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An oral & pictorial history of Twins designated hitters

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From Tony O & Hot Chili to Big Jim & Boomstick

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

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.

MLB Photos Archive
Tony O—he of batting and cuban sandwich fame
Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

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+.

JUN 21 1987; Special to the Denver Post, Attn. Ted Rodgers. This 1982 file photo Shows Minnesota Twi
A presumably common pose for Twins hitters in 1982 (Randy Johnson on far right)
Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images

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.

1991 World Series - Atlanta Braves v Minnesota Twins
Chili calmly waits for one to crank over the plexiglass

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)

Butch Huskey #42...
Butch Huskey—the Logan Morrison of his day

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.

Oakland Athletics v Minnesota Twins
Jason Tyner—unlikeliest Twins DH ever?

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+).

Twins Jim Thome and Jason Kubel passed each other on the way to the plate and the dugout during the 2nd inning, August 25th, 2011.] Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune.
Bash Bros. (AL Central Edition)

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).

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox
As good as Yes Pig was in 2012, he slumped in ‘13
Photo by Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images

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.

Minnesota Twins v St Louis Cardinals - Game One
Boomstick gets to trot around the bases with some frequency
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

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)

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins
Rene Tosoni—think of how many Sporcle roster quiz attempts he must have ruined in 2011
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images