Five-headed DH monster giving Yankees a powerful boost
New York has regularly employed five players at designated hitter this season
Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez get a lot of at-bats there
Aging position stars Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez also get half-days off there
The Yankees' designated hitter is a fearsome player. He bats from the right side of the plate, and he bats from the left. His career resume is rather impressive: he has been selected to 32 All-Star Games, and he has, entering Monday, slugged 1,815 home runs.
He is, of course, not one man, but essentially five. The Yankees' roster features a quintet of players -- Eric Chavez, Raul Ibañez, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones and Alex Rodriguez -- who are on pace to make more than 70 plate appearances as the club's DH, which is something that no team has had in seven years. Many of the managers who have in the past employed a Hydra approach to their DH spot have done so out of desperation, in a largely futile attempt to find someone who can provide appropriate production from the game's most controversial position.
The 2005 Angels and Blue Jays, for example, each gave five players at least 70 plate appearances as their designated hitter. That season, the sum of their DH's produced 14 and 13 home runs, respectively. The Yankees' designated hitters have this year hit 13 homers already, and that is just one offensive category in which they as a group rank near the top of the American League. They are also in the top three in batting average (.294) and OPS (.870).
Joe Girardi, the Yankees manager, finished spring training in Tampa with the idea that his club would use a fairly strict, matchup-based DH platoon, intending to almost exclusively play the lefthanded hitting Ibañez against righthanded pitchers, and the righthanded Jones against southpaws. That plan, however, was discarded after just 11 games, when Brett Gardner, the regular leftfielder, suffered a right elbow strain from which he has still not returned. "Our DH kind of got into a rotation when Gardy got hurt, because Ibañez and Jones are always in the outfield," Girardi says. "It's worked pretty well."
That is an understatement. The Yankees might well be better off with the disruptively speedy, defensively superior Gardner in their everyday lineup but his absence has come with a silver lining, one that has particularly gleamed in June. New York has gone 16-5 this month and has seen a 1 ½-game deficit in the AL East turn into a 2 ½-game lead. The Yankees' DH rotation has performed well this month, as six players (the aforementioned five plus Russell Martin, normally the everyday catcher) have combined to hit .349, with three home runs and eight RBIs.
Equally important, perhaps, has been another result of Girardi's fluid approach: It has provided his veterans an unexpected amount of rest from the physical demands of playing in the field. Each of his Girardi's five most-used DH's is 34 or older, and several of them -- particularly Chavez and Rodriguez -- have missed time due to injuries in recent years. This season, all have stayed more or less healthy, and none currently has even a complaint.
"It's been great," says Nick Swisher, a minor member of the DH rotation (he has started four games there). "Joe can say, 'Oh hey, Alex Rodriguez, instead of not playing you at all, I'm going to give you a day off by making this your DH day.' He's healthy, everybody's healthy. Jete, the same thing. This off-season, everyone was looking for us to bring in that one DH to take up that slot full-time. But if we'd had that, looking back on it now, that would've hurt us in the long run."
Indeed, that Girardi has been able to design for his aging stars days on which their legs' athletic output consists mainly of strolling from the dugout to the plate -- and, if things go well, running the bases -- likely helped them on the days this month when DH-ing was not an option: in the nine June interleague games the Yankees played in National League parks, they scored 4.7 runs per game and went 8-1. But it will also, surely, help them as the season wears on. "He's looking to manage for the benefit of the team later on in the season," says Jones. "It's going to be a grind 'til the end, to compete and stay on top of the division and hopefully carry it on into the playoffs."
Girardi is known as a scientifically-minded manager, and while he does, as always, consult the matchup and trend information contained within his famous binders to decide whom to deploy as his DH on any given night, it is one area in which his managing tends to be more artistic. "I kind of look at how guys are doing physically," he says. "I've tried to take advantage of that, give some more DH days to Derek and Alex, thinking that instead of giving them complete days off we can get more at-bats from them and keep them fresher."
One possible pitfall of Girardi's unsystematic approach to his DH rotation is for someone to inadvertently fall out of it, such that he is rusty when his name is again called. Girardi has so far avoided that. "He tries to give guys at bats to stay in shape, see pitches," says Jones. "He doesn't let them go a week or two without seeing an at-bat. He manages to work that out pretty good, to keep everybody in shape so that when they get a chance to play, they produce. It's worked perfectly for this team."
Girardi's task has been made easier by the versatility of the players provided to him by general manager Brian Cashman. While the players Girardi has used most frequently at DH are no longer the Gold Glove defenders that they -- four of them, anyway (Chavez, Jeter, Jones and Rodriguez) -- used to be, none has proven to be a genuine liability when it is his turn to play in the field. The 40-year-old Ibañez, for example, was available to the Yankees as a free agent at the discount rate of $1.1 million for one year in part because it was thought that he could simply no longer be trusted to play defense; his Ultimate Zone Rating as the Phillies' leftfielder last season was a league-worst -18.9. This year, though, he has been slightly better than average there -- his UZR is 1.1 -- perhaps because he has been able to avoid the wear and tear of playing there every day. He has also been better than expected offensively, ranking fifth on the team in both home runs (11) and RBIs (35).
In fact, further examination of the DH model onto which the Yankees have stumbled due to Gardner's injury leads one to wonder if it is one that more clubs might try to replicate in the years to come. Consider:
It is a model that allows aging players to maximize what they have left, while minimizing what they don't.
It is a model that does not have to cost a lot of money -- while Jeter (who is making $16 million this year) and Rodriguez ($29 million) remain among the game's highest paid players, Chavez, Ibañez and Jones will earn a combined $4 million this year.
It is a model that provides a club great flexibility. The Red Sox, for instance, undoubtedly benefit from David Ortiz, who is an all-hit, no-field everyday DH in the traditional mold, but whose presence led them on Sunday to trade Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox in part because they couldn't envision a way to regularly fit him into their lineup going forward.
It is, at minimum, also a model that has allowed the Yankees to sustain the potentially crushing early season loss of a key player -- Gardner -- without losing much at all.