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The average age of designated hitters

Posted by Andy on September 17, 2010

How old is the typical DH? The commonly-accepted answer is that DHs are older than average because teams tend to stick an aging guy who can't play the field so well at that spot.

Generally, that old answer is still true, but the picture has been changing over the years. Click through for some data and discussion.

To answer this question, I went through every year since 1973 and found the average age of DHs in each season. I decided to set 50 games at DH as the cutoff, mainly to avoid collecting a lot of players who were used as injury fill-ins at DH. The goal of this study is to look at the philosophy of the DH and which players teams put as the starter at that position.

For each year, I found the weighted average of the DHs with at least 50 games, using teach player's plate appearances as the factor. For example, here are the guys to play at least 50 games at DH in 2009:

Rk Year Age PA
1 Ken Griffey 2009 39 454
2 Jim Thome 2009 38 434
3 Mike Sweeney 2009 35 266
4 Hideki Matsui 2009 35 526
5 Vladimir Guerrero 2009 34 407
6 David Ortiz 2009 33 627
7 Marcus Thames 2009 32 294
8 Pat Burrell 2009 32 476
9 Andruw Jones 2009 32 331
10 Travis Hafner 2009 32 383
11 Luke Scott 2009 31 506
12 Jack Cust 2009 30 612
13 Mike Jacobs 2009 28 478
14 Jason Kubel 2009 27 578
15 Adam Lind 2009 25 654
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2010.

My averaging system is far from perfect. Many of these guys played positions other than DH but I am using their season totals. It's not a bad approximation, and after all I'm just trying to get a general sense. If you multiply each guy's age above by his plate appearances, then divide the total of those numbers by the total number of plate appearances, you come up with an average age of 31.8 years for 2009.

Here, then are all the average ages going back to 1973:

The red line is the average age of all American League batters for the same year. I got those numbers from the AL Batting  Encyclopedia page. There are a lot of cool things to notice about the above graph:

  • You can immediately see that, yes, DH's have always been older than the average AL batter, and continue to be to this day. Also keep in mind that the average number includes the DHs themselves, meaning that the average age of everybody except DHs is even lower.
  • You can also immediately see why the DH is thought of as the old man position. In its first few years, quite a few older players were put at DH (including Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Rico Carty, and Orlando Cepeda) plus 3 guys were DHs who qualified by my criteria above in each of the first 3 years (1973-1975): Tony Oliva, Deron Johnson, and Tommy Davis, and these guys were all 36 in 1975.
  • Then, from 1980 to 1986, the reputation of DH being an old man position really soared as the average age climbed higher and higher each successive season. Maintstays at the DH during this period included Hal McRae, Andre Thornton, Don Baylor, and Cliff Johnson. These guys played DH each year and got one year older each year too.
  • Note, though, that we've seen the opposite happen since then. From 1998 to 2002, the average DH age dropped each year, even as the overall average player age was higher than in the 1970s.
  • In 2006, the average DH age went way up as Jim Thome joined the White Sox, coming from the NL and joining the DH ranks. Rondell White also played 50 games at DH for the first time, as did Matt Stairs. Add in some other older players (Tim Salmon, 37, and Phil Nevin, Javy Lopez, Jason Giambi, and Carl Everett, all 35) and the result is a big spike that year.
  • Overall, the large amount of noise in the DH line is due to the fact that a fairly small number of players (around 10) qualify each year. Individual player retirements or position changes show up on this sort of graph.

I mentioned above how the underlying average age of players has been increasing. That's what the red line above shows. It's interesting, then, the plot the ratio of the two so we can see how much higher than overall average age the age of the DHs is.

This shows us that the average age of DHs peaked in 1975, when they were about 23% older than the average AL batter. Even though the average DH age was, in raw numbers, higher in 1986 and 1994, the DHs in those years were not even 20% older than the average AL batter.

In 2009, DHs were just 9% older than average AL batters. That's not the lowest in history--it was just about 7% in 1977. But the black trendline I added above shows that generally speaking, DHs are getting younger and younger relative to the average AL batter (but are still significantly older.) At the rate of that black line, it would still take more than 100 years for the DH age to reach the overall average age. I'm willing to bet that changes in the game will have a lot more to do with what happens than the general trend we've seen so far.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 17th, 2010 at 7:15 am and is filed under Season Finders. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

19 Responses to “The average age of designated hitters”

  1. Hooray for math! Interesting stuff that I've never thought about before.

  2. I wonder how much of the increase in the overall average age of players can be attributed to the number of 40+ year-old pitchers, and how much of the increase in 40+ year old pitchers can be attributed to the DH as opposed to the move to a five-man rotation in the late 80's and early 90's (?)

  3. Bill James once said that he was profoundly puzzled by AL teams' strange reluctance to put a young kid who can rake (but who doesn't have much of a defensive position-blocked by someone else more established, or just can't field) at DH and just let him hit. The Yankees are still dithering over what to do with Jesus Montero (they haven't even called him up for Sept. yet), since he's ostensibly a catcher (but apparently with minimal tools), but hasn't been given any 1B reps for some strange reason. If he tanks defensively as Posada's heir, they'll likely just trade him away and never consider putting him at DH instead (assuming he can develop enough as a hitter of course).

