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After Six Years in the AL, The Astros Are Still Learning How to Use the Designated Hitter

It’s been six years since they joined the AL, and the Astros still have not been able to get production from the designated hitter the way their AL competitors have, until now.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Shouldn’t He Be Really Good At Hitting?

A couple years ago, sitting thirty rows deep along the first base side at Minute Maid Park, my wife looked at the video scoreboard as Carlos Beltran stepped to the plate.

“What does DH stand for again?” she asked.

“Designated hitter,” I answered. Beltran took ball one from Toronto pitcher Marcus Stroman. “So the pitcher doesn’t have to bat.”

“So all he does is hit?” she followed up. Beltran softly grounded the next pitch back to Stroman, who threw to first for the out. “Well, he’s not very good at it.”

“He can’t get a hit every time. But yeah, he’s not having the best year. It’s okay.”

“If all he’s there for is to hit, and he’s not going to play defense, shouldn’t he be really good at hitting? I mean, it’s not like he’s doing anything else.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but this statement was far too logical. Especially for a game whose objective is to hit a ball with a stick and run around in a circle. (Don’t tell me it’s not a circle. George Springer doesn’t round third to diamond the bases.)

So I said the only thing I could. “I’m going to get a beer.” *

MLB: ALDS-Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros
Chris Carter saw the most time at designated hitter during the Astros’ first two years in the AL.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Stranger in a Strange League

After fifty-one seasons in the National League, the Houston Astros made the move to the American League in 2013, a condition placed on new owner Jim Crane by the commissioner of baseball for the purchase of the team, in order to balance out the two leagues. As an AL team, fans would no longer be subjected (or treated, depending on your perspective) to watching pitchers try to hit. Lineups would now feature the designated hitter.

By 2017, within their first five seasons of joining their new league, the Astros had won the AL pennant and the World Series. Having reached the pinnacle of success, it would seem they had adapted well and fairly quickly to the AL rule set.

Except they didn’t. The Astros made 3 AL postseason appearances and won an AL pennant, all while making poor use of the designated hitter.

The first year was understandable. The Astros had only been given one season’s notice that they would be an AL team in 2013. As a result, the 2013 team did not have a clear-cut designated hitter. The role rotated amongst many different players on the roster fairly evenly. Chris Carter led the way as DH in just over 30% of the DH-eligible games. The following five years, the Astros made more of a commitment to appoint a designated hitter for the season. Each season, one player started at least 70% of the DH-eligible games, except 2016, where Evan Gattis still acted as DH in 47% of the matches.

Houston Astros DH: The First 6 Years

Year Games with DH BA OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Player with Most DH Starts % of DH starts by Leading Player
Year Games with DH BA OBP SLG OPS wRC+ Player with Most DH Starts % of DH starts by Leading Player
2013 152 0.198 0.276 0.337 0.613 70 Carter 31%
2014 152 0.243 0.315 0.494 0.809 131 Carter 77%
2015 152 0.247 0.294 0.46 0.753 105 Gattis 89%
2016 152 0.218 0.299 0.378 0.677 87 Gattis 47%
2017 152 0.224 0.283 0.382 0.665 79 Beltran 70%
2018 152 0.24 0.299 0.451 0.75 104 Gattis 70%

The Astros’ designated hitter spot’s production in these first six years left some room for improvement, to put it kindly.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros workout
Carlos Beltran brought many things to the 2017 Astros, but not his glove. And arguably, not his bat either.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

152 Interleague Games a Year

Maybe you’ll excuse 2013. There was no clear player on the roster who was the designated hitter. It was their inaugural season in the AL. But it hasn’t gotten much better in the five years since then, apart from 2014, which featured a productive 37 home run year from Chris Carter.

In these first six years in the AL , the Astros’ designated hitter spot averaged a wRC+ of 96. If 100 is the wRC+ of the average major leaguer, this is, by definition, below-average. If you exclude 2014, that wRC+ average drops to 90.8, which falls even short of the 93.6 wRC+ posted by designated hitters of NL teams during interleague play during that time period (2013, 2015-18).

