It used to be they were the lumbering goliaths of the batting order, stepping out of the dugout only four times a game to strut to the plate, swing at a few pitches, maybe hit a home run, a double and then walk back their work complete. For years, the American League found a way to employee a dozen players who would otherwise be positionless by using them as designated hitters.
In many cases it extended careers, giving players like Don Baylor, Chili Davis and Willie Horton extra years and many more at bats. For Paul Molitor it probably opened the door to the Hall of Fame. Something that might happen as well for the Mariners' Edgar Martinez, who retired last year as perhaps the most prolific DH of all time.
But the position has changed, no longer the domain of a handful of hitters.
In fact only four players are even considered true designated hitters these days _ Boston's David Ortiz, Seattle's Raul Ibanez, Travis Hafner of Cleveland and Dmitri Young in Detroit. And even then all of these players have played at least 10 games in the field.
So what happened?
"That's a good question," Baltimore's interim Manager Sam Perlozzo said the other day.
His Orioles are a perfect example of what is going on today in baseball. Teams are treating the position as a revolving door of pinch hitters as opposed to a regular place for a single slugger. Baltimore has used six players as designated hitters this season with John Gibbons and Sammy Sosa getting the most at bats as DHs. But nobody has come to the plate enough as a designated hitter to earn the distinction of being the team's DH.
More than half the teams in the American League now use the same approach, rotating players into the slot rather than picking a single designated hitter.
"I'm not sure but I'd wonder if it has something to do with scouting," Perlozzo said. "I think the scouts today look at athletic guys. They're afraid to take a chance on a guy. You have to look at it as a scout's reputation is on the line and they don't want to recommend someone who can only hit but doesn't have a position. They like signing athletes."
The fact is there are few Edgar Martinez's coming up anymore. Though Martinez himself was a singles-hitting third baseman known more for his glove when he cracked the major leagues in the late 1980s. It was only as his hamstrings weakened too much to keep him on the field that he got bigger and stronger and blossomed as a power hitter.
Perlozzo wondered if maybe the position is going in cycles, that we are at a point where there are few older players who can hit but can't play a position on the field. For instance, many people in baseball expect Mets catcher Mike Piazza to move on to the American League next year and settle in as a DH. Perhaps as Sosa declines or the Yankees tire of Jason Giambi at first base the game will fill with more fulltime designated hitters.
Still, most players today don't see themselves as fulltime pinch hitters. Giambi insists on playing first base at least half the time despite his often atrocious fielding. Piazza believes he can still be a catcher and Sosa loves to be in right field even as his fielding has gotten shaky.
Maybe because of this teams seem to use the slot more to afford rests for its position players. Perlozzo, for instance, has considered using shortstop Miguel Tejada as a DH simply to give the player a rest.
"It's almost a mental thing" Perlozzo said. "Mentally it's a breather. You just go to hit, you don't have to worry about every pitch of the ballgame. If you have 140 pitches in a game that's a lot of concentration. As a DH you can rest a little mentally."
Which may be the future of the position -- less a regular slot and more a rest stop where position players come to catch their breath. Though it is hard to argue with Ortiz's .303 average with 29 home runs and 101 RBI or even the 18 home runs in 93 games that Hafner has given the Indians.
And with production like that the cycle might eventually change and teams will look for fulltime designated hitters again.