    I remember the Blue Jays in the late 80's feeling like they were in a bind with both McGriff and Fielder, but putting the latter at DH simply wasn't an option for them for some strange reason (their established DH, Rance Mulliniks, tanked the year that Fielder went to Japan). THEN they got Olerud, and instead of putting him at 1st and McGriff at DH, instead traded Crime Dog in the famous Carter/Fernandez/Alomar deal (and Mulliniks was back in there in 1991).

  4. @2, interesting question, but Andy did write "The red line is the average age of all American League batters for the same year." So the pitchers aren't factored in here.

  5. Johnny Twisto Says:

    John, Montero is not on the Yankees 40-man roster yet. I haven't heard much recently about their plans for him. He crushed the ball in AAA this season after a tough first two months. I think his bat is certainly major league ready. I also wondered if he would get any time at other positions this season, but he didn't. Could they find 300-400 PA for him next year between C, DH, PH, maybe some 1B/RF/LF/3B? If he's in the majors you want him to play with some regularity. You could leave him in AAA to start the season but if he's dominating the league it does him no good to remain there.

  6. The severe drop in avg DH age in 1976 (and then even more to the overall nadir in 1977) can be attibuted to the retirement (or non-qualification in the query) of some of the older guys listed from 1975 above (T.Davis, B.Williams, F.Robinson) COMBINED with 2 really young guys Jim Rice (23-24 in 1976-77) and Eddie Murray (21 in 1977) playing a lot of DH.

  7. John, JT,

    The Yanks don't like to plan on having one guy as their DH. They want to use it as a place to rotate their older or slightly injured position players. He is really going to have to work out as a Catcher if he will ever be fully utilized by the Yanks (unless he shows a tremendous ability in the OF - which is really the only position they could possibly give him a lot of reps and it be worth their while).

    1B would be nice, just to know that he could play there in a pinch, but Tex plays 150+ games per year so it is not worth the time he could spend getting better at Catching or maybe in the OF.

    Hopefully though, if the catching is absolutely not working out AND he becomes a truly great major league hitter, that they will see it is better to just have him DH everyday and give the older guys days off.

  8. Is there a way to determine a game-weighted or PA-weighted average age for a position? I'm curious to see how that effects the numbers because a lot of teams do use the DH as a rest position.

  9. nice job of putting the pencil to what I think is a kind of disturbing trend- teams giving up on a player's ability in the filed and players giving up on themselves.

  10. Are the average ages listed in the batting encyclopedia weighted by PA or games, or something else?

  11. @3 / 7 / 9 --
    I think the decline in the use of a "regular" DH, and the diminished opportunities for young hitters best suited to DH, is a direct result of the regrettable proliferation of reliever roster spots, especially "situational" lefties. In 2010 alone, I identified 19 lefty specialists who have taken up a roster spot virtually all year (min. 50 games pitched and < 0.9 IP per game). As a group, these 19 have averaged 62 games, 43-2/3 IP and 188 batters faced. How does their performance compare to the MLB relief average?
    LOOGY / MLB Relief Avg.
    -- WHIP: 1.37 / 1.37
    -- OBP: .331 / .329
    -- SLG: .369 / .390
    -- OPS: .700 / .719

    I can see carrying a lefty specialist if he's truly outstanding, like Arthur Rhodes or Joe Thatcher. But it seems like "lefty specialist" has become a roster spot unto itself; teams seem to carry one whether or not he's any good. I think any kind of empirical study will show that a lot of these lefty specialists are not justifying their roster spots.

  12. [10]

    never mind ... I found the answer :-)

  13. @3
    John DF, isn't the reluctance you speak of fading? Although he may be the first baseman in waiting, Adam Lind with the Jays may still have a career at DH, making him one of the youngest career DH's.

    @9
    Barkfart, I don't necessarily see relegating a player to DH at a young age as giving up on them in any way. The position is a reality of AL play so why not get the most out of it?

    Perhaps a more important consideration is the effect of being a full-time DH on a young player's psyche.

  14. DoubleDiamond Says:

    I didn't get a chance to weigh in on the Edgar Martinez Hall-of-Fame topic or even read much of it, but one thing that struck me, a fan in the other league and on the other coast, was how he was moved directly from third base to full-time DH while still relatively young (early 30's) and not coming off a serious injury. I would have at least expected the next move to be to 1B. Did this topic get posted here because of others making such a comment for that topic?

    When the Blue Jays played that "home" series in Philadelphia, where the DH was used, I was surprised to see 26-year-old (since turned 27) Adam Lind as the DH. I wondered if he was getting a breather from another position, maybe coming off an injury, but it turns out he's been their DH for a while.

    I was around for the beginning of the DH, in 1973. I thought it was going to be a spot for a team to switch a player around on a daily basis, but it soon became clear that a second reason for instituting the DH, besides substituting for the pitcher for the whole game, was to extend the careers of older players.