Critics of interleague play often point to the disadvantage NL teams have when playing at AL parks. They are asked to play games with a designated hitter using a roster that is not designed for play with a designated hitter. As a result, the NL’s DH productivity in interleague games (90 wRC+ from 2013-2018) falls well short of the AL’s DH productivity during interleague games (110 wRC+ from 2013-2018). The Astros’ DH productivity falls more in line with the former. This means that for six years, the Astros have essentially been playing like a NL team with 152 interleague games a year, rather than like an AL team.

You might look at 2015 and 2018, where the DH spot posted a 105 and a 104 wRC+ respectively, as bright spots outside of the 2014 Chris Carter year. But to borrow a line from AT&T, “Just OK is not OK.” If you are not doing anything else in the game but hitting, then yes, you should be really good at hitting. Since the DH does not play defense, he is an offensive specialist. Nothing about these numbers suggest that Astros DH’s are specializing in offense.

The only thing the DH does is hit, and the Astros have been doing it at a below average to average clip since joining the AL.

It is not even an adequate standard to compare DH production to the production of an average major leaguer. Instead, Astros DH production ought to be compared to DH production of other AL teams, who have worked with the DH rule for far longer. They are an AL team now, and should produce with the DH the way AL teams do.

Astros DH production relative to the rest of the AL

Year Astros DH wRC+ Astros DH wRC+ AL Rank Astros DH sOPS+
Year Astros DH wRC+ Astros DH wRC+ AL Rank Astros DH sOPS+
2013 70 14th 70
2014 131 3rd 117
2015 105 9th 95
2016 87 14th 76
2017 79 13th 80
2018 104 9th 92

The Astros have not been extracting value from the position the way their AL competitors are. Outside of the 2014 Chris Carter year, the Astros have ranked well within the bottom half of the league for DH production. This bears out when look at Astros DH sOPS+, the split OPS+ for the DH position relative to the major league split OPS+ for the DH position. Excepting 2014, these all come out below 100 as well.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros
Tony Kemp has started 4 games at DH this season for the Astros, in the unconventional 9-hole.
John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Designated Hitter

Carlos Beltran retired after 2017. Evan Gattis is an unsigned free agent this year. Chris Carter is in the Mexican League. One of the many questions coming into 2019 was “Who would be the Astros’ DH in 2019?” The presumption was that Tyler White had the job, already having wrestled some control of it from Gattis in the second half of 2018.

The Astros have had a clear DH every year but their first in the AL. As of this writing, most of the other AL teams have one this year as well, with 11 of the 15 teams with one player who has been given at least 50% of the DH starts.

The Astros are not one of those teams. The Astros have already tried it that way. A single primary DH has not worked for them. While Tyler White started at DH for the season opener, no one player has collected the majority of the team’s 13 DH starts this season. White has 5, Tony Kemp 4, Springer 2, Jose Altuve 1, and Michael Brantley 1. The DH has been used in seven of the nine lineup positions.

While White and Kemp have been seeing the lion’s share of DH starts, there is no single clear DH. The DH has been used to rotate in their bench players and to provide a “semi-rest” to star players, whose conditioning for October always remains in the back of the organization’s mind.

It is still early, with only 52 plate appearances thus far in the season spread across 5 players, but the DH has never been more productive, slashing .298/.365/.489 with an OPS of .855 and wRC+ of 142, good for 4th in the AL. Their DH sOPS+ thus far this year sits at a respectable 112.

This is without Beltran. This is without Gattis. This is without Nelson Cruz, a free agent designated hitter the Astros were rumored to have had interest in this past offseason. Having a dedicated designated hitter whom the team is not comfortable playing in the field limits defensive and positional flexibility. This is at a premium with a limited bench, particularly with the loss of Marwin Gonzalez, now with the Minnesota Twins, who could play 6 of the 8 fielding positions. (The future increase in roster size to 26 players may alleviate this somewhat.)

So for now, the 2019 Astros have elected not to designate a designated hitter, and the result has been that the designated hitter has started hitting.

* As always, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Beltran’s 2017 stats don’t reflect the impact he had on the clubhouse and his teammates’ performance, who credit him with changing the culture of the team, leading to a World Series. Even stories don’t always tell the whole story. The Toronto game at the beginning of the article? Beltran went on to hit 3 for 5, and the score game tying run in the 9th, in what would be a walk-off win for the Astros.