Red Sox: A look back at Boston’s designated hitters legacy
The Red Sox had competent and not so competent designated hitters before David Ortiz. Here are a few that stand out – positive and negative.
The best designated hitters (DH) in Boston Red Sox history are easy to define since the obvious choice would be the ultimate alpha dog – David Ortiz. Others certainly contributed significantly to that position in the batting order. For a few, it would have been a full career except for Ortiz holding court those many seasons.
The Red Sox have been rather fortunate in the DH selection process and have enjoyed some quite productive seasons from others besides Manny Ramirez, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice. All took a turn at the position either by deterioration of positional skills or the necessity to get their bat into the lineup.
The Red Sox could withstand the fielding lapses of “Manny being Manny” as long as he hit. Mo Vaughn won an MVP with Boston, but his eight seasons registered only 170 starts at DH. Others came in who failed miserably in a short span or never registered enough starts at DH to be considered.
With Ortiz, other options existed to upgrade the defense at the only acceptable position for Big Papi – first base. Ortiz was acceptable in the field and would be stationed at first in certain inter-league contests and the World Series. Just ask Jeff Suppan about Papi’s fielding instincts.
What about the others? DH was serviced by some players who contributed either short-term or for a slightly longer time frame with mixed results. Following is a look at those in the second tier of DH talent for the Boston Red Sox. Some have a “history” in Boston and elsewhere.
Mike Easler had the nickname “Hit Man” for a reason. A left-handed hitter who could manufacture line drives that had gap written all over them. Acquired from Pittsburgh for lefty John Tudor in the 1983 off-season Easler had an exceptionally productive first year as Boston’s DH.
As a DH Easler had 544 plate appearances and slashed .330/.392/.548 with 23 home runs and 79 RBI and Easler also saw service time of 29 games at first base hitting only .239. In 1985 Easler’s DH numbers deteriorated to .259 with just 14 home runs and 63 RBI and the Hit Man was traded in the off-season to the New York Yankees for Don Baylor.
The 1984 season Easler was the top-ranked DH and posted an fWAR of 4.0 for his efforts. In 1985 the fWAR sunk to 0.5 and the Red Sox moved on to a right-handed option in Baylor. Easler finished off his playing days with two seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters hitting .302.
For that one season – 1984 – Easler hit some baseballs as hard as anyone I saw. The nickname was well deserved. A career .315 hitter at Fenway Park.
Don Baylor was a former most valuable player and as powerful right-handed bat as one could find. A notorious pull hitter whose first season in Boston resulted in a low average (.238), but provided the power Boston wanted with 31 home runs and 94 RBI. In the World Series Baylor hit a disappointing .182 with no home runs. Baylor’s fWAR was 1.3 for 1986 and for a DH that was certainly acceptable.
In 1987 the 38-year-old Baylor was starting to show his age as his average continued to sour at .239 and power production was slipping. Baylor was sent to the Twins on September first and his Boston stint was over.
Baylor had one unique skill set that certainly deserves attention – the ability to take a pitch to the body. Baylor would often have to be reminded by the home plate umpire to stay in the batter’s box since he would crowd the plate. Baylor led the American League in being hit by a pitch both his seasons in Boston and led the league eight times in his 19-year career.
Baylor managed both the Rockies and the Cubs after his playing days ended.
Reggie Jefferson had the nickname “The Miricle” among Red Sox fans and the left-handed Jefferson some (myself) would sarcastically say it would be a miracle if he could hit left-handed pitching. Jefferson finished as a career .300 hitter, but only .219 against lefties. That inability would end his career.
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In 1999 the Red Sox made the playoffs and Jefferson was left off the playoff roster. Jefferson had hit .277 during the regular season, but only .182 against lefties so the very petulant Jefferson simply departed never to play again. At 30-years-old and still productive Jefferson called it a career.
Jefferson would also play first base and the outfield for Boston since they had Jose Canseco for the 1995-96 seasons as an option against left-handed hurlers. The 1995 season was spectacular for Jefferson as he hit .347 and posted an fWAR of 1.7. For his Boston career, Jefferson slashed an impressive .316/.363/.565.
The Red Sox would often use Jefferson and Canseco – Canseco far less – in left field. Neither had any Gold Gloves in their future, but if iron gloves were handed out both had a shot.
Jack Clark could never say no to a luxury car and eventually, his penchant for motorized toys had him in bankruptcy court. For Boston, this was supposed to be a perfect match as Clark was a power hitter from the right side. Clark was also a strikeout machine from the right side as he led the National League three times in whiffs.
