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Please devote your rapt attention to the opening strains of official Major League Baseball rule 5.11(a): 

"A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers in any game without otherwise affecting the status of the pitcher(s) in the game."

Yes, that is the designated hitter rule, which has been a consistently divisive part of MLB since 1973. For years, the DH rule was of course the sole province of the American League. However, the pandemic-compromised 2020 season gave us a taste of the universal DH. The current collective bargaining agreement, which was put in force prior to the 2022 season, made the DH a permanent presence in both the AL and NL, and that's where we are today. 

Thundering denunciations by old-line fans over the adoption of the DH in both leagues has mostly died down, as such things tend to do. That means there's only one remaining rite of initiation still to be undertaken -- a DH winning the Most Valuable Player award. 

This stands to reason, of course. The reality is that DHs don't play defense, and that reduces their overall value. By extension, the offensive bar is higher for DHs than it is for hitters who play the field. Beyond that, MVP voters, probably in substantial numbers, may saddle DH candidates with an informal penalty when the time comes to fill out those ballots. Presumably, there's some level of offensive production that could earn a DH the award, but we haven't seen it yet. We've given the MVP award to pitchers on multiple occasions -- including three relievers -- but thus far such special consideration hasn't been given to a DH. Heck, a primary DH has even won a Gold Glove award -- Rafael Palmeiro in 1999 won the honor as a first baseman even though he logged just 28 games at the position compared to 128 as DH. 

As you have probably already surmised, Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani is prompting this particular conversation. Ohtani has himself won a pair of MVP awards while being a primary DH. However, had not also been an excellent starting pitcher in those two seasons, he would not have won the award. So while Ohtani indeed claimed MVP laurels as a DH, being a DH was roughly half of what he did to earn those laurels. 

Given that Ohtani is deeply familiar with doing baseball things that have never been done before, it's worth noting that this season he could indeed become that elusive DH MVP. That's because he's not pitching in this, his first season with the Dodgers as he recovers from elbow surgery. He is, though, soldiering on as perhaps the best pure hitter in baseball. At this writing, Ohtani is slashing .348/.418/.641, which comes to an NL-leading OPS+ of 198. He also has 13 homers, leads the majors in total bases and is second for hits behind Luis Arraez. Oh, and to boot he's stolen 13 bases without being caught. He has the second-best NL MVP odds behind teammate Mookie Betts.

Will that kind of clip be enough to earn him the NL MVP award in 2024? That's of course unknowable right now, but perhaps a look back at how DHs have fared in the MVP vote might prove illuminating. There are a couple of ways to go about this. The first is by looking at the players who won the MVP award seemingly despite logging significant time at DH. 

Part-time DHs who won the hardware 

Just three players have logged meaningful time at designated hitter in the same season they won the MVP award (this, again, is not counting Ohtani's duo of MVP campaigns for reasons already laid out). The first was Red Sox slugger Jim Rice in 1978, who racked up more than 400 total bases and handily topped Yankees ace Ron Guidry in the balloting that year. Rice was a primary left fielder that season. However, he also made 49 starts at DH, which comes to roughly 30% of his games played in '78. Coincidentally, Rice the prior year was named Designated Hitter of the Year (now known as the Edgar Martinez Award), as Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski was still around and manning left field in 1977. By '78, though, Rice established himself as Boston's regular left fielder. 

The very next year, Don Baylor won the MVP and saw even more time at DH than Rice did. Like Rice, Baylor was mostly a left fielder in his MVP season, but he registered 65 games at DH for the Angels that year, or just a bit more than 40% of his total games played. Baylor topped Ken Singleton of the Orioles and George Brett of the Royals in the vote in part because he achieved the rare feat of leading the majors in RBI and runs scored in the same season.

Finally we have Juan Gonzalez. The Rangers' ribbie-smith won the first of his two MVPs in 1996 thanks in large measure to his 47 homers and 144 RBI. Juan Gone typically patrolled right field for Texas, and that was the case in '96. He did, though, play 32 of his 134 games, or 23.9%, as the DH. And that's really it. Baylor still stands as the closest thing to a DH who's won the MVP, and that was going on a half a century ago. 

