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“Position” preview: designated hitter

Do I have to?

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game Five Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Here’s a fun exercise.

How many designated hitters will the Giants use this year?

In 2020 they used 11 designated hitters.

Even if you remove the pinch-hitters, the Giants started eight different players at designated hitter.

Reminder: there were only 60 games in 2020.

There are reasons (beyond the additional 102 games) to think the Giants will be even more liberal with their employment of designated hitters in 2022. For starters, there are fewer aging, defensively-challenged players on this roster than there were in 2020. There’s no Hunter Pence, no Alex Dickerson, no Pablo Sandoval, no ... /goes to the optometrist, takes an eye test, is informed of his good vision, pokes himself in the eye, retakes the eye test, is prescribed glasses, orders overpriced custom glasses with hipster frames from Warby Parker, waits six weeks for them to arrive, puts them on, and adjusts glasses ... Justin Smoak?

I’ve been intending to start each of these preseason position previews by listing the players who will get a lot of playing time, followed by their ZiPS wRC+ projection. Here’s what it looks like for designated hitter:

Darin Ruf (105)
Wilmer Flores (112)
Joc Pederson (106)
Brandon Belt (120)
Evan Longoria (92)
Mike Yastrzemski (109)
LaMonte Wade Jr. (109)
At least 10 other people (number TBD)

Yeah, that about sums it up.

The Giants will use the position fluidly, because that’s what they do. Everyday players like Brandon Belt and Mike Yastrzemski will spend time there to take the strain off their body. Wilmer Flores will get his fair share of opportunities so that the Giants can limit their exposure to his glove. Players returning from injury, like Evan Longoria, LaMonte Wade Jr., and [insert 22 players here as the season goes on] will get their bats in the lineup without risking injury in the field, as Austin Slater did two years ago. Joc Pederson will grow accustomed to “DH” next to his name since the Giants have four left-handed outfielders and his defense is a 30-inch funfetti cake in the shape of a question mark. And when the team has clinched the division a few days before the season ends, and Game 162 doesn’t matter, trade-deadline acquisition Madison Bumgarner will don his batting helmet as the team’s DH.

And through it all, Darin Ruf will hit, and hit, and hit.

The Giants won’t have a singular DH, but if they did it would be Ruf. He’s the obvious candidate on any given day. His defense is not nearly as bad as many believe, but he’s still the fifth, sixth, or seventh-best defensive outfielder on the team, depending on if Steven Duggar and Mauricio Dubón make the roster. He’s the second-oldest position player on the team.

And most importantly, he can hit.

The Giants need that final point to prove true if they want to once again contend for the division, the playoffs, and the championship.

San Francisco surpassed their projected win total by an unprecedented 30 or so victories last year because players did not perform the way the computers said they would. Or rather, because the players did not perform the way the publicly-available computers said they would.

The computers that say Property of San Francisco Giants LLC. on the back probably were a touch rosier.

But because projections are a long game, they’re still dubious.

Those projections say Ruf will have a wRC+ of 105 this year, which in 2021 would have ranked 124th in the Majors (minimum 300 plate appearances), tied with Brad Miller, Jonathan Villar, Jonathan Schoop, Trey Mancini, and his then-teammate Donovan Solano.

Yes, that’s the projected offensive season for Ruf, who was 16th in the Majors in wRC+ last year, directly ahead of Bryan Reynolds, Trea Turner, Buster Posey, and Joey Votto. Ruf who in 2020 (minimum 100 plate appearances) was 42nd in the Majors in wRC+, one spot ahead of Aaron Judge.

Ruf who, over the last two seasons has been the 14th-best hitter in all of baseball (minimum 400 plate appearances).

That’s not to shame the computers. They have their reasons for projecting Ruf to regress to a mildly above-average bat, just as the Giants have their reasons for thinking Ruf will continue to be good enough that it was worth grabbing his final years of arbitration and first year of free agency ASAP as possible.

The computers won most of those debates in 2020, and the Giants finished with more losses than wins. The Giants won most of those debates in 2021, and they finished with more wins than in any other season in franchise history.

Ruf is just one of those debates, but he’s one of the most important ones. He was significantly better against right-handed pitchers last year than he projects to be against all pitchers this year. A repeat of that performance could put him in the All-Star Game now that DHs are apparently a thing.

But he won’t be the only one at the position. He won’t be the only one at all. We’ll see Giant after Giant try out the new “position,” and while we may never get used to it, we’ll still cheer on every last homer.