the really big offensive explosion--he was ahead of the curve so to speak.

    So I'm not sure a lot can really be determined that way.

    You're right that looking at BA/OBP/SLG data from individual years where a guy played both might be a good way to go.

  3. vonhayes Says:

    Yeah, I think you'd have to do a relative OPS for each plyaer, provided that you can find a way to pull all of the seasons where a player had at least 40-50 games at both DH and 1B