Now let's have a look at actual DHs who garnered notable MVP support. 

Primary DHs who came the closest to winning the MVP

On seven occasions, a primary DH -- meaning one who played the majority of his games that season as his team's designated hitter -- has finished second or third in the MVP balloting. Let's run it down in chronological order, just like the phone book: 

  • 1991: Frank Thomas, White Sox, finished third in vote (180 OPS+, 32 homers, 138 walks, 7.0 WAR)
  • 1993: Paul Molitor, Blue Jays, finished second in vote (211 hits, 143 OPS+, 324 total bases, 22 steals, 5.6 WAR) 
  • 1995: Edgar Martinez, Mariners, finished third in vote (.356/.479/.628, 52 doubles, 116 walks, 7.0 WAR)
  • 2000: Frank Thomas, White Sox, finished second in vote (.328/.436/.625, 43 homers, 364 total bases, 6.0 WAR)
  • 2005: David Ortiz, Red Sox, finished second in vote (158 OPS+, 88 extra-base hits, 5.2 WAR)
  • 2006, David Ortiz, Red Sox, finished third in vote (54 homers, 119 walks, 355 total bases, 5.8 WAR)
  • 2014: Victor Martinez, Tigers, finished second in vote (172 OPS+, 32 homers, 5.5 WAR)
  • 2022: Yordan Alvarez, Astros, finished third in vote (188 OPS+, 37 homers, 6.8 WAR)

Although Edgar Martinez finished third in '95 behind Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle, he did manage to pick up four first-place votes. Thomas, meanwhile, picked up 10 first-place votes in 2000. (Thomas is a two-time AL MVP, but he was a primary first baseman in each of those seasons.) The winner that year, Jason Giambi, garnered 14. The record for "Most First-Place MVP Votes for a DH, Non-Ohtani Division" belongs to Ortiz in 2005, when he earned 11 of them. The winner, A-Rod, had 16. Victor Martinez's second-place finish in 2014 wasn't particularly close, as Mike Trout was the unanimous choice for MVP. 

Other considerations 

While DHs have not been honored with regular-season MVP plaudits, they have won the World Series MVP. Specifically, three DHs have taken top individual honors for the Fall Classic: Molitor with the Blue Jays in 1993, Hideki Matsui with the Yankees in 2009, and Ortiz with the Red Sox in 2013. It's a bit of a logical disconnect. If a DH can hit well enough to overcome his absence of defensive responsibilities and win the World Series MVP, then why can't he do the same in the regular season? 

He can, presumably, as DHs have received first-place MVP votes before, as noted above. Instead, the voting hive mind has presumably decided that no DH in the regular season had produced at a level sufficient to make him more valuable than all of his league peers. So it's less a case of "DHs are informally barred from winning the MVP" than it is "no DH as of yet has hit well enough to merit the MVP." You can dispute the accuracy of that latter stance, but it seems to be the working theory. 

It's also worth noting that the BBWAA voting body has changed significantly over the years, and those changes have generally yielded more open-mindedness to matters such as these. If Ohtani or some other DH hits well enough to make him the most valuable player in a given season, then voters will probably treat him as such.

This brings us full circle to Ohtani. Specifically, it brings us to the current WAR leaderboard in the National League: 

Player, team2024 WAR

Mookie Betts, Dodgers


Shohei Ohtani, Dodgers


Shota Imanaga, Cubs


Ketel MarteDiamondbacks


Ranger Suárez, Phillies 


As you can see, Ohtani narrowly trails Betts, who's putting up his usual excellent numbers at the plate while also playing shortstop. Ohtani, though, is right there, and considering that his numbers are backed up by elite quality-of-contact indicators and that he won't be fatigued down the stretch by his pitching duties, he figures to continue producing at a best-in-class level. Barring injury, Ohtani, it says here, will put up the highest offensive WAR ever by a DH, and as such you can expect that some MVP support will accrue to him.

Will it be enough to make Ohtani the first DH to win the MVP? It's never happened before, but Ohtani is nothing if not deeply familiar with doing things that have never been done before.