Technically, we’ve finished our top-ten rankings at each MLB position, but still, there is one position that has yet to be addressed- designated hitter. Obviously, there’s no need top do a full top-ten designated hitter list, since there are only 15 in total. Yet, since there are still talented hitters at the position that deserve recognition, let’s take a look at the top five designated hitters. In a way, this was the easiest list to make, since fielding isn’t factored in here, but nevertheless, there are some super dangerous offensive threats on this list. So, without further adieu, let’s break down the top five designated hitters in the MLB!
Stats Used (Via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant):
wrc+= Weighted Runs Created Plus; 100 is league-average (Ex: A player with a 111 wrc+ is 11% better than league average offensively, while a player with a 93 wrc+ is 7% worse)
xwOBA= Expected Weighted On Base Average
xSLG= Expected Slugging Percentage
ISO= Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average)
BABIP= Batting Average on Balls In Play
Before we get to the top five, here are some of the players that just missed the cut:
- Giancarlo Stanton (NYY) missed almost all of 2019 due to injury, is currently injured, and posted a disappointing .344 xwOBA in his last healthy season in 2018.
- Jose Martinez (TB) and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (TB) will pair together to form a nice duo at designated hitter, but neither are more than platoon players.
- Shin-Soo Choo (TEX) intrigues me with his ability to draw walks and hit the ball extremely hard, but his struggles against lefties hurt his overall value.
- I wanted to find a way to put Khris Davis (OAK) on this list, as I believe a lot his struggles last year were due to injury, but there are too many talented hitters on the actual list.
- The White Sox are hoping for one more strong season from Edwin Encarnacion, and he’ll probably provide them with a 120 wrc+ type of season. However, that’s not on the level of the top five designated hitters in the sport.
#5: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
2019 Rank: 4
2018 Stats (114 Games): .285/.361/.564 151 wrc+ 2.8 fWAR
2019 Stats (106 Games): .286/.343/.505 123 wrc+ 1.8 fWAR
2020 Projected Stats: .281/.347/.525 128 wrc+ 2.4 fWAR
2020 will be a critical season for Shohei Ohtani, as he’ll return to the mound after being strictly a designated hitter in 2019, so there’s less pressure on him to provide value with bat. How he fares as a starter long-term remains to be seen, but at the very least, he’s proven to be a terrific offensive producer. Though his numbers declined in 2019, he was tremendous in June and July; he had to shake off the rust in May, while he dealt with a knee injury that hurt him in the second half. Plus, he’s not a platoon player, as he posted a very respectable 112 wrc+ versus southpaws, and kept hitting the ball hard at a significantly high rate (47.1% hard-hit). Yet, Ohtani still needs to work on his plate discipline (32.8%), as doing so would allow him to maximize on his power, especially if he gets his launch angle (6.8 degrees 2019 vs. 12.3 degrees 2018) back on track. It remains to be seen if the 25-year-old can actually make the improvements necessary to get back to his 2018 form, but assuming his numbers were affected by his injury, he’s a well-above average hitter regardless. I’m super excited to see what he brings to the table as a pitcher this season, though undoubtedly, his offense in the middle of the order will also be key for the Angels this season and beyond.
#4: Jorge Soler, Kansas City Royals
2019 Rank: N/A
2018 Stats (61 Games): .265/.354/.466 123 wrc+ 0.9 fWAR
2019 Stats (162 Games): .265/.354/.569 136 wrc+ 3.6 fWAR
2020 Projected Stats: .276/.365/.547 137 wrc+ 3.2 fWAR
Ever since he was signed to a nine year, $30 million contract out of Cuba by the Cubs, the baseball world has been waiting for Jorge Soler to become a superstar, as his raw power is off the charts. He’s dealt with a lot injuries, but finally in 2019, he was able to play a full season, and simply put, he dominated. The 28-year-old completely maintained his on-base numbers from 2018, but his increase in power was outstanding. Not only did he lead the American League with 48 home runs, but his .593 xSLG and .392 xwOBA were actually better than his surface-level numbers, so perhaps there’s even more he’s capable of. That’s particularly true when examining his production in the second half, as he posted a 173 wrc+ in that span, and improved on both his walk and strikeout rates. That last part is notable to me, because if Soler can make more contact and be more selective, he’ll be able to make the most of his outstanding 96th percentile hard-hit rate (49.9%), which is a scary though for opposing pitchers. I’m super bullish on Soler’s potential, as he’s emerged as the star he was supposed to be. If you’re watching a Royals game in 2020, he’s probably the reason why- who isn’t enamored with his gargantuan power?
