The Rays' DH Belongs to Dan Johnson

It's certainly no secret the Rays have not had great production from their designated hitter (DH) position. Consider this chart of morbid reality:

as 3B 133 591 516 20 15 5 .374 .514 .888 .340 139 134
as LF 133 597 539 16 38 9 .343 .456 .799 .316 116 108
as 2B 133 539 472 17 16 6 .339 .445 .784 .318 112 115
as PH 78 121 103 3 2 0 .347 .427 .774 .319 110 136
as 1B 133 571 465 27 5 1 .343 .415 .758 .227 105 88
as CF 133 565 493 14 43 7 .321 .394 .714 .288 94 96
as RF 133 537 455 9 15 5 .343 .360 .704 .287 92 81
as DH 124 521 461 10 5 1 .312 .371 .683 .299 85 84
as C 133 533 453 7 3 1 .329 .325 .653 .267 79 88
as SS 133 558 492 3 11 6 .320 .329 .649 .302 77 87
Generated 9/3/2010.

The most damning element of this chart is how the DH -- a position supposedly reserved for men who live by their bat alone -- has a team-worst .312 on-base percentage (OBP).

On-base plus slugging (OPS) undersells the affect of this problem. OPS has a critical flaw -- it adds OBP and slugging (SLG) as though their denominators were the same. In fact, we all learned in elementary school that we cannot do this: 1/2 + 1/3, before we do some other calculations. OPS scoffs at that logic and brazenly pushes OBP and SLG together like two puzzle pieces in the hands of a four-year-old. (wOBA circumvents this problem entirely.)

So we see, on the previous table, that DH is right next to the right fielders (RF) and we think -- well, hey, that looks like RF is just as much of a problem! But in truth, the RFers have combined for above average OBP and above average defense -- which DHers can't offer.

In truth, our DH position has been worse than the chart indicates. So, going into this final stretch of the season and into the playoffs, what should we do with this position? I say: Give it to Dan Johnson. Let's explore why.

Essentially the DH race is down to two players: Dan Johnson and the recently acquired Brad Hawpe. The Rays acquired Hawpe after he was designated for assignment by the Rockies. This certainly came as a bit of a surprise to me -- perhaps because I do not follow the Rockies. Since 2006, Hawpe had put up consistently strong numbers. He hit an average of about 25 home runs from 2006 through 2009 and averaged a weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) of around .380 -- or ~25% above league average. Specifically, his OBP was excellent (~.380) and his power was above average (~.500 SLG).

What happened this year that the Rockies would bail on him? In short, he went from ~25% above average to ~0% above average overnight. wOBA from StatCorner shows the sudden descent:

Brad Hawpe
Year Team Level PA wOBA wOBA* wOBA+ wOBAr WAR
2004 COL   MLB  118 *0.304

2005 COL   MLB  351 *0.329

2006 COL   MLB  575 *0.376

2007 COL   MLB  606 0.396  0.392   116    0.386   4.2  
2008 COL   MLB  569 0.386  0.382   115    0.380   3.7  
2009 COL   MLB  588 0.392  0.389   117    0.376   4.2  
2010 ---   MLB  304 0.330  0.324   99    0.333   0.6  

(Courtesy of StatCorner and *Fangraphs.)

Not only did Brad Hawpe's wOBA fall off a cliff, his wOBAr began a steady descent. wOBAr -- which I believe stands for wOBA regressed -- is a predictive statistic which helps us guess how a player has performed despite his outcomes. According to the StatCorner glossary, wOBAr is based on batted ball data:

[wOBAr] is wOBA, but with the hitter's success on batted balls regressed toward his prior averages. League averages are used when the sample size is too small. In [effect], it's PrOPS, but with a player's past history used as the baseline when possible instead of the league...

wOBAr does not smile on Hawpe this season, though it seemed to accurately predict his previous, strong performances. Interestingly, Hawpe's batted ball data is unchanged -- according to both Fangraphs and StatCorner (sites which use different batted ball data). Hawpe's batted ball data has been a picture of consistency, hitting 20-22% line drives every year since 2006.

So what does wOBAr dislike about Hawpe? In short, his un-Hawpe-like discipline:

Brad Hawpe
Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2004 Rockies 17.8% 79.8% 51.7% 42.4% 71.4% 66.8% 54.7% 61.9% 16.0%
2005 Rockies 17.9% 72.8% 45.9% 55.4% 80.4% 75.6% 51.0% 56.7% 11.4%
2006 Rockies 21.8% 73.3% 47.4% 47.8% 81.9% 74.0% 49.6% 58.4% 12.0%
2007 Rockies 21.7% 74.7% 48.1% 50.4% 76.6% 70.7% 49.9% 60.4% 13.8%
2008 Rockies 23.7% 73.5% 48.2% 52.0% 78.9% 72.2% 49.4% 62.5% 13.1%
2009 Rockies 22.4% 73.4% 46.8% 53.4% 77.5% 71.5% 47.9% 60.5% 13.1%
2010 2 Teams 25.8% 74.3% 47.3% 61.5% 78.7% 73.5% 44.5% 58.0% 12.4%
    2010 Lg Ave 29.2% 64.4% 45.6% 66.7% 88.2% 80.9% 46.7% 58.9% 8.4%
Total - - - 22.1% 73.9% 47.6% 52.4% 78.6% 72.4% 49.1% 59.8% 12.9%

(Courtesy of Fangraphs.)

