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Focused From the Start: Yordan Alvarez Begins His MLB Career at Designated Hitter

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With a crowded and productive Houston Astros outfield, Yordan Alvarez made his major league debut as the designated hitter. Spending a rookie season at DH is uncommon, but not without precedent. We examine the concept and history of major league rookie seasons at designated hitter.

Baltimore Orioles v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Arrival of Yordan Alvarez’ Bat

Yesterday, Yordan Alvarez, the No. 3 rated prospect in the Houston Astros organization, made his major league debut. He drilled a 413 foot 2-run home run to left-center in his second at-bat.

Alvarez has been crushing the ball all year for the Astros’ AAA affiliate, the Round Rock Express. In 56 games, he batted .343 with 23 HR, 71 RBI and an incredible 1.184 OPS. He had become so dominant that a team intentionally walked him three times in a game, rather than offer him a chance to swing his bat.

With all the injuries the Houston Astros have suffered, the question on many fans’ minds has been “What took so long?”

The unspoken reason involves “Super 2” status. By waiting until this point in the season, the Astros stand to save millions of dollars. Waiting ensures Alvarez sees only three years of salary arbitration, rather than four.

The publicly stated reason is that Yordan Alvarez’ defense was not major-league ready. “Left field is what I would like to see the most progress in,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle a few weeks ago, “He’s really working hard on his routes, on his throws and putting himself in the right position. . . there is a methodical plan that we’re going through to make sure that when he gets here, we have him contribute, and don’t find out a month later that he wasn’t ready or isn’t able to play left field.”

The Astros also gave Alvarez playing time at first base in Round Rock, the only fielding position further left on the defensive spectrum than left field. Four weeks ago, on May 14, Luhnow was on hand to watch. Since then, he has had just one more start at first base, on May 20. He made two errors that game, and they stopped playing him at first base.

On June 9, he was called up to the majors. Naturally, this must have meant Alvarez’ left field defense was major-league ready.

Not quite. Yordan Alvarez’ first major league start came at designated hitter.

Too Young to DH

Beginning a player’s career at designated hitter is not something Astros manager A.J. Hinch encourages. The Astros faced a similar situation with Golden Spikes winning first base prospect A.J. Reed. Reed could capably hit in the minors, but was subpar defensively.

In 2017, Reed was 23 years old. Hinch expressed concern that Reed was all bat and no glove. “I do believe he’s much too young, and rosters are built with so much versatility nowadays that you have to be able to do something else [than just hit],” Hinch told MLB.com’s Brian MacTaggart. “His mobility at first base is going to be important, the work at first base. . . He’s got to keep that as a priority, because it’s very, very difficult to be one-dimensional unless you are David Ortiz.”

Alvarez, 21, is a year and a half younger than Reed was when Hinch made those comments. So, what is different? Why is it okay for Alvarez to begin his career at designated hitter, but not Reed?

For one thing, Reed never raked the way Alvarez has this year. If legendary Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz a is Hinch’s exception to the rule, it is not an exaggeration to say that Alvarez’ domination of Pacific Coast League pitching has been “Ortiz-like”.

For another thing, A.J. Reed did start his major league career with a start at designated hitter. In his 2016 rookie season, he mixed starts at DH (8 games) with starts in the field (27 games at first base).

Alvarez will see a mix as well. Like Reed, Hinch still considers him too young to DH exclusively. As it stands, Yordan Alvarez is already the youngest player to serve as a DH in franchise history. Prior to his major league debut, when asked how much time Alvarez would see away from DH, Hinch responded, “I don’t know. I just want him to get through his first day. We’ll see how the playing time maps out. I want him to get a little bit of a feel for Minute Maid [Park] before we put him out there, but he’s going to have to play left field. He’s not going to be the DH only. He’s way too young for that, and we need to move our roster around a little bit.”

A hitter of Yordan Alvarez’ caliber is going to need to find at-bats somewhere. The Houston Astros have a crowded and productive outfield. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick have all made convincing arguments to be sent to the All-Star Game. Jake Marisnick’s outfield defense ranks amongst the best in baseball. Tony Kemp, and fellow recent call-ups Derek Fisher and Myles Straw have also been productive recently.

Tyler White, on the other hand, has logged the most games of anyone on the roster at the designated hitter position. He is struggling with a 67 OPS+ on the season, and is a prime target for Alvarez to siphon at-bats from. Although Alvarez may not DH exclusively, he may continue to see a large share of his at-bats at DH.

The Uncommon Rookie Season at Designated Hitter

If Yordan Alvarez does end up spending the majority of his rookie year at designated hitter, he will be one of a small group of players in baseball history to ever do so.

Even David Ortiz did not begin his career as designated hitter. He played a healthy amount of first base initially before settling in at DH. Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez played for several seasons at third base before becoming the gold standard for designated hitters. The designated hitter position is typically where a player finishes, not starts, their career.

