Fernando Vina squints in the spring sun as he faces down Texas’ Ken Hill. Vina chops his bat twice, then readies for Hill’s pitch…fastball…just a bit outside. The 1997 season was the last time the Brewers had a regular DH. Dave Nilsson started that April 1st game and led the team with 54 games at DH that season.
Now 25 years later as the Brewers prepare to re-enter the Baseball world where pitchers pitch and hitters hit, how prepared are we to maximize our offense? What will be the Brewers’ approach to filling this spot in the batting order? And how will Ben Sheets explain this to his kids?
In welcoming back, the regular DH role, Brewer fans have been hoping that the Brewers would add a big bopper to fill that role; not to mention a homecoming for Nelson Cruz. However, the Brewer brass seems to be taking the same approach to roster building that achieved playoff appearances the last 4 years – less expensive, versatile, rotational players filling out the roster around the regular core. Players that might struggle in a daily role, but bring value playing in the right situations.
Craig Counsel was asked about his preference for one player being the DH or utilizing several players and he responded,
"It’s what’s available. Being able to go in the field and play positions, it helps everybody else out. More than anything, if there are positions that you can contribute at it helps the rest of the team out as much as anything. And then it helps the group stay healthier."
So, while signing Andrew McCutchen doesn’t fit most people’s hopes of a 900 OPS regular designated hitter, it does fit the Brewers’ modus operandi for finding rotational quality while competing with the big budgets of the MLB world. A true “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts” philosophy.
But isn’t having a regular DH the norm?
In 2021, there were only seven players that had enough at-bats at DH to qualify; one of them being the incomparable two-way player, Shohei Ohtani. Thus, fewer American Teams had a dedicated DH than those that took the variety approach.
Even back in the 1990s, the Brewers tended to use multiple players in the role - often finding ways to get a bat in the line-up for a player fighting injuries like Dave Nilsson, Greg Vaughn, or the consummate pro bat, Paul Molitor. You have to go back to 1990 to find the Brewers signing Dave Parker specifically to be their regular DH.
What should we expect from the Brewers DH this year?
Andrew McCutchen is clearly one of the options. His value mostly resides against left-handed pitchers, but can also be utilized as a backup in left or right field.
With his recent knee and back injuries, Christian Yelich also presents a Molitor-like option at DH. Would minimizing the stress on his body by removing defense from his daily activities maximize his bat potential again? With Christian’s waning defensive capabilities, this might be his best long-term option anyway.
DH also presents a way to maximize Omar Narvaez’s bat when he is getting a rest from the tools of ignorance. Omar’s bat faded late last season, so perhaps getting fewer days behind the plate might be part of the plan this season.
Could the bat-in-search-of-a-position Keston Hiura find a home at DH? Keston needs to fix the holes in his swing first, but could eliminating his worries on defense ease his mind and help him bounce back to his 2019-esque levels?
Of course, there will be times when other players fill in or take a defensive rest day at DH but it is unlikely (aside from injury) that they will log many ABs at DH. Getting ABs to players like Tyrone Taylor or a hot Jace Peterson will probably push the Brewers to shift lesser defensive players to the DH role instead rather than taking a regular role at DH.
But whoever fills this new offensive position, the DH changes the focus of the senior circuit forever. Like or love it, it is here to stay. And with thoughts of Jimmy Nelson still fresh in our minds, it’s about time. Or as Ben Sheets said, "Who likes to hit? That's still what I'm still trying to figure out."