#3: JD Martinez, Boston Red Sox
2019 Rank: 1
2018 Stats (150 Games): .330/.402/.629 170 wrc+ 5.9 fWAR
2019 Stats (146 Games): .304/.383/.557 139 wrc+ 3.2 fWAR
2020 Projected Stats: .311/.390/.592 155 wrc+ 4.5 fWAR
When he signed a five-year, $125 million contract with the Red Sox, JD Martinez was expected to be the finishing piece to a World Series for Boston, and to his credit, that’s exactly what happened. However, a lot can change in a year, and after a down season for him and the entire team, the 32-year-old will be the lead dog in a lineup that no longer has Mookie Betts at the top of it. Now, Martinez’s numbers, which included a .400 xwOBA, .579 xSLG, 139 wrc+, and 46.7% hard-hit rate, were still fantastic. Yet, 2019 marked his worst offensive season since 2015, and given his age, that’s slightly alarming. It’s too early to tell if this is the beginning of an offensive decline for Martinez, but something that tends to decrease with age is the ability to hit the ball hard, and when he’s not an elite hitter, he’s not a valuable player. I’m predicting a mini-bounce back season for the Red Sox slugger in 2020, but if he were to continue to see his numbers regress, I wouldn’t be surprised. As a result, he falls out of the top two in favor of a younger slugger, as well as a 39-year-old who continues to get better with age.
#2: Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros
2019 Rank: N/A
2018 Stats: N/A
2019 Stats (87 Games): .313/.412/.655 178 wrc+ 3.8 fWAR
2020 Projected Stats: .294/.393/.613 169 wrc+ 4.9 fWAR
Between Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Correa, it’s safe to say that the Astros were already pretty loaded with star talent. Yet, the rich kept getting richer in 2019, as halfway through the season, they were able to add Yordan Alvarez to the mix. After hitting 23 home runs in just 253 plate appearances in Triple-A, it was clear that the 22-year-old was a dangerous slugger, but no one could’ve anticipated him having the success he did. His 178 wrc+, .410 xwOBA, and .602 xSLG were all simply foolish numbers, and there’s no reason to think he can’t sustain that level of success. He certainly has a knack for hard contact (92.2 MPH exit velocity and .520 xwOBA on balls in play), but to his credit, he’s also proven that he’ll take his walks (14.1%), so overall, he’s an all-around incredible hitter. This is not a hitter you’ll want to throw fastballs (22.7 runs above average) to, but honestly, is there a way to get him out? That’ll be the difficult question that pitchers will try to answer in his second season, but most likely, they’ll have to keep searching for that answer- the 2019 Rookie of the Year is a prime candidate to hit 50 home runs this season.
#1: Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins
2019 Rank: 2
2018 Stats (144 Games): .256/.342/.509 133 wrc+ 2.5 fWAR
2019 Stats (120 Games): .311/.392/.639 163 wrc+ 4.3 fWAR
2020 Projected Stats: .299/.380/.613 160 wrc+ 5.2 fWAR
At just 22-years-old, Alvarez is clearly destined to be the league’s designated hitter for years to come. However, for at least one more season, he’s unseated by the older guard- 39-year-old Nelson Cruz remains the best designated hitter in the MLB. After suffering slight regression in 2018, there was reason to be concerned for Cruz, who seemed to be coming to the end of his career. However, the Twins believed in him enough to sign him to a one-year deal, and the fact that they exercised his 2020 club option and are discussing an extension with him should tell you all you need to know about his 2019 season. Though he was limited to just 120 games, Cruz was fantastic in any way, as his 19.9% barrel rate, 51.5% hard-hit rate, and .644 xSLG all ranked within the top 1% of the league. Plus, although his strikeout rate increased, his swinging strike rate didn’t, and there’s nothing to suggest that his production was a fluke by any means. He may turn 40-years-old in July, but it’s clear that Cruz is still one of the game’s elite hitters, and although he hasn’t ever won a World Series, perhaps he can be the leader of one in 2020; the Twins lineup is bound to break records for a second straight season, and he’s a huge reason why.