    The way I would have implemented the DH, with only the original reason of avoid pitcher at-bats kept in mind, is as follows:

    No player can be the starting DH for a team for more than [a certain number of] consecutive games. Each starting DH must make at least one plate appearance in a game. The same substitution rule that's in effect now is also in effect (if the DH enters the game defensively, the pitcher must bat in the spot of the vacated defensive player), with one exception. If the team carries only two catchers on its roster, and one of them is the DH, he may come into the game if the other catcher needs to leave the game due to a readily-apparent injury or illness (not due to ejection or game strategy). (Details on what constitutes "readily-apparent" can be worked out.) The DH making the substitution must still be the active DH in the game at the time of the substitution. He will continue to bat in his original position, while the new DH will take the starting catcher's spot. As with other double switches, the new DH must be designated at the time the catcher switch takes place, even if he is not due to bat for a while. (If the starting catcher is injured during an at-bat or while running the bases, the pinch hitter or pinch runner replacing him at that time may temporarily be named the new DH, but if this spot comes up again during the game, a different player may come off the bench to be the DH.)

    Once the starting DH has made a plate appearance, a different player may substitute for the starting DH. The starting DH is not allowed to return to the game, even if he is one of only two catchers on the roster and the other catcher becomes injured or ill as described above.

    An exception to the consecutive games as starting DH rule:

    A player coming off a stint on the DL, regardless of whether or not there were minor league rehabilitation games, may appear in up to 10 [or a different number of] additional consecutive games as the starting DH. If a player ended the previous season on the DL or had an off-season surgery, injury, or illness that, had it occurred during the regular season, likely would have required the player to spend time on the DL, these extra 10 [or other number] additional consecutive games may come at the beginning of the season.

    The purpose of the above rules, which I have carried around in my head for years but never wrote down before, is to keep the DH from being a permanent position for any one player. But I have come to realize over the years that the second objective of letting some guys stick around for a longer period of time or to provide a roster spot for a younger player who can hit but has never been good defensively anywhere (as I believe was the case with Jack Cust) is a more valid one than my idea was.

    I think the minor leagues rotate the DH more than the majors. An exception may be in AAA, where an older player trying to work his way back to the majors may serve as a full-time DH.

    I don't know what you are planning for your promising new series on "What if?", but two possible ideas I have are:

    What if the National League had also adopted the DH in 1973 (or some other year since then)?

    and

    What if the DH had never been adopted at all?

  15. Rico Petrocelli Says:

    Guys,

    How about this for a good next poll -- "Is Adam Dunn a Hall-of-Famer"?
    It is not a joke. I read a Fangraphs post that makes the case that Adam Dunn may end up in Cooperstown if he can stay healthy.

    Adam Dunn is only 149 home runs away from 500, and he’s averaged 35 HR per 600 PA in his career so far. Barring injury or a very early collapse of his skills, 600 homers seems possible.

    Since ’04, Dunn has been one of the top 20 in batting WAR 5 times. Only 3 others can make the same claim: Pujols, Holliday, Miguel Cabrera. Not ARod. Not Manny. Not Teixiera or Berkman or Ortiz or Howard. Only Dunn, Pujols, Holliday, and Cabrera.

    Worth a debate?

  16. I think it is also interesting that the average age of all players has increased by one year over this time... any thoughts on that? Longetivity, or players being bought up at older ages?

  17. @14
    Double, you would get my vote for membership on the ML rules committee! Your detailed suggestion makes way too much sense to ever be adopted. {disses Bud Lite}

    Seriously, wasn't the whole institution of the DH a reaction to the pitcher domination of the late sixties? It was an attempt to increase the fan appeal of the sport by injecting more offense into the AL game.

    Rotating the DH between players or preventing it from becoming a full-time position would have run counter to the intent of MLB at the time, I think?

    One could make the argument that, since 1973, very few AL teams have maximized the potential of the position. It has been used for a variety of things, to give players with aching knees a day off in the field, to ease an injured player back in to the lineup etc.

  18. @15, Rico Petrocelli -- A poll on Adam Dunn and the HOF could make for an interesting poll, but maybe in another three years if he maintains his production and is closing in on 500. Right now he's "only" at 351, so the answer would be easy. He's not a HOFer. The poll's become more interesting when the player is more borderline. He's not there yet.

  19. I would guess the general decrease in the age of DHs could mean teams are simply rotating more of their regular players into the slot to rest them. The key question is who are getting the ABs when the regular is DHing. If it's a sub-replacement level player, then that's hurting the team. Are there charts showing the average production of a team's DH over the years? Is it going up, down, staying the same?

    As for Jesus Montero and the Yankees, I could see a situation where they catch him 50 games, have him play first 20 games, and then DH another 70 or so games. That will leave at least half of the DH games open for another hitter, or for regular the Yankees want to rest and rotation inot the DH slot. Even if he only serves as a part-time catcher, by the time Texeira leaves the Yankees, Montero will still be all of about 26. He could take over first at that time.