Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

For Rays, designated hitters generally have been misses

PORT CHARLOTTE

The problem, when you get right down to it, is that the position is so poorly named. For the Rays, it has always been more about designation than it has been about hitting.

Around here, a better name for the spot might have been "a guy who has a bat and nothing better to do than try to hit something with it."

And so, we move to the committee approach to the designated hitter position of the Tampa Bay Rays. Tonight, it might be Matt Joyce. Tomorrow, it might be David DeJesus. The day after, it might be Sean Rodriguez.

Followed, it turns out, by a cast of thousands.

After years of swinging and missing, it seems the Rays have changed their approach when it comes to their DH. No longer will they try to pick up a vagabond bat and stick it willy nilly into the middle of their batting order. No more will they trot out a Luke Scott (horrors!) or a Pat Burrell (egad!) to try to infuse a little more muscle.

This year, the Rays will take their chances with an extra outfielder, or with a spare infielder, or with a guy who might otherwise have the night off.

This year, today's lineup might have a different designated hitter than yesterday's.

When you think about the Rays' historic lack of production, who can blame them?

Forever, the designated hitter has been the most under-productive part of the Rays lineup, a collection of disappointments that has spanned the years.

There was Jonny Gomes, who had more at-bats at designated hitter than anyone in the history of the Rays. He hit .219 as a DH.

There was Burrell, who cost the team $16 million over two seasons. He hit .218.

There was Paul Sorrento, the team's very first designated hitter. He hit .217.

And on it has gone. Scott, the primary DH for the past couple of years, hit .231. Greg Vaughn, the DH during the Hit Show, hit .194. Hideki Matsui wound up his career by hitting .093.

As a group, the Rays have sent 120 designated hitters to the plate in their history, and they've managed only a .244 batting average. In 2,445 games, the Rays' DHs have struck out a staggering 2,231 times.

So ask yourself: Why would the Rays find another corner outfielder who was too slow to play the field anymore and give him a lot of money?

"I like the way we're doing it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If you have the one killer DH, you want that guy. But otherwise, this is a better way to go.

"Who are the killer DHs anymore? There aren't that many out there. That animal just doesn't play a lot anymore. It's not part of our game, that one guy who knows how to sit around for an hour and then go up there and hit a bomb."

Oh, there are a few. Boston's David Ortiz has been the named the best designated hitter in the league seven times now, and he remains what most teams are searching for when they fill the position. But Ortiz will make $15 million this year. Kendrys Morales, still a free agent, recently turned down a $14 million offer from Seattle.

Or, if you want to consider the cost of the position, think about this: The Rays paid $23.5 million for Burrell (146 games) and Scott (187) over the past four seasons.

It was in the middle of last year, said Rays vice president Andrew Friedman, when the Rays started talking about going to a rotating designated hitter. They still kept their eyes open in the offseason, but nothing broke to make the team change its mind.

"Instead of continuing to hit our heads against the wall, we decided we'd be better served rotating and keeping guys fresh," Friedman said. "For us, an added factor in that we play 90 regular-season games on turf. That takes quite a toll on our guys' bodies."

Oh, it isn't an easy position. A lot of players don't want anything to do with designated hitting. It can drive a guy crazy waiting as long as an hour between at-bats.

"That's why I try not to do it too often," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "I really don't know what I'm doing. I try to prepare the same way I would for a game normally. But I'd rather be in the field. I'm not nearly as comfortable as I am in the field."

Most players, particularly young players, will say the same. For instance, Matt Joyce has never done particularly well as a DH (a .161 average).

The idea here is that if a player, say Joyce, plays some as a DH, he can still play often enough in the outfield to stay sharp. And when it is time to give Longoria some time off of his feet, or James Loney, that can be done, too.

"I like the idea of having a pseudo day off and still getting four at-bats out of our guys," hitting coach Derek Shelton said.

Will it work with his players? Will they become more comfortable in the role if it's scattered about? Maybe.

Maybe he won't be as clearly designated.

But who knows? Maybe he'll turn out to be a better hitter.

     
     
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