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10 Greatest Designated Hitters in Major League Baseball History

David Ortiz

David Ortiz

The designated hitter wasn’t part of Major League Baseball until 1973, and then, as now, it exists only in the American League. Given its relatively short history and the quirk that it only impacts half of the league, the pool of DHs is much smaller than any other spot in the lineup. Also, many DHs were once everyday position players that moved into the role late in their careers once their defensive value dropped. Therefore, it is uncommon for a player that spent even the majority of his career as only a DH.

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In other words, a player like Jim Rice – who is one of just three players in the Hall of Fame that played 25 percent or more career games as a DH – failed to make our cut because he spent the vast majority of his time in the outfield (Rice was the DH in 530 games and played outfield in 1,503 games). Instead, we tried to focus on players that spent the most significant portions of their careers as designated hitters, when possible.

Still, several elite hitters – often slugging power hitters – rose to stardom as designated hitters. Our list includes several current and future Hall of Famers, plus a few players that have often been overlooked and underrated due to their lack of playing time in the field.

— Rankings by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

10. Brian Downing

Chicago White Sox, 1973-77; California Angels, 1978-90; Texas Rangers, 1991-92
1979 All-Star
Key stats: .267/.370/.425, 2,099 hits, 1,188 runs, 275 home runs, 1,073 RBIs

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The designated hitter rule was enacted prior to the 1973 season. Downing broke into the majors in 1973, though he was penciled into the DH spot in the lineup only once that year. However, over the next 19 seasons, Downing was a DH 824 times and played the outfield 777 times. He also caught in 675 games, making him a very versatile member of the White Sox and Angels early in his career. Downing made just one All-Star team – when he hit .326/.418/.462 with 12 home runs and 75 RBIs primarily as an outfielder – but he hit 20 or more home runs six times from 1982-88.

9. Chili Davis

San Francisco Giants, 1982-87; California Angels, 1988-90, ’93-96; Minnesota Twins, 1991-92; Kansas City Royals, 1997; New York Yankees, 1998-99
3-time All-Star
1991 (Twins), ’98 and ’99 (Yankees) World Series champion
Key stats: .274/.360/.451, 2,380 hits, 1,240 runs, 350 home runs, 1,372 RBIs

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Davis played his first seven big league seasons as an outfielder in the National League, but he reached his full potential (and won three World Series rings) after moving to the AL. Davis hit 20 or more home runs nine times from 1987-97 – all but once while playing for an AL squad – and six times while making the majority of his starts as a designated hitter. The one and only time Davis finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting came in 1991, when he hit .277/.385/.507 with 29 home runs and 93 RBIs as a member of the World Series champion Minnesota Twins. Naturally, Davis was a DH 150 times that season.

8. Jose Canseco

Oakland Athletics, 1985-92, ‘97; Texas Rangers, 1992-94; Boston Red Sox, 1995-96; Toronto Blue Jays, 1998; Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 1999-2000; New York Yankees, 2000; Chicago White Sox, 2001
6-time All-Star; 4-time Silver Slugger
1989 (A’s) and 2000 (Yankees) World Series champion
1986 AL Rookie of the Year (A’s)
1988 AL MVP (A’s)
Key stats: .266/.353/.515, 1,877 hits, 1,186 runs, 462 home runs, 1,407 RBIs

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Like many of the players on our list, Canseco was a regular in the field before moving into a nearly full-time DH role later in his career. Canseco played 1,011 games in the outfield and was a DH 874 times during a 17-year career that included stops in seven different big league cities. A powerful slugger, Canseco led the American League in home runs twice and hit 30 or more eight times – including three years with 40-plus. Also an incredible athlete, Canseco became the first 40-40 man in MLB history during his 1988 AL MVP campaign. That year Canseco hit .307/.391/.569 with a major league-leading 42 home runs, 124 RBIs and 170 OPS+.

7. Don Baylor

Baltimore Orioles, 1970-75; California Angels, 1977-82; New York Yankees, 1983-85; Boston Red Sox, 1986-87; Minnesota Twins, 1987; Oakland Athletics, 1988
1979 All-Star (Angels); 3-time Silver Slugger
1979 AL MVP (Angels)
1987 World Series champion (Twins)
Key stats: .260/.342/.436, 2,135 hits, 1,236 runs, 338 home runs 1,276 RBIs

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Don Baylor put together a long career in the big leagues as a DH and outfielder, and also served as a part-time first baseman. In 1979, Baylor won the AL MVP and led all of baseball with 120 runs scored and 139 RBIs while also hitting .296/.371/.530 with a career-high 36 home runs – one of three seasons in which Baylor surpassed the 30-home run plateau. He played all 162 games that season, and spent 65 in the DH role. During his prime years from 1975-86, Baylor posted a slash of .261/.341/.449 and averaged 24 home runs and 86 RBIs. An underrated base stealer early in his career, Baylor stole at least 20 bags in eight consecutive seasons from 1971-79, including 52 in ‘76.

