Top designated hitters of the 21st century

David Ortiz is the clear leader among these dugout-bound sluggers

We’ve seen some of these guys in previous installments of my position-by-position roundup of the best players of the 20th century (so far).

Victor Martinez ranked as the fifth-best catcher when that list was posted in mid-October. Jim Thome was No. 9 among first basemen, with Mike Sweeney 11 slots lower in 20th place. And Nelson Cruz finished 10th in the standings for right fielders, which were posted just two weeks ago.

Now we see them again. They’re all featured among the top five designated hitters between 2000 and 2020.

My rankings are open to anybody who made 2,500 or more plate appearances after the turn of the century — and spent at least 40% of his time at a specific position.

That allowed the four players above to qualify for a pair of lists. Thome, for instance, was penciled into the lineup 776 times as a DH from 2000 to 2012, accounting for 48% of his games, while he played first base on 733 occasions (45%).

These repeaters occupy four of the five top spots in the designated hitter rankings, though not the very highest. The overall leader is David Ortiz, who made 10 All-Star teams during the 2000-2016 span of his career with the Twins and Red Sox. He blasted 541 home runs in his career, with all but 10 coming after the turn of the century.

Ortiz is the only DH who rapped more than 2,000 hits since 2000, and he also leads this category in total runs generated (2,546), runs generated per 162 games (180), and wins above replacement (55.1).

Ortiz joins these previously announced members of the all-century team:

Catcher: Joe Mauer

First baseman: Albert Pujols

Second baseman: Robinson Cano

Shortstop: Derek Jeter

Third baseman: Alex Rodriguez

Left fielder: Barry Bonds

Center fielder: Mike Trout

Right fielder: Vladimir Guerrero

The previous rankings were crowded with contenders. Seventy-four shortstops met the requirements of 2,500 plate appearances and 40% of all games at that position. The same for 72 center fielders, 69 third basemen, and 63 second basemen.

The designated hitter rankings are by far the smallest, with only 14 qualifiers. That’s partly because only the American League used the DH until 2020, and partly because few players start out as designated hitters. They usually begin as position players — as Ortiz did at first base for Minnesota — until being nudged aside because of their fielding deficiencies.

Everybody in today’s standings was rated by the same 10-part formula as in previous installments. It rewards outstanding rates like batting average, slugging percentage, and bases per outs — and strong counting stats such as games, hits, and runs generated. (Click here for a detailed explanation of the rating process.)

Each player’s statistics have been analyzed in their entirety, regardless of the positions played in individual games. That’s why all of these DHs still have fielding WARs, since they all picked up a glove from time to time. (You’ll notice that all of their fielding stats are negative numbers.)

The 14 players at this position have been ranked from top to bottom, with 1,000 points assigned to Ortiz and 0 points to the bottom of the list. Everybody else’s score was determined by relative performance.

Keep in mind that these ratings are confined to the past 21 seasons. Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez are Hall of Famers, yet they enjoyed the bulk of their success prior to 2000, which is why they’re mired in the middle of these rankings.

What follows are my profiles of the 10 highest-rated designated hitters, followed by the rest of the rankings (No. 11 to No. 14). Each profile includes a player’s score, his cumulative stats for the century, and a few pertinent notes. (Click here to learn more about the 10 statistical categories.)

Subscribe — free — to Baseball’s Best (and Worst)

A new installment will arrive in your email each Tuesday and Friday morning

1. David Ortiz (2000-2016)

  • Score: 1,000 points

  • WAR: 55.1 total, 3.9 per 162 G, -19.7 defensive

  • Averages: .287 BA, .557 SLG, .967 BPO

  • Scoring: 2,546 R generated, 180 per 162 G

  • Totals: 2,297 G, 2,379 H

  • Notes: Ortiz never won a Most Valuable Player Award, though he came close on several occasions. He finished among the top five votegetters in five consecutive years (2003-2007) and still managed to rank sixth in his final season at age 40. He led the American League in RBIs three times, peaking at 148 in 2005.

2. Jim Thome (2000-2012)

  • Score: 806 points

  • WAR: 43.2 total, 4.3 per 162 G, -12.3 defensive

  • Averages: .270 BA, .558 SLG, 1.029 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,678 R generated, 167 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,627 G, 1,445 H

  • Notes: Thome was the only designated hitter to attain more than one base for every out, an incredible rate of batting efficiency. He accumulated more than 2,400 of those bases through his 612 home runs, with 416 soaring over the fence after 1999. His best season was 2002, when he slugged a league-leading .677 for the Indians.

