It’s a good time to be a designated hitter. David Ortiz just ended his farewell tour, Matt Holiday and Mitch Moreland have both signed deals to serve as designated hitters in the American League East, and the debate about the National League potentially adding the DH in coming years continues every day
But, the job of a designated hitter isn’t as easy as it may seem, especially if you’re not a good fit for the position. In fact, some of the worst designated hitters in baseball history have called it quits in recent years – and we’re not talking about Alex Rodriguez.
From those in the steroid era to those whose careers started during times of war, who are the worst designated hitters we’ve ever seen come to the plate?
I want to put a mini-disclaimer here that says National League players like Barry Bonds or Todd Helton who only served as designated hitters for interleague play or an event like the All-Star Game don’t count here. This list is meant for players who either were moved to being full-time desgnated hitters due to age, injuries, spots opening up, or the club wanting to test something out. All the stats you’ll see on this list are the players’ hitting numbers as DHs.
15. Jose Canseco
Splits: .265/.355/.510 with 153 doubles, 208 home runs, 641 runs batted in, and a 905-431 K-BB ratio.
Let me preface this by saying one thing: even with all of the people pissed off and even with him admitting to PED use, Jose Canseco remains one of the funniest and colorful baseball icons we’ve seen in a long time. When it came to the designated hitter position, Jose Canseco was among the best hitters on this list, hitting 208 of his career 462 long bombs there and had an .866 OPS, so what’s the problem?
The truth is, it’d be wrong to do a list like this without at least pointing at one of the steroid users and Canseco managed to be the one. Really, Canseco was the type of guy you wanted as a designated hitter – he could mash, he got on base, and he scared the guts out of whatever pitcher was facing him – but Canseco also really ushered in the steroid era of baseball and only hung around because of the drugs. Oh, and don’t forget about all of those strikeouts!
14. Hideki Matsui
Splits: .266/.345 /.444 in 493 games with 88 doubles, 76 home runs, 302 RBI, and a 307-218 K-BB ratio.
This one may take some people by surprise because on paper, Matsui was far from an awful designated hitter. In fact, Matsui’s 2.7 WAR during the 2009 season was his second-best after his full-time move to DH during the 2007 season (when he had a 4.1 WAR, but that was with him playing left field as well). The 2009 season , of course, was the year in which Matsui won his only World Series ring and was named the Fall Classic’s Most Valuable Player.
What lands ‘Godzilla’ on this list is that after he became a full-time DH at the age of 33, he never really stood out as that type of ideal hitter we’d come to expect from him – and the type of hitter that would flourish in that role. For some reason, Matsui began to swing for the fences more, striking out 80+ times twice after the move. Granted, a huge part of this was due to nagging knee injuries that sapped the Japanese icon’s power away, but for Matsui to only have one season with a WAR over 2.0 after 2007 when he had four in his first five seasons (and would have easily hit 2.0 in 2006 if not for a wrist injury that cost him the majority of the season), he gets a spot on this list.
13. Nick Johnson
Splits: .240/.386/.414 in 130 games with 16 home runs, 63 RBI, and an 117-83 K-BB ratio.
What I find so interesting about Nick Johnson is that he was the type of player we would tend to associate with playing the DH position – he was big, bulky, had a great on-base percentage – but not only did he play only 130 career games as a designated hitter, but he was average in the process. Now, that does come with a caveat that Johnson essentially became a full-time DH after some major injuries in Washington (and him signing with the New York Yankees during Mark Teixeira’s prime, meaning first base was blocked off), but who would have expected the former top prospect to be so inefficient as a DH?
Guys like Nick Johnson, who had a career .399 on-base percentage and who didn’t have a season with more walks than strikeouts from 2006-10, are supposed to thrive at the designated hitter position. What went wrong? Was it the aftereffects of injuries to his wrist and his leg, or was it simply a case of a piece not properly fitting? Whatever it was, Nick Johnson ends up on this list – and he’s not the last player on here who didn’t fit as a DH.
12. Ken Singleton
Splits: .257/.357/.385 with 46 home runs, 229 RBI, and a 283-268 K-BB ratio in 477 games.
This must come off as some serious anti-New York bias, seeing as the first four players on this list each have ties to the Yankees (Canseco, Matsui and Johnson each played there, while Ken Singleton is a commentator on the YES Network). It’s not that there’s an intended bias here, but it’s more that bad designated hitters seem to end up having a relationship with the Yankees for some reason. Why?
Well, a better question is why Ken Singleton managed to have designated hitter-type numbers as a right fielder, but not as a DH. When he played right field for 1,303 games and 5,528 plate appearances, Singleton flat out mashed with 206 doubles, 17 triples, 176 bombs, and 725 RBIs. Where was the power when the three-time All-Star moved to DH? Singleton averaged 26 home runs a season for the Orioles from 1977-80, but once he started getting more and more time out of the field, he only averaged 13 a year.
Though, Singleton did remain a patient hitter, drawing 99 walks to 83 strikeouts in his second-to-last season. Not bad, Kenny!
