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OC Register: Hoornstra: Baseball Hall of Fame adding two more DHs, but it isn’t that easy

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From the time the American League first allowed designated hitters in 1973, another 41 years passed before the first DH was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Frank Thomas will finally get some company this weekend when Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines join him in Cooperstown, New York.

Three Hall of Famers in 46 years is a powerful testament to the challenge of DHing. Here’s another: Only 20 men have batted 1,000 times in their career with more than half coming as a DH. Shohei Ohtani might join the club sometime next year. Play two full seasons as a DH, retire, and you’ve done something only 20 major leaguers have done. Only four have done it at a Hall of Fame level; David Ortiz can begin writing his induction speech for the summer of 2022.

“Obviously it’s a position,” Martinez said via telephone on the day he learned of his Hall of Fame induction in January. “The DH can help the team like any other position.”

Yet even closers have historically enjoyed longer shelf lives than designated hitters. If DHing is as simple as it seems, why haven’t more players made a career of it?

“I don’t know a lot of people think about that, but it does take a lot of work,” Martinez said. “As a DH, something that can affect the performance is that you have so much more time to think when you’re not doing well. That really makes it even worse. It really hurts the performance. When things are going bad, you just have to find a way to change your mentality and stay positive. You have to work on hitting even more to make sure that you’re consistent.”

Martinez devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography (“Edgar,” co-authored with Larry Stone, was released in June) to the mental side of baseball. He became obsessed with it after he committed four errors at third base in a game against the Orioles in 1990. He visited the self-help section of a bookstore. He practiced visualization techniques. He recited mantras. “I learned how to harness the power of the mind and put it to work for you in a positive way,” Martinez writes, “rather than letting negativity and doubt fester and bring you down.”

Martinez had already undergone the intense mental preparation he needed to thrive as a DH before it became his primary position. When injuries to both knees had sabotaged his mobility in the field, in 1995, Martinez transitioned off third base. He had been a defensive dynamo in the minor leagues, but at age 32 he became a full-time hitter. Martinez amassed 46 of his 68 career Wins Above Replacement after that.

The stories of Martinez, Baines, Thomas and Ortiz are instructive for explaining how a DH succeeds. They cannot tell us why so many fail, why being merely an “average” DH guarantees you won’t last long in the major leagues. To get a better sense for the everyday struggle of the position, I asked a pair of experts in sports psychology.

“It’s definitely like a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Jesse Michel, the Houston Astros’ mental skills coordinator. “When you’re going well, it’s great. You just can’t wait for your next at-bat. If you’re a DH and that’s the only way you can contribute to your team, if it’s not going well it’s anguish. It’s just a mental grind. That’s the only way you can contribute. And if you’re not living up to your expectations, if you have a rough couple games, it’s like everyone’s looking at me and the one thing I’m being expected to do, I’m not producing.”

Michel compared DHing to pitching by its nature.

“A starting pitcher only gets to throw once every five days,” he said. “If you’re a starting pitcher, you have a poor outing, you have to wait five days? That’s an eternity. That’s a lot of time to be optioned, time for the media to write stories before your next start. It can be brutal. If you’re a reliever, expected to get one or two hitters out, who knows when you’re going to get your next opportunity?”

At least pitchers are developed as pitchers in the minor leagues. They get practice filling in the down time between their appearances in a smaller setting, where the stakes are relatively low. The same goes for players at every position – catchers, infielders, outfielders. Once they’re drafted, teams have a reasonable idea of what to expect because scouts have already identified their strengths and weaknesses at that position. A robust player development department can address those weaknesses and help a prospect climb the minor league ladder.

The role you play upon making your big league debut is a role you’ve rehearsed for years – unless you’re a designated hitter.

“Nobody’s drafting a DH,” Michel said.

“You’re never going to get an organization to do this because you’re minimizing value,” he said, “but it’s probably in the best interest of the organization to develop DHs. All the time they would be spent fielding … it would be such a risk because there’s so much value defensively. If I went to somebody in the organization and brought up that thought, I’d probably get laughed at – and rightly so, because we’re trying to maximize value.”

A designated hitter must hone his routine in the best league in the world, having already honed a different routine just to get there. Baines was primarily a right fielder until he turned 28. Thomas was primarily a first baseman until age 30. Albert Pujols made 12 starts as a DH during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals; as an Angel, he’s made 535 starts at DH since he turned 32.

“There’s no written way on how to DH,” said Shaun Larkin, the Dodgers’ coordinator of skill development. “Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines, it took them a long time to get to their process: what they go through physical prep-wise to get to their at-bat. And how Edgar Martinez did it is going to be different from how guys today do it. It’s a skill you work on by trial and error, finding your own individual process. Finding that right routine in a new position – really, a new role – is something guys need to work through. The gravity is heavier than people think.”

Perhaps if the National League adopts the designated hitter rule too, it will spur more innovation for drafting or at least developing players to fit the position. It’s a fairly uncharted frontier. On a weekend when Cooperstown will triple its DH membership, there are still few role models for what an elite DH looks like.

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