3. Nelson Cruz (2005-2020)

  • Score: 688 points

  • WAR: 39.4 total, 3.7 per 162 G, -12.1 defensive

  • Averages: .278 BA, .529 SLG, .869 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,687 R generated, 157 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,742 G, 1,777 H

  • Notes: Cruz will turn 41 in July, yet he continues to play for the Twins. And why not? He batted .303 with 16 homers in 2020’s truncated season. Cruz has finished among the top 10 MVP votegetters five times in the past seven seasons. 

4. Victor Martinez (2002-2018)

  • Score: 604 points

  • WAR: 31.9 total, 2.6 per 162 G, -8.4 defensive

  • Averages: .295 BA, .455 SLG, .763 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,846 R generated, 152 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,973 G, 2,153 H

  • Notes: Only Ortiz has played more games, rapped more hits, or generated more runs than Martinez among the 21st century’s designated hitters. The zenith of Martinez’s career came in 2014, when he launched 32 homers and drove in 103 runs for the Tigers.

5. Mike Sweeney (2000-2010)

  • Score: 530 points

  • WAR: 20.3 total, 3.1 per 162 G, -7.0 defensive

  • Averages: .300 BA, .497 SLG, .860 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,115 R generated, 168 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,074 G, 1,177 H

  • Notes: Sweeney was called up by the Royals in 1995 as a catcher, then became a fixture at first base. But he primarily served as a DH during his final eight seasons. His 21st century batting average of .300 is the highest among designated hitters.

6. Frank Thomas (2000-2008)

  • Score: 515 points

  • WAR: 21.0 total, 3.6 per 162 G, -7.7 defensive

  • Averages: .273 BA, .528 SLG, .962 BPO

  • Scoring: 970 R generated, 165 per 162 G

  • Totals: 951 G, 904 H

  • Notes: Thomas earned a pair of MVP trophies and led the American League in on-base percentage four times. But all of that occurred prior to 2000, when he was still a first baseman. He batted .320 before the turn of the century, only .273 afterward.

7. Edgar Martinez (2000-2004)

  • Score: 503 points

  • WAR: 16.1 total, 3.9 per 162 G, -5.2 defensive

  • Averages: .295 BA, .499 SLG, .941 BPO

  • Scoring: 709 R generated, 172 per 162 G

  • Totals: 668 G, 689 H

  • Notes: Martinez arrived in Seattle as a third baseman, winning a pair of AL batting titles in 1992 (.343) and 1995 (.356). The latter year was when he made the transition to DH, the position he would play the rest of his career.

8. Travis Hafner (2002-2013)

  • Score: 456 points

  • WAR: 24.8 total, 3.4 per 162 G, -9.8 defensive

  • Averages: .273 BA, .498 SLG, .895 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,137 R generated, 156 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,183 G, 1,107 H

  • Notes: Hafner is a forgotten star from the century’s first decade. He reached triple digits in RBIs in four straight years (2004-2007) for the Indians. He was an oddity in one regard — spending more games at DH than any other position in each of his 12 seasons.

9. Billy Butler (2007-2016)

  • Score: 165 points

  • WAR: 11.9 total, 1.4 per 162 G, -13.5 defensive

  • Averages: .290 BA, .441 SLG, .731 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,173 R generated, 134 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,414 G, 1,479 H

  • Notes: Butler spent a couple of seasons as the Royals’ regular first baseman, but otherwise worked out of the dugout. He was one of only three DHs since 2000 to bat at least .290 while amassing more than 1,000 hits.

10. Kendrys Morales (2006-2019)

  • Score: 147 points

  • WAR: 13.1 total, 1.6 per 162 G, -8.7 defensive

  • Averages: .265 BA, .453 SLG, .714 BPO

  • Scoring: 1,111 R generated, 132 per 162 G

  • Totals: 1,363 G, 1,289 H

  • Notes: Morales flashed power during his 13-year career — seven times blasting more than 20 home runs — but he had a hard time staying in one place. He played for seven clubs in all, enjoying his greatest success (34 homers, .306 BA) with the Angels in 2009.

Everybody else