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Best MLB Players of the 2010s: Designated Hitter

by Chris Brown

With the 2010s in the rearview mirror, 110 Sports is taking a look back at the best players of the last decade at each position. There’s no one perfect way to evaluate baseball players. For these rankings, we weigh statistics such as OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) and WAR (wins above replacement), which, while imperfect, are good at assessing hitting contributions and overall value, along with various other factors like the player’s best years in the decade, length of high-level production, speed, defense, reputation, playoff experience and awards. 

A general note about eligibility for this exercise: Players are being considered for the top five (in the case of DH) only at the position they played most in the decade. If a player made a significant contribution at another position in the 2010s, they may receive an honorable mention there as well. Let’s get to it.

From Reggie Jackson to Jim Thome, from Frank Thomas to Vladimir Guerrero, the designated hitter spot has helped several future Hall of Famers remain healthy and productive into their mid-to-late 30s. The same can be said of multiple players in the 2010s, including MLB’s home run leader for the decade. With the spot often being used for sluggers later in their careers rather than their whole careers, fewer players than other positions are thought of as designated hitters over other positions they played. With that in mind, instead of looking at the top 10, let’s take a look at the top five designated hitters of the 2010s. But first, a few honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions

Kendrys Morales | LAA 2010, 2012, SEA 2013, MIN 2014, SEA 2014, KC 2015-16, TOR 2017-18, OAK 2019, NYY 2019

Morales finished fifth in MVP voting in 2009 after breaking out with 34 home runs, 108 RBI and a .306/.355/.569 batting line. In May 2010, while celebrating his walk-off grand slam, Morales suffered an ankle injury which kept him out of the majors for roughly two years. He was never quite the same player after returning, but did win a Silver Slugger in 2015 after hitting 41 doubles and 22 homers with a .290/.362/.485 triple slash in 2015. Morales tallied 20+ long balls in six years of the decade, but typically didn’t bring a ton more to the table.

Albert Pujols | STL 2010-11, LAA 2012-19

Pujols was discussed in-depth at first base, where he played most in the 2010s and came in sixth, but the future Hall-of-Famer did play 546 games in the DH spot this past decade. Pujols ranks third among first basemen in hits, second in home runs and first in RBIs from 2010-19. He’s spent more time in the DH spot in recent years and his batting line there (.260/.313/.440) is significantly worse than at first (.305/.391/.569) in his career.

Khris Davis | MIL 2013-15, OAK 2016-19

Like Pujols, Davis played more at another position (left field, where he was an honorable mention as well) than in the DH spot in the 2010s. Unlike Pujols, Davis has been in his prime offensive years while DHing, posting a .243/.313/.497 triple slash line with 94 home runs in 354 games in the designated hitter role.

Adam Dunn | WSH 2010, CHW 2011-14, OAK 2014

Dunn’s best years were clearly behind him by the 2010s, as his .215/.329/.436 batting line for the decade indicates, but his greatest strength — hitting home runs — remained for most of the five years leading up to his retirement following the 2014 campaign. “Big Donkey” smashed 38 homers with 103 RBI and a .260 batting average in 2010, finishing 21st in NL MVP voting. After a horrid 2011, the veteran hit 41, 34 and 22 long balls in the next three seasons, respectively, attending his second All-Star game in 2012. 

Top 5

5. Billy Butler | KC 2010-14, OAK 2015-16, NYY 2016

Butler only posted true star numbers in one season — hitting .313/.373/.510 with 29 home runs and 107 RBI in 2012 while being named an All-Star and earning a Silver Slugger — but he was a durable, solid bat for the first six years of the 2010s. “Country Breakfast” played in 150+ games in each of those seasons, hitting 15+ homers in five of six years and hitting .270 or better in five of six years. His career ended after the 2016 season, though Butler was just 30 years old.

4. Victor Martinez | BOS 2010, DET 2011, 2013-18

One of the best hitting catchers in baseball in the 2000s, VMart had an impressive second act to his career as the Tigers’ primary DH. While his power was a bit up and down — with home run totals as low as 12 and as high as 32 in his best years — one thing that remained consistent until the end of his career was Martinez’s ability to hit for a great average. He topped .300 four times in the decade, twice surpassing a .330 average.