6. Jim Thome

Cleveland Indians, 1991-2002, 2011; Philadelphia Phillies, 2003-05, 2012; Chicago White Sox, 2006-09; Los Angeles Dodgers, 2009; Minnesota Twins, 2010-11; Baltimore Orioles, 2012
5-time All-Star; 1996 Silver Slugger (Indians)
Key stats: .276/.402/.554, 2,328 hits, 1,583 runs, 612 home runs, 1,699 RBIs

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Thome began his career as a third baseman with the Cleveland Indians, then shifted across the infield to first. Following a three-year stint with the Philadelphia Phillies, Thome eventually settled into a full-time DH role when he returned to the American League.

From 1996 to 2008, Thome was one of the game’s top sluggers. He hit .279/.410/.573 over that time period and averaged 37 home runs and 102 RBIs. Excluding the 2005 season when he was limited to 59 games, Thome averaged 40 long balls and 108 RBIs during that 13-year span. Overall, Thome hit 30 or more home runs 12 times, surpassed 40 in six seasons, and set a career high with 52 in 2002. He ranks sixth on the all-time list with 612. Thome also ranks No. 43 all-time, according to Baseball-Referenece.com, with a 77.1 Offensive WAR.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

5. Harold Baines

Chicago White Sox, 1980-89, 1996-97,2000-01; Texas Rangers, 1989-90; Oakland Athletics, 1990-92; Baltimore Orioles, 1993-95; 1997-99, 2000; Cleveland Indians, 1999
5-time All-Star; 1989 Silver Slugger
Key stats: .289/.356/.465, 2,866 hits, 1,299 runs, 384 home runs, 1,628 RBIs

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After breaking into the majors as a right fielder in 1980 at the age of 21, Baines became a near full-time DH in 1987 at the relatively young age of 28. Though his career statistics don’t jump off the page to most fans, Baines was a consistent performer for more than two decades in the AL.

Baines retired as the career leader in hits (1,688) and home runs (236) as a DH (though David Ortiz holds both records now) and also retired 10th in AL history with 1,628 RBIs. He finished in the top 20 of the AL MVP voting four times, hit 20 or more home runs 11 times and collected more than 90 RBIs eight times (including surpassing 100 in three seasons). Overall, Baines ranks 32nd all-time with 1,628 RBIs and 45th with 2,866 career hits. 

4. Frank Thomas

Chicago White Sox, 1990-2005; Oakland Athletics, 2006, 2008; Toronto Blue Jays, 2007-08
5-time All-Star; 4-time Silver Slugger
1993, ’94 AL MVP (White Sox)
Key stats: .301/.419/.555, 2,468 hits, 1,494 runs, 521 home runs, 1,704 RBIs
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2014

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In 2014, his first year on the ballot, Thomas was elected to the Hall of Fame with an impressive 83.7 percent of the vote. Thomas played 971 games at first base during his career and was penciled into the lineup as DH 1,310 times, which made him the first player in history to be enshrined in Cooperstown after playing the majority of his games as a designated hitter.

Though some baseball purists have balked at bestowing such an honor on any DH, Thomas proved his mettle as one of the most feared hitters of his generation. “The Big Hurt” was named American League MVP twice and won the 1997 batting title. He also topped the league in on-base percentage, walks and OPS four times each, hit 40 or more home runs five times and drove in 100 or more runs on 11 occasions.

Entering the 2017 season, Thomas ranks 10th all-time in walks (1,667), No. 13 in OPS (.974), sits 20th on the all-time list in home runs (521) and OBP (.419), and is No. 21 in both slugging percentage (.555) and OPS+ (156). He also ranks 22nd in runs created (2,002) and 24th in RBIs (1,704).