11. Willie Horton
Splits: .265/.321/.407 with 100 doubles, 10 triples, 96 home runs, 410 RBI, and a 532-238 K-BB ratio in 752 games.
Horton is one of the few on this list who’s here mainly because of one bad season – and when I say bad, I mean bad. A year after playing so well as a designated hitter with a .279/.326/.458 statline for the 1979 Mariners, Horton slumped down to .221/.306/.328 at the age of 37. A performance regression due to age is fine, but the guy had 70 strikeouts through 97 games; only once in his career, which was in 1970, did he have over 100 strikeouts in less than 140 games
Another easy reason why Horton is on this list is he, like others, was too much of a free swinger at a position that really requires patience and discipline. Horton may not have had Adam Dunn or Dave Kingman-like strikeout numbers, but when you only average one walk every three games in a position that’s supposed to command fear from the opposing pitcher, then you’re not doing something right. Horton rightfully remains a fan favorite among Detroit Tigers fans and it’s unfortunate he missed out on that 1984 World Series title, but it’s hard to hang around as a DH when you can’t hit as a DH.
10. Jason Giambi
Splits: .237/.370/.454 with 97 doubles, 114 home runs, 343 RBI, and a 504-372 K-BB ratio in 595 games.
Like Canseco, Giambi has ties to performance-enhancing drugs and made a pursuit for the 500 home run club due to the drugs. Unlike Canseco, that’s not why the Giambino is on this list. While Giambi was known at the end of his career with the Rockies and Indians as primarily a pinch and designated hitter, the guy only played 595 of his career 2,260 games (so about 38 percent) as a DH – and was pretty lackluster when he wasn’t hitting home runs.
People seem to always associate Giambi, who pretty much stopped being a capable first baseman in the field around 2005, with the DH position and I’m still not sure why. During Giambi’s best years with the Yankees, the former MVP spent the majority of his time in the field; even in 2008 at the age of 37, Giambi played 113 of his 139 games at first base so why are we tying him to a position where he wasn’t really ever special?
9. Reggie Jackson
Splits: .227/.332/.407 with 79 doubles, 101 home runs, 328 RBI, and a 634-335 K-BB ratio in 630 games.
There are few in the baseball world who will defend Reginald Martinez Jackson more than myself, but even I’ll come out and say that this guy was not a good designated hitter. Like Johnson and Giambi, Jackson had the perfect body mold and play style for a DH – aside from the strikeouts, but hitters did strike out a lot during Jackson’s prime with Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Steve Carlton all toeing the mound.
When Reggie Jackson became a full-time DH towards the end of his career with the-then California Angels, it made sense to think that the future Hall of Famer would make a push for 600 home runs, right? Jackson did come close and finished with 563 in his career – and the man did average 20 home runs a year from 1983-87 – but he also only hit .227 during that five season stretch. Again, Jackson did a lot right in his career on the field and there’s a reason why so many modern players look up to him, but we have to be blunt: the 1973 American League MVP fell apart once he became a designated hitter.
8. Prince Fielder
Splits: .265/.338/.404 with 46 doubles, 30 home runs, 137 RBI, and a 173-97 K-BB ratio in 254 games.
This one is tough only because of how Prince Fielder’s career ended – and I’m not only talking about the injury that forced him to retire earlier this year. Once Fielder left Milwakuee and the National League for Detroit and the Junior Circuit after the 2011 season, everything seemed to fall apart. For the first time in his career, Fielder hit the disabled list in 2014, bounced back in 2015 to help Texas make the playoffs, and struggled again in 2016 before finally calling it quits in August.
The worst part about Fielder’s stats as a DH is that everything on there is low, low enough that if he put those numbers up in a 162 game season during his prime, they’d still be far from his career-best stats. I mean, 30 home runs? 173 strikeouts? A .338 on-base percentage? Prince deserved better than this ending, that much is for sure.
7. Hank Aaron
Splits: .235/.327/.367 with 24 doubles, 22 home runs, 88 RBI, and an 85-100 K-BB ratio in 201 games.
Hammerin’ Hank was great when he could hammer, but he was all but useless once the bat rusted. After overcoming 1970s racism and hatred to break Babe Ruth’s sacred home run record, Aaron was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers – the city where he started his major league career 20 years earlier when the Braves played in Wisconsin – and immediately was slotted in as Del Crandall’s designated hitter at the age of 41.
I’d love to say it all worked out homecoming wise – and Aaron did break the all-time RBI record with 2,297, which was also held by Ruth – but for the most part, the entire reunion was a disaster. Old and overworked, Aaron’s triple statline of .235/.327/.367 as a DH was well, well below his career norms of .305/.374/.555, leading to a retirement after the 1976 season and a career-low 85 games. Sometimes, you can go home, but what you find isn’t what you were expecting..
6. Adam Dunn
Splits: .200/.316/.401 with 51 doubles, 69 home runs, 196 RBI, and a 514-205 K-BB ratio in 316 games.