Martinez’s best season was undoubtedly 2014, when the 35-year-old hit .335 with a league-leading .409 OBP and .974 OPS, tallying 32 homers, 33 doubles, 87 runs, and 103 RBI. Martinez finished second in AL MVP voting that year and won a Silver Slugger. Martinez’s .317 average from 2010-14 was third in baseball among those with at least 500 plate appearances, trailing only his teammate Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu.

3. David Ortiz | BOS 2010-16

Now’s where we reach the three designated hitters who best combined starpower with sustained success. “Big Papi” is perhaps the most accomplished DH in MLB history, leading such players in career home runs (485), RBIs (1,569) and hits (2,192). He was also a 10-time All-Star, three-time World Series champion and seven-time Silver Slugger award winner in a career spanning 20 seasons. 

Ortiz’s peak years came in the mid-to-late 2000s and he retired following the 2016 season, which is why he’s only third on this list, but to say he still had plenty left in the tank in the most recent decade would be a massive understatement. Ortiz averaged 32 home runs, 36 doubles and 100 RBI per season in a decade with a .292/.383/.562 batting line. His slugging percentage of .581 for the 2010s is second in baseball behind only Mike Trout, and his OPS is third. 

In his seven big league seasons in the decade, Ortiz was named an All-Star five times, won three Silver Sluggers and finished top 10 in MVP balloting twice. That included his final major league season, when at age 40, Ortiz led baseball in doubles, slugging (.620), and OPS (1.021) as well as the AL in RBI (127). Oh yeah, and he hit a decade-best 38 home runs. It’s worth repeating: Ortiz, at age 40, was one of the very best players in baseball. Talk about exiting at the top of your game.

2. Edwin Encarnación | TOR 2010-16, CLE 2017-18, SEA 2019, NYY 2019

There was no more consistent home run hitter in baseball over the last decade than Encarnacion. The three-time All-Star has hit 30+ long balls in each of the last eight seasons, with that total being the most 30+ homer seasons of any player in MLB in the 2010s. After two solid but not spectacular seasons to begin the decade, Encarnacion has played in 100+ games every year since, averaging 37 homers, 88 runs and 106 RBI per season with a .264/.363/.529 batting line.

Encarnacion, who finished top 20 in MVP balloting five times in that eight-year span, ranks second in home runs and third in RBI in baseball in the 2010s. No player was as much of a lock for a high home run total in the past decade as Encarnacion, who even at 36 last year smacked 34 homers for the Mariners and Yankees.

1. Nelson Cruz | TEX 2010-13, BAL 2014, SEA 2015-18, MIN 2019

Finally we arrive at Cruz, MLB’s home run leader of the past decade (with 346). Cruz’s six consecutive seasons with 30+ home runs trails only Encarnacion and is tied with Mike Trout. What he’s done in the past six seasons in his mid-to-late 30s has been even more impressive, though. For the first four years of the decade, Cruz, then with the Rangers, was a very good, but not great, hitter. He smacked between 22 and 29 homers and drove in between 76 and 90 runs each of those four seasons while — with one better exception — hitting around .265. 

Over the course of the last six years, Cruz, who shifted to primarily DHing after spending significant time in the corner outfielder earlier in his career, has hit between 37 and 44 home runs each season. He was named an All-Star four times, finished top 10 in MVP balloting four times, won three Silver Sluggers and finished with an OPS north of .850 six times. Despite missing a chunk of time due to injury this past year, Cruz posted career bests in slugging (.639) and OPS (1.031) with 41 home runs and 108 RBI in 120 games at the age of 38.

Of course, Cruz’s resume is not without any flaws. He was suspended 50 games in 2013 for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal which also involved notable major leaguers such as Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and Jhonny Peralta. That fact made a second-place ranking on this list a distinct possibility, but given that Cruz’s peak production came in the years following that suspension, he keeps the top spot over Encarnacion.

Photos by James G / Flickr (Encarnacion), Arturo Padravila III / Flickr (Ortiz), Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons (Cruz)

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