The Red Sox viewed Clark as an opportunity to spend money and get a possible 30/100 in return and they came close – for one season. Clark signed with Boston in 1990 for a reported three years and $9 Million and that first season saw 28 home runs and 87 RBI which made a .249 average somewhat palatable. Clark had an fWAR of 2.4. Then it fell apart.
The 1992 season was Clark’s last in the majors. Watching Clark at bat was simply brutal as he hit just .210 with five home runs and 33 RBI. The fWAR went to -0.3 and the Red Sox finally waived Clark, who eventually signed with the Expos, but never returned to MLB.
Clark resurfaced as a radio talk show host and his mouth cost him. Clark accused Albert Pujols of using PED’s and mentioned as his source Pujols’ former trainer. Defamation lawsuit threats soon followed and Clark eventually had to recant his story.
In December of 1995, the Red Sox dipped into the free agent pool and caught a fish – a very big fish – in fact, a very enhanced fish in 30-year-old Jose Canseco. Canseco had not yet surfaced as one of the poster boys for PED’s, but there were certainly suspensions. Canseco also offered up a much-needed right-handed power boost and he did.
For his two years in Boston Canseco hit – hit as well as expected. That first season Jose played in 102 games and hit .306 with 24 home runs and 81 RBI, while posting an fWAR of 2.5. That was a warm up for a spectacular half-season that followed that was one of the best power displays by a Boston hitter – at least for half a season.
By the All-Star break in 1996, Canseco had swatted 26 home runs, had 63 RBI and was hitting .305 in 70 games. Then Canseco’s chronic bad back gave out and six weeks disappeared for Jose while he recovered before returning and doing little. The last 21 games witnessed only two more home runs and Canseco was traded back to the A’s in the off-season for John Wasdin.
Wasdin and Canseco had something in common – Wasdin gave up home runs and Canseco hit them. My most vivid memory of Canseco in Boston was the ALDS against Cleveland in 1995. Canseco was a nightmare as he took a 0-13 as the Indians dispensed with Boston 3-0.
A designated hitter is just supposed to accomplish one aspect and that is to hit. The Red Sox have had a few players surface at DH who simply were not up to the task and were dismissed. So the one I choose for one of the worst may be somewhat of a surprise since he has a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame – Orlando Cepeda.
Cha Cha in his prime was simply one of the best players in baseball combining speed, power, and average. A former Rookie of the Year and National League Most Valuable Player. A power hitting right-hand bat that was in the right place at the right time to get in one last season when he was sought out.
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The DH had been implemented and Cepeda was in demand. Playing the field was no option since his knees were shot and Boston was the perfect fit with a comfortable left field to target and Cepeda did. Cepeda hit .311 at Fenway Park and .271 on the road in 1973. The home run tally was a comfortable 20 – so why the negative?
Despite at OBP of .350 in 142 games Cepeda only scored 51 runs. Clogging the base paths had a whole new meaning with “The Baby Bull.” Ortiz looks like Usain Bolt compared to Cepeda. Cepeda on the bags was a total disaster as it was station to station. Even a wall ball double would be first to second for Cepeda.
Cepeda managed 25 doubles for Boston and that total could easily be in the high 30s, but those days were long gone. Cepeda also led the American League in grounded into double plays so the hitting may look impressive at first glance, but digging deeper Cepeda’s negatives outweighed his hitting. One season and done. Cecil Cooper took over in 1974. Cepeda moved on to an August signing with the Royals in 1974 only to be relesaed in late September – just one home run and .215 for KC.
Cecil Cooper was another young player who was traded away from Boston and reached new heights elsewhere. In this instance elsewhere was Milwaukee and the Brewers where Cooper played 11 seasons. The player they got in return was George Scott, who was fast reaching the end of his career.
With the Red Six Cooper split duty between DH and first base, a position at which he excelled. His best season as a DH was in 1975 when he slashed .318/.361/.572 with 10 home runs and just 25 RBI in 219 plate appearances. In 1976 his DH average went to .245 and Boston swapped him.
In 1977 Scott performed well with 33 home runs and Cooper hit 20 for the Brewers while hitting .300. The following year Scott sank further and in two more seasons, he was gone while Cooper continued to Thrive winning Gold Gloves and twice leading the league in RBI.
Cooper had a beautiful left-handed swing that was a picture of line drive gap power. Cooper would also lead the league twice in doubles and finished his career with 415 two-baggers. This is one of the worst trades in my years of following the Red Sox.