DH rule extended these Hall of Fame careers

April 6th, 2020

When the Yankees' Ron Blomberg stepped to the plate against Red Sox right-hander Luis Tiant at Fenway Park on April 6, 1973, Major League Baseball changed forever.

In this landmark moment, Blomberg became the first designated hitter in MLB history. American League owners had voted to approve the DH rule (Rule 5.11) on a trial basis in January, and Boston hosted New York in the first MLB game of the 1973 season, giving Blomberg this unique distinction. Rule 5.11 would eventually become permanent in the AL.

Over the years, the DH spot has been used for a variety of purposes, including hiding defensively challenged players, giving regular position players a break and relieving positional logjams. The rule also has had a larger impact on the Hall of Fame than you might realize.

The Hall doesn't yet have a player who played at least 70% of his games at DH (David Ortiz could change this when he's first eligible in 2022), but the seven inductees below each saw significant time as a DH. In fact, if not for the DH rule, all of these players' careers might have ended much sooner, leaving them short of the statistical benchmarks that made induction possible.

(Players listed in order based on career Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference, and career stats included for each player through the last year he played more games in the field than he did at DH.)

Paul Molitor, 1978-98 (75.7 bWAR)
Through 1990: 1,870 hits, 131 HR, 626 RBIs, .299/.361/.437

Molitor was a three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner over his first 13 seasons, but he battled injury problems and played fewer than 120 games six times during that span. Then, at age 34 in 1991, Molitor shifted to DH on a regular basis and stayed healthy for 158 games, leading MLB in hits (216) and runs (133) while slashing .325/.399/.489. Molitor ended up collecting 1,449 hits after 1990, reaching 3,000 in '96. He was the DH in 976 of his 1,143 games from 1991-98.

Frank Thomas, 1990-2008 (73.8 bWAR)
Through 1997: 1,261 hits, 257 HR, 854 RBIs, .330/.452/.600

Thomas is one of three Hall of Famers, along with Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines, who played more than half of his games at DH, though just 231 of his DH appearances came over his first eight seasons. The White Sox opted to move him off first base in 1998, and he played 131 games at first the rest of his career. This didn't help Thomas avoid injuries entirely -- he played fewer than 75 games in four seasons from 2001-08 -- but the DH spot gave his powerful bat a home through his 40th birthday. Thomas slugged 145 homers over his final six seasons and became the 21st member of the 500 home run club in 2007.

Jim Thome, 1991-2012 (72.9 bWAR)
Through 2005: 1,665 hits, 430 HR, 1,193 RBIs, .281/.408/.562

Thome averaged 41 home runs per season from 1996-2004, but in '05, he played just 59 games and hit .207 with seven homers and a .712 OPS before undergoing season-ending right elbow surgery. Traded from the Phillies to the White Sox in November 2005, Thome would make only eight more appearances on defense thereafter. Thome was reinvigorated as Chicago's DH in 2006, hitting .288/.416/.598 with 42 round-trippers and 109 RBIs over 143 games. The lefty slugger joined the 500 home run club a few months after Thomas in 2007, and four years later became the eighth player to reach 600 homers.

Eddie Murray, 1977-97 (68.7 bWAR)
Through 1993: 2,820 hits, 441 HR, 1,662 RBIs, .290/.364/.483

With three-time All-Star Lee May at first base, the DH spot allowed Murray to receive regular playing time with the Orioles in 1977, when he won AL Rookie of the Year honors. Murray took over as Baltimore's starting first baseman the following season and held that role until 1988, before moving to the National League for five years. He returned to the AL with the Indians in 1994 at 38 years old, sitting 180 hits shy of 3,000 and 59 homers away from 500. Appearing as a DH in 371 of his 428 games from 1994-97, Murray became the third player in history to record both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, joining Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Edgar Martinez, 1987-2004 (68.4 bWAR)
Through 1994: 686 hits, 62 HR, 268 RBIs, .303/.391/.460

Martinez is the poster child for the DH position; the award for the league's top designated hitter has been named after him since 2004, and he played 68.3% of his career games as a DH, the highest among Hall of Famers. Martinez was a capable defender at third base early in his career, but injuries took their toll, relegating him to permanent DH duties in 1995. The slugger really blossomed that year, hitting .356/.479/.628 with 29 homers, 52 doubles and 113 RBIs over 145 games. Martinez would record an OPS of .966 or higher in seven straight seasons from 1995-2001, eclipsing the 1.000 mark five times in that stretch.

Dave Winfield, 1973-95 (64.2 bWAR)
Through 1991: 2,697 hits, 406 HR, 1,602 RBIs, .285/.354/.479

Although Winfield remained a regular outfielder through age 39, he was able to hang around for another four seasons thanks to the DH spot. Those years allowed the 12-time All-Star to pad his resume, as he finished fifth in the AL MVP race and won the only World Series title of his career with the Blue Jays in 1992. Winfield then joined the Twins and reached the 3,000-hit plateau the next season. Like Molitor, Thomas, Thome and Murray, Winfield was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America in his first year of eligibility.

Harold Baines, 1980-2001 (38.7 bWAR)
Through 1986: 1,077 hits, 140 HR, 589 RBIs, .287/.331/.468

Baines made just five appearances as a designated hitter over his first seven seasons, but he ended up playing 58.1% of his career games as a DH, second to only Martinez among Hall of Famers. Baines racked up 1,789 of his 2,866 career hits, 244 of his 384 homers and 1,039 of his 1,628 RBIs from 1987-2001, a stretch in which he made only 81 appearances on defense. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Committee in 2019.