3. Paul Molitor

Milwaukee Brewers, 1978-92; Toronto Blue Jays, 1993-95; Minnesota Twins, 1996-98
7-time All-Star; 4-time Silver Slugger
1993 World Series champion (Blue Jays)
1993 World Series MVP
Key stats: .306/.369/.448, 3,319 hits, 1,782 runs, 234 home runs, 1,307 RBIs, 504 stolen bases
Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2004

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A Hall of Famer, Molitor was a designated hitter in 1,173 career games, but didn’t fit the mold of the slow, hulking slugger often associated with the role. In fact, Molitor was versatile enough to play 791 games at third base, 400 at second, 197 at first, 57 at shortstop and 50 in the outfield. He also was athletic enough to hit leadoff in 59 percent of his career games, setting the table so well he earned the nickname “The Ignitor.” Also a great base runner, Molitor stole 504 bases over 21 seasons – an average of 30 per 162 games.

Molitor collected 200 or more hits in four seasons and led the league in hits three times. The St. Paul, Minnesota, native also scored 100 or more runs five times, including three league-leading campaigns. Molitor ranks 10th on the all-time hit list with 3,319 and was 20th in runs scored (1,782).

In 1993, Molitor became the first player in MLB history to win the World Series MVP Award in a season in which he was primarily a designated hitter. In the six-game series, Molitor posted a .500/.571/1.000 slash across 24 at-bats, with two home runs, two doubles, two triples. He had 12 hits and scored 10 runs as the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Philadelphia Phillies, giving Molitor his only World Series ring.

(Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Web site, baseballhall.org)

2. Edgar Martinez

Seattle Mariners, 1987-2004
7-time All-Star; 5-time Silver Slugger
Key stats: .312/.418/.515, 2,247 hits, 1,219 runs, 309 home runs, 1,261 RBIs

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Though he doesn’t boast power numbers nearly as impressive as Frank Thomas, nor did he rack up 3,000 hits like Paul Molitor, Martinez was an incredibly consistent hitter. In fact, Martinez is so highly regarded for his performance in the DH role that the Edgar Martinez Award is now given annually to the most outstanding designated hitter of each season.

While playing his entire 18-year big league career with the Seattle Mariners, Martinez hit .300 10 times and won the 1992 and ‘95 AL batting titles. Martinez began his career as a third baseman, but couldn’t crack the everyday lineup until 1990 when he was 27 years old. In 1992, he hit .343/.404/.544 with a majors-best 46 doubles to earn his first All-Star selection and Silver Slugger Award. Three years later, when he became a full-time DH, Martinez put together his greatest season, slashing .356/.479/.628, including a 1.107 OPS, 185 OPS+ and 52 doubles – each of which led all of baseball – and an AL-best 121 runs scored.

Overall, Martinez ranks among the top 100 hitters all-time in offensive WAR (66.4), extra-base hits (838), batting average (.312), slugging percentage (.515), doubles (514) and walks (1,283). He sits 33rd on the all-time leaderboard in OPS (.933) and is No. 21 in career on-base percentage (.418).

1. David Ortiz

Minnesota Twins, 1997-2002; Boston Red Sox, 2003-16
10-time All-Star; 7-time Silver Slugger
2004, ’07, ’13 World Series champion (Red Sox)
2013 World Series MVP (Red Sox)
Key stats: .286/.380/.552, 2,472 hits, 1,419 runs, 541 home runs, 1,768 RBIs

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One of the most feared sluggers of his generation, and one of the most beloved Boston Red Sox of all-time, Ortiz retired following the 2016 season as the greatest designated hitter ever. Throughout a season-long farewell tour at the age of 40, Ortiz also produced one of his best all-around performances, including a major league-leading .620 slugging percentage,1.021 OPS, and 48 doubles. Ortiz also led the AL with 127 RBIs – his third such crown.

Ortiz was penciled in as the designated hitter in 2,029 career games and played just 278 games at first base. He ranks just 229th overall with a 55.4 career WAR, but he is likely headed to Cooperstown because of his eye-popping offensive statistics. Across 20 seasons, Ortiz hit 541 home runs, which ranks 17th all-time, and drove in 1,768 runs, which sits 22nd. His 625 career doubles are good for 10th in baseball history.

Released by the Minnesota Twins after the 2002 campaign, Ortiz landed in Boston and immediately became a fan favorite. His status soared in 2004 as a key member of the first Red Sox team to win a World Series since 1918. Two years later, Ortiz set a franchise record with 54 home runs.

Widely labeled as a clutch performer, Ortiz was the ALCS MVP in 2004 (making him the first DH ever to earn the honor), helped lead Boston to a second World Series title in ‘07, and earned World Series MVP honors in ‘13 as the Red Sox secured their third title in 10 seasons.