The last two seasons, the Minnesota Twins have featured quite a luxury in their offensive arsenal: a full-time DH—Nelson Cruz—who can, to quote Mick from Rocky III, “cause a variety of damage”.
It hasn’t always been this way in Twins Territory. In fact, full-time & productive DH’s have been somewhat few and far between for this franchise. So, in that spirit, let’s journey back nearly 50 years to examine the highs (and lows) of the designated hitter in Minnesota...
Beginning in 1973, the American League adopted the radical change of allowing a batter—not a broken ladder—to replace the belly-itcher in the lineup. The Twins, struggling to reconcile Tony Oliva’s gifted bat with his hobbled knees, immediately inserted him into the newfangled spot full-time (620 PA). That year, the team’s DHs produced a 102 sOPS+ (so about league-average) and the great experiment was off and running.
Sadly, by the early 1980s the hitter-friendly slot was anything but for Minnesota. In ‘81, Glenn Adams “led” the bunch with 233 PA, a .193 BA, and .514 OPS, “good” for a 55 DH OPS+. 1982 was little better (79 OPS+), with Randy “Presumably Not The Bird Killer” Johnson (246 PA) and Jesus Vega (127) leading the pack. Ditto for ‘84, as Randy Bush (332 PA) and Mickey Hatcher (148 PA) slogged—not slugged—their way to a 73 OPS+.
By 1989, however, the DH OPS+ ticked up to 115 thanks to Jim Dwyer (242 PA) and Gene Larkin (163 PA). That proved a mere precursor to 1991, when “Hot” Chili Davis came to town and set a new team record with 630 DH PA’s, producing a 133 OPS+. It was, fairly easily, the best designated hitter performance in team history to that point.
Somewhat predictably, though, the team’s fall to the AL basement in the late 1990s produced some equally dismal DH duds:
1998: 76 OPS+, Paul Molitor (521 PA)
1999: 82 OPS+, Marty Cordova (370 PA) & Todd Walker (135 PA).
2000: 78 OPS+, David Ortiz (354 PA) & Butch Huskey (157 PA)
In 2006, despite a remarkable overall season, team DH totals plummeted to new depths (69 OPS+). Rondell White’s team-leading 169 DH PA’s were the leading malady. In ‘07? Jeff Cirillo (86 PA) and Jason Tyner (69 PA) received substantial DH time. Enough said.
It would take a Man with an Ox in the Batter’s Box (311 PA) and Jason Kubel (182 PA) to resurrect Twins DH performance at the start of the 2010s (127 OPS+).
Of course, fitting the up-and-down nature of the batter-only berth, just a scant three years later—2013—the DH OPS+ was 76 due to Ryan Doumit (209 PA), Josh Willingham (154 PA), and Joe Mauer (135 PA) all under-achieving. It wasn’t much better in 2018—79 OPS+ by Logan Morrison (147 PA), Mauer (146 PA), and Robbie Grossman (145 PA).
After that 2018 season, the Twins signed then-38 year old Nelson Cruz hoping for some middle-of-the-order DH thump. All he’s done is produce DH OPS+’s of 152 in ‘19 (515 PA) and 163 in ‘20 (213 PA). In other words, the most productive Minnesota Twins DH of all-time.
That catches us up to the present-day. The hope is that Cruz—who will clock 41 years on the internal odometer come July—continues to defy all laws of baseball physics. I wouldn’t necessarily bet against him. But if Father Time does remain undefeated, it might be a new era for Twins DHs, with corner outfielders Brent Rooker and Alex Kirilloff perhaps poised to share half innings on the bench.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true examination of any single position—especially one supposedly expressly devoted to boost offensive prowess—without some names that will induce chuckles/groans. So, I’ll close with this list of names that spent DH time in MN uniforms:
Bombo Rivera (1980, 3 PA), Scott Ulger (‘83, 2 PA), Billy Beane (‘86, 10 PA), Junior Ortiz (‘90, 9 PA), Midre Cummings (‘00, 47 PA), Quinten McCracken (‘01, 35 PA), Michael Ryan (‘03, 12 PA), Jose Offerman (‘04, 143 PA), Lew(wwwwww) Ford (‘05, 193 PA), Terry Tiffee (‘05, 27 PA), Phil Nevin (‘06, 37 PA), Josh Rabe (‘06, 28 PA), Mike Lamb (‘08, 10 PA), Brendan Harris (‘09, 31 PA), Rene Tosoni (‘11, 31 PA), Danny Santana (‘14, 10 PA)