Indians' Top 5 designated hitters: Bell's take

May 18th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Mandy Bell’s ranking of the top five designated hitters in Indians history. Next week: Right-handed starting pitchers.

Tribe's Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

1. Travis Hafner, 2003-12
Key fact: Only eight players in Major League history have appeared in more games as a DH than Hafner

Hafner may not have any accolades tied to his name, but that doesn’t take away from the impact he made in the Indians’ lineup, especially early in his career. As he aged, more injuries got in his way and his offensive numbers began to skid, but it’s hard to top the production the Tribe received from him from 2004-06.

In those three seasons, the man known as “Pronk” received a handful of American League MVP Award votes after hitting at least 28 homers and recording more than 100 RBIs in each of those seasons. His 103 home runs and 1.030 OPS during that stretch made him one of the most prolific hitters in the big leagues and compelled the Indians to name their right-field mezzanine “Pronkville.” In ’06, he hit .308 with an AL-best 1.097 OPS, 42 homers, 117 RBIs and 31 doubles, and he tied Don Mattingly’s MLB record of six grand slams in a season.

"He can hit the ball out of Yellowstone," former Royals pitching coach Bob McClure told Sports Illustrated in 2007. "He has Reggie Jackson-type power with better plate discipline."

Hafner owns the 11th-highest slugging percentage (.509) in Indians history and is tied for 23rd in on-base percentage (.382). Of all Indians designated hitters, he accumulated the highest bWAR (25.0) and recorded the most doubles (238). Plus, it’s hard to top someone who created so much buzz that a candy bar was named after him.

2. Andre Thornton, 1977-87
Key fact: Joins Hafner as the only players in franchise history with more than 1,500 at-bats as a DH

If there’s anyone who could have enough of a convincing case to knock Hafner out of the No. 1 spot, it would be Thornton. The former Tribe first baseman/designated hitter was the only other long-term DH that the franchise has had. In 10 years with Cleveland, Thornton was a two-time All-Star, recorded a 19.1 bWAR and hit more than 20 homers in six different seasons. In three of those, he launched more than 30 home runs and recorded at least 99 RBIs.

Among all Indians DHs, Thornton led in games played (1,225), runs scored (650), hits (1,095), triples (12), homers (214), RBIs (749) and walks (685).

"When I see Andy hit home runs, I'm thinking Harmon Killebrew," former Indians hitting coach Tom McGraw told Sports Illustrated in 1982. "Balls that go four miles up, then out. Hank Aaron and those guys hit line-drive shots. But with Andy, outfielders keep going back and back, thinking they have a chance, and then the ball ends up 150 feet deeper."

3. David Justice, 1997-2000
Key fact: Leads all Indians DHs and ranks ninth in club history in OPS (.918)

Justice did his best to help fans part ways with beloved center fielder Kenny Lofton. Justice was traded to Cleveland just before the 1997 season -- sending Lofton to Atlanta -- and made an immediate impact for the Tribe. In his only All-Star season with the Indians, Justice hit .329 with a 1.013 OPS, 33 homers, 101 RBIs, 31 doubles and a triple in his debut year in the AL.

Although he also played in the corner-outfield spots, Justice spent just less than 50 percent of his time as the Tribe’s designated hitter in his four seasons in Cleveland. Among all other DHs in club history, he ranks third in bWAR (10.9), games played (486), runs scored (299), hits (503), doubles (102), homers (96) and RBIs (335), and he leads in on-base percentage (.392) and slugging percentage (.526).

4. Rico Carty, 1974-77
Key fact: Only Indians DH to play in more than 90 games with the club and hit over .300 for the entirety of his tenure

After the designated hitter was implemented in the AL in 1973, Carty became the Tribe’s first regular to be plugged into the lineup as a DH over the next few seasons. Although he was already more than a decade into his professional career, Carty was extremely consistent for the Tribe, hitting .303 in 430 games.

Of all Indians designated hitters, Carty ranks fourth in bWAR (7.8), games played (430), hits (451), doubles (81) and RBIs (243) and first in average (.303).

5. Ellis Burks, 2001-03
Key fact: His .520 slugging percentage is second highest among Indians designated hitters

In 317 games with the Tribe, Burks accumulated a 7.5 bWAR with 66 homers and 202 runs scored. Among Indians designated hitters, his .287 average ranks third, his .364 on-base percentage ranks fourth and his .520 slugging percentage ranks second.

Even though Burks was near the end of his 18-year career when he got to Cleveland, he still had a few solid seasons remaining, including when he hit .301 with a .903 OPS, 32 homers, 28 doubles and 91 RBIs in 2002.

Honorable mentions
Edwin Encarnación (2017-18) may not have been around for long, playing 294 games in two seasons with the Tribe, but he accumulated the seventh-highest bWAR as a DH (4.7) and hit the fourth-most homers (70).

Eddie Murray (1994-96) also had a short two-and-a-half-season stint in Cleveland, but his '95 season alone was enough to earn him an honorable mention. In 113 games, Murray hit .323 with an .891 OPS, 21 homers, 21 doubles and 82 RBIs to help get the Indians into the postseason. He then went on to hit .297 with a .906 OPS and two homers through the AL Division Series and AL Championship Series to help the Tribe advance to the World Series.

Oscar Gamble (1973-75) owned a 7.0 bWAR, which is sixth highest among Tribe designated hitters, in 369 games. He also scored the fifth-most runs (190) and hit the third-most triples (10) by an Indians DH.