The funny part of Adam Dunn’s story is that he was the prototypical DH type until he became a DH; he had those huge muscles, the home run or nothing approach, and the insanely high strikeout ratio so when the Chicago White Sox signed him after 2010 to be their designated hitter, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Dunn could finally play in the American League and stay out of the field, where he had a career -22.2 defensive WAR before 2011 (spoilers: his defense didn’t improve in Chicago, as Dunn finished his career with a -29.6 defensive WAR).
Once he hit Chicago, ironically, he couldn’t hit. The legend of Adam Dunn’s 2011 season with the White Sox – a .159/.292/.277 statline with 11 home runs, 42 RBIs, and a 177-75 K-BB ratio in 415 at-bats across 122 games. So, why is Dunn only sixth on this list? To the man’s credit, Dunn did rebound over the next three seasons, hitting .214/.329/.443 with 97 home runs and 246 RBI in 431 games for the White Sox and Athletics. After the worst season of his career and at a time when he could have just retired, Dunn kept going and could easily still be playing if he hadn’t retired after the 2014 season. The numbers don’t lie about Dunn’s atrocious numbers as a DH, but let’s give him some praise where it’s due.
5. Dave Kingman
Splits: .236/.293/.453 with 101 home runs, 296 RBI, and a 360-133 K-BB ratio in 434 games.
Adam Dunn and Dave Kingman are essentially the same person, except Dunn managed to turn his career around at DH after things went bad. Dunn also had a solid enough on-base percentage, but Kingman? Kingman’s numbers as a designated hitter may not look bad on paper, but for the time, they were pretty abysmal.
I think what stands out the most about Kingman’s career is all of the strikeouts, and while him being 18th all time may not seem so bad, keep in mind that he was in the top 3 when he retired. When you’re a designated hitter who isn’t getting on base and is striking out a lot, you’re definitely going to end up on this list. Sorry, Sky Kong!
4. Bob Hamelin
Splits: .244/.359/.466 with 46 doubles, 46 home runs, 144 RBI, and a 359-244 K-BB ratio in 267 games.
First off, we need to talk about those glasses. Hamelin may have the second-best glasses on this list, only behind Reggie Jackson’s Coke-bottle shades. Unfortunately for Hamelin, the only thing memorable about his career other than his glasses was his inefficiency as a DH with the Royals and Brewers.
Hamelin did show some great patience at the plate, almost drawing a walk per game with 244 in 267 games. But where was the power? That .466 slugging would have only been eighth among American League designated hitters in 2016 and Hamelin was playing during the early days of the steroid era! Yikes. But, Hamelin did have a 2.7 in 1994 when he won the Rookie of the Year Award, so there’s that.
3. Greg Vaughn
Splits: .218/.325/.400 with 65 doubles, 65 home runs, 225 RBI, and a 381-230 K-BB ratio in 396 games.
Why does Greg Vaughn look so sad in that picture? The guy carved out a nice 15 year career after being the fourth overall pick in 1986, made it to four All-Star Games, and even was on the 2009 Hall of Fame Ballot – where he was quickly dropped. But still, the guy had a nice career for himself – just not as a designated hitter.
I think when people look at Vaughn’s career numbers, especially the 355 career home runs, they assume most of them came as a DH. You’d be surprised, then, to learn that only 65 of them came as a DH and the 50 home run season for the 1998 National League Champion San Diego Padres happened when Vaughn played 151 of his 158 games in left field.
Vaughn did hit two home runs as a DH in 1998, for what it’s worth. But for the most part, this was a guy who was best suited for playing left field…where he had a -6.6 Defensive WAR in his career.
2. Lee May
Splits: .243/.290/.401 with 51 doubles, 61 home runs, 230 RBI, and a 335-100 K-BB ratio in 417 games.
The easiest way to explain Lee May’s career as a designated hitter is to point to Jason Giambi’s career as a designated hitter. Both hit the majority of their home runs at first base and were average at best as a DH; both also hung around for nearly 20 year careers, serving as veteran leaders on young, playoff contending teams.
Lee May is a player who will probably end up in the Hall of Very Good with 354 career home runs, 2,031 hits, a .772 career OPS, and a 27.1 career WAR. Where did May’s success at the plate go, especially in the power department, when Baltimore and Kansas City kept trying to make him into a full-time designated hitter? Kansas City did get the memo in May’s final year, however, starting him at DH only twice compared to 28 starts at first base.
1. Jorge Orta
Splits: .261/.316/.406 with 77 doubles, 12 triples, 39 home runs, 207 RBI, and a 158-125 K-BB ratio in 447 games.
Jorge Orta is the worst designated hitter in baseball history not because of his own skills and stats, but because of the Kansas City Royals’ management. Orta was the type of player you’d hit in the top two spots – the second spot in the order is where he started the most games – and you looked to him as a table setter, one who could spark some type of rally for the hitters who were lower in the order.
Orta wasn’t a power hitter either, only hitting 130 career home runs, so what were the Royals thinking in having him be their full-time DH? The man hit 39 career home runs as a DH in 447 games! When you look at Orta’s splits as a designated hitter, those are numbers that are fine for a second baseman or a shortstop, but a DH? What was Kansas City thinking?
Who are some of the worst designated hitters that you’ve seen? Make sure to let us know in the comment section below!