Since the introduction of the designated hitter rule to the AL in 1973, a total of 22 players have had a rookie season with at least 250 plate appearances, where over half of the games they started were at designated hitter. One is Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim) two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, who constitutes a special case. Eight more are players who had short-lived major-league careers with less than 1000 career at-bats b.

These are the remaining thirteen players over the 47 years:

Rookie Seasons with > 50% Games Started at DH

Player Year Age Team Lg G PA AB BA OPS % GS as DH (Rookie) % GS as DH (Career) Career AB
Player Year Age Team Lg G PA AB BA OPS % GS as DH (Rookie) % GS as DH (Career) Career AB
Eddie Murray 1977 21 BAL AL 160 666 611 0.283 0.803 71% 19% 11336
Randy Bush 1983 24 MIN AL 124 415 373 0.249 0.741 97% 41% 3045
Larry Sheets 1985 25 BAL AL 113 361 328 0.262 0.765 92% 51% 2284
Gene Larkin 1987 24 MIN AL 85 262 233 0.266 0.722 68% 34% 2321
Fred McGriff 1987 23 TOR AL 107 356 295 0.247 0.881 86% 7% 8757
John Olerud 1990 21 TOR AL 111 421 358 0.265 0.794 85% 6% 7592
Bob Hamelin 1994 26 KCR AL 101 375 312 0.282 0.987 74% 72% 1272
Jeremy Giambi 1999 24 KCR AL 90 336 288 0.285 0.741 62% 42% 1417
Josh Phelps 2002 24 TOR AL 74 287 265 0.309 0.925 99% 81% 1394
Travis Hafner 2003 26 CLE AL 91 324 291 0.254 0.812 51% 94% 4058
Billy Butler 2007 21 KCR AL 92 360 329 0.292 0.794 81% 69% 5105
C.J. Cron* 2014 24 LAA AL 79 253 242 0.256 0.739 53% 30% 2075
Miguel Sano* 2015 22 MIN AL 80 335 279 0.269 0.916 88% 35% 1466
Rookie seasons in MLB History with greater than 50% of games started at Designated Hitter. Minimum 250 PA in rookie year. Minimum 1000 AB career. * denotes active.

It is uncommon to spend a rookie year primarily at DH, but it is not exactly a kiss of death. This is not a bad list. Eddie Murray and Bob Hamelin won Rookie of the Year. Miguel Sano, John Olerud and Josh Phelps placed 3rd, 4th and 6th respectively in Rookie of the Year voting. Murray was a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Fred McGriff probably should have been inducted to the Hall as well, if not for a 1994 players’ strike that left him seven home runs shy of the magical 500 home run mark. Billy Butler would go on to be an All-Star. C.J. Cron has a good shot to make his first All-Star Game this year. Travis Hafner finished his major league career with a more than respectable 134 OPS+. These are good hitters.

Spending your rookie season at DH also does not pigeonhole a player there for the remainder of his career. Of these thirteen players, only five had a career that saw them continue to spend greater than half their starts at DH. For Olerud and McGriff, the majority of their DH starts in their 17 and 19 year careers came during their rookie season. Olerud would even go on to win three Gold Gloves.

Why Not DH as a Rookie?

Nonetheless, the rookie designated hitter season is still rare. There are a lot of reasons to avoid it. In addition to the decrease in roster flexibility mentioned by Hinch earlier, there is the DH penalty to consider. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball found that designated hitters suffer an approximately a 5% penalty in productivity, as opposed to if they were playing in the field. This amounts to about 17 points of wOBA. (For comparison, this is about half the 10%, 34 wOBA penalty pinch hitters experience.)

Many veteran players have difficulty adjusting to DH’ing after years of playing in the field. They find it hard sitting in the dugout, with nothing to think about but their last and next at-bats. Hanley Ramirez and J.D. Martinez both turned to the retired Ortiz for advice on DH’ing. “Some days you’re going to go crazy,” Ortiz told them, “Because all you can do is hit, and when things aren’t going good, what can you do?” For a rookie in a slump, the psychological impact could be even greater. The fielding rookie who is not hitting can at least take solace in the fact they are helping their team on the defensive side of the ball.

But if Yordan Alvarez has been blessed with a silver bat, but an iron glove, as numerous scouting reports suggest, then perhaps the best way he can help the defense is to not be a part of it. This will rightfully further increase expectations at the plate. As I quoted my wife in a previous piece on designated hitters, “If all he’s there for is to hit. . ., shouldn’t he be really good at hitting?”

With each designated hitter start of his rookie season, the Houston Astros are betting Yordan Alvarez is.

a This article was written before the news broke that David Ortiz had been shot in a burglary attempt in the Dominican Republic.

b The other eight players whose rookie seasons were primarily at designated hitter, but whose careers lasted less than 1000 at-bats are: Randy Johnson, Joey Butler, Joey Meyer, Juan Bernhardt, Joe Vitiello, Troy Neel, Jesus Montero and Matt Davidson.