- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
When an American League pitcher switches over to the National League, the prevailing opinion is that his ERA will drop quite a bit because he gets to face pitchers rather than designated hitters. Hey, it makes sense to me, and the stats bear this out. Fewer runs per game are scored in the NL, in part because pitching to Aaron Harang three times rather than Travis Hafner has to be easier, right? However, with one month down, it's no longer such a big gap that we should evaluate pitchers differently. The current league ERA in the NL is 4.07, and in the AL, it's 4.23. In 2007, it was also a small difference, 4.43 to 4.51. Maybe the designated hitter isn't such a big deal anymore, eh?
At the same time, when someone such as Dontrelle Willis switches leagues the other way, everyone assumes said pitcher will see his ERA blow up. It's one of the age-old theories of fantasy baseball, that you want the pitchers who move to the NL but want to avoid those entering the AL. The thing is, if Willis were healthy right now, would he have much problem facing today's designated hitters? They call them designated hitters for a reason, and it's not because they are paid to pitch or to flash leather in the field. Right now, quite a few of these designated hitters have batting averages in the designated Mario Mendoza range.
In looking at the big preseason designated hitters selected on draft day, few of them seem to be enjoying themselves very much. Jim Thome is sputtering along with a .228 average, and he's the leader in the clubhouse of this group. Hafner's struggles have been well documented, as he was in a 7-for-51 slump and got benched Wednesday before slapping a few doubles Thursday. David Ortiz is starting to hit a bit, but he's still showing a .196 batting average. Frank Thomas got released by his first team this season. Gary Sheffield hasn't been able to shoulder the load. Jose Vidro might lose his starting role with Jeff Clement being called up from the minors. Jack Cust and his three true outcomes have turned into two, with the power missing. He went nearly a month in between home runs, and the season is all of a month old. This group of seven was hitting a cumulative .197 for the season entering May, and not helping fantasy owners very much.
Of course, there are some players who have done OK when acting as the designated hitter, but they all at least bring a glove with them to the stadium every night, so fantasy owners can use them there. Entering May, there were 19 players who had accumulated 25 or more plate appearances as the DH, and fewer than half were hitting better than .250. Yankees Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada play outfield and catcher, but circumstances forced each to the DH role quite a bit. Matt Stairs and Mike Sweeney, each affected by the Thomas saga, are hitting better than .300. Billy Butler is a DH who should, at some point, qualify at first base. You'd be surprised how few productive designated hitters there are.
Anyway, I have thoughts on the top DHs from draft day, and since every third question in chats seem to be about Ortiz and Hafner, let's start with them.
Ortiz: Red Sox manager Terry Francona confirms that his best slugger -- and my pick for AL MVP -- is still dealing with knee problems, but Ortiz has started to hit. He's been taking walks all along, and as bad as that .196 batting average appears, he is on pace for 29 home runs and 124 RBIs. I don't think it will take long for Ortiz to raise that average to the levels we expect. I'm not yet backing off the possibility that he could still get there. I've been trying to acquire Ortiz in my leagues and will continue to do so. I bet he'll end up with stats similar to his 2007 numbers, a bit low on the power but high on OPS.
Hafner: I'm not as high on Hafner, but then again, I didn't have him in my top 30 to start the season. I don't own Hafner in any leagues. He's only 30 years old, but injuries just seem to find him, and I doubt we'll ever see a 1.000 OPS from him again. Hafner was dropped to sixth in the order Thursday, and that seems a smart move by the Indians because they have better hitters who can hit higher. Hafner went .266-24-100 a year ago, and that's about what I expect this season. There's still value there, but not what most people think.
Thomas: As I wrote a few times when the Blue Jays parted ways with Thomas, I don't think he's done. In fact, in terms of value, I think his is better than Hafner's. Thomas costs a lot less, and he remains available in more than 75 percent of ESPN's standard leagues. The Big Hurt is playing every day for Oakland, against all kinds of pitching, and gives that lineup right-handed pop. Plus, he takes walks, seven of them in eight games with the A's. I'd get in on owning Thomas soon because his .195 batting average will be up to .250 in a month.
Sheffield: His numbers don't look terribly attractive. His cortisone shot to home run ratio is 3-1, and since the shots don't count in fantasy, that's reason for concern. Sheffield might end up stealing 15 or so bases, maybe more, but at some point, Jim Leyland will have to move him out of the No. 3 spot in the order or sit him more. Sheffield won't play the field, and he won't have the power he had in the first half of 2007. Basically, his second half of last season is still being played out. I'd sell if there's someone who still believes in him.
Thome: He looks like last year's Cust to me, but that is going to change. Thome was always a big walk and strikeout artist, but over his past 10 games he's really stepped things up, walking nine times and fanning in 13 other at-bats. Thome hasn't homered in a week. Of all the current DHs, I'm least worried about Thome and Ortiz. Thome is healthy, and I expect he'll add another 50 points of batting average by July and hit 30 home runs this season.
Cust: His solid offensive Thursday notwithstanding, Cust is off to a terrible start this season, making fantasy owners wonder whether his surprising 2007 was a fluke. I don't think it was, and I think Cust could still deliver 25 home runs and a high on-base percentage, but what I'd worry about here is the A's replacing him. Thomas is the new DH, every day, and Cust's defensive prowess was on display -- in all its glory -- when he dropped a simple fly ball Thursday. We call Cust a three outcomes player, but throw in the nightly defensive miscue and it's four outcomes. Emil Brown is leading the team in RBIs, so he's not sitting. At some point, Cust is going to get nudged from the lineup unless he has more nights like Thursday, when he got on base six times against the Angels.
Vidro: There's nothing positive to say here. Vidro was the atypical DH in 2007 in the first place because he brought so little power to the table. The Mariners didn't get ripped for acquiring Vidro because he did hit .314 and get on base at a .381 clip, masking his power deficiency. Vidro was Jeff Keppinger a year ago, without a glove. Now Clement takes over the DH spot against right-handed pitching, and he brings power. Frankly, I'm a but surprised Vidro was not released this week instead of Greg Norton. At least Norton has some pop and can play the field. Vidro shouldn't be owned in a fantasy league. He'll pick up stray at-bats against lefties now, but all he'll deliver is some batting average.
When an American League pitcher switches over to the National League, the prevailing opinion is that his ERA will drop quite a bit because he gets to face pitchers rather than designated hitters.