Hawpe is swinging more at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%), and pitchers have obliged his new approach by throwing him garbage out of the zone (Zone%). This seems almost like the habits of player who is pressing -- someone struggling with an injury or worried about job security. Either way, there's a good chance -- since he's still hitting line-drives and fly balls at his career rates -- he could turn it around with some more time.

Dan Johnson on the other hand, has received wOBAr's blessings:

Dan Johnson
Year Team Level PA wOBA wOBA* wOBA+ wOBAr WAR
2004 OAK   AAA

2005 OAK   MLB  434 *0.348

2006 OAK   MLB  331 *0.308

2007 OAK   MLB  495 0.351  0.356   104    0.393   1.3  
2008 ---   MLB  29 0.302  0.313   93    0.380   -0.0  
2009 ---   NPB

2010 TBA   MLB  71 0.339  0.343   103    0.393   0.1  

(Courtesy of StatCorner and *Fangraphs.)

It's important to understand that Dan Johnson has not had much of a chance to showcase his talents thus far. It seems likes he has been up with the club, playing and watching pitches all year, but in truth, he's really only had a sliver of playing time. By comparison's, Hawpe has earned nearly a half season-worth of data:


In other words, our data of Johnson at the MLB level is anything but complete or sufficient. That being said, the early signs are good. His wOBAr matches his career best (StatCorner does not have statistics from before 2007) despite that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is an absurd .179. In the minors in 2008 and 2010, he average a BABIP around .300, and his current Dutton xBABIP is .304 -- implying he has been quite unlucky in his first 70 PAs.

At the same time, though, Hawpe has a career BABIP of .338, but is enduring a .314 BABIP in 2010. His Dutton xBABIP is .337, indicating he has also been a bit unlucky.

Certainly this is an issue where larger swathes of data would benefit us -- as most issues tend to be. But from what we can ascertain, it seems that:

  1. Brad Hawpe has been unlucky and may be pressing because of it, and...
  2. Hawpe could therefore turn around at a moment's notice.
  3. Dan Johnson has not culled much playing time this season, but...
  4. Johnson appears to be doing really well through the lens of wOBAr or an xBABIP regression.
The other possibility for Hawpe could be that, at age 31, he is beginning his descent into mediocrity (note: Johnson is also 31 as of last month) . The recent trend -- however limited in size -- of wOBAr certainly does not bode well for Hawpe:


(Note that the R-squared for Johnson's regression is so small because of the 0 in year 2009. It aught to be closer to 0.80 or higher.)

So why do I feel that the DH position belongs to Dan Johnson? Here are my reasons in lightning-round, bulleted fashion:

  • Hawpe may need some time to re-adjust his approach at the plate. We do not have free time right now.
  • Hawpe may be sliding into mediocrity, whereas Johnson has be crushing the ball for the last two years in the minors (2008 and 2010).
  • More importantly, Hawpe is adjusting to not only the DH position -- which hurts production -- but also to the American League East -- which kills production. Johnson has spent at least a little time in both positions.
  • We have incomplete data on Johnson, but more complete data on Hawpe. I think it would serve the Rays well to explore whether Johnson is a commodity or a replacement player.
  • Johnson could be a cheap stop-gap next year or later as we wait for Leslie Anderson -- or whoever will take over first base/DH when Pena is gone. I expect Hawpe will command more money than Johnson.
  • Dan Johnson seems like a really nice guy and -- boy -- has he hit some memorable home runs.
  • Johnson seems to have gone through a lot of crap to earn a second shot at the bigs.
Now, I hope most readers will notice that two of those final points are more normative than positive -- or more subjective than objective. I have presented those points for purposes of full disclosure, but I would like to assure readers that I did not allow my opinions to affect my analysis. In fact, this post was titled "The Rays' DH belongs to" until I finished my research. I feel that both options are viable, but that Johnson has the edge.

Nonetheless, I turn to you, DRaysBay, and ask: Who should take the reigns of our most disappointing position?

(Note: I have included Matt Joyce and Willy Aybar on the poll, though I think one should be on the field, not the DH, and the other should be on the pine or in Durham. However, I would love to hear alternative theories about the DH or opinions about my research method. "If we are not critically thinking about what we write, then we have no right to be critical." -Bradley Woodrum, 2010, just made it up.)
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