MLB’s top 10 DH seasons of all time: Will Shohei Ohtani log No. 1?

It’s been just over 50 years since Major League Baseball implemented the designated hitter rule in the American League. This year marks just the third since the National League permanently adopted the rule.

Less than six weeks into the 2024 season, an NL slugger is on pace to post not only the best ever DH campaign for the league but also MLB history.

Shohei Ohtani is off to the best start of his career at the plate as he abstains from pitching while recovering from UCL surgery. The lesser workload has only made him an even better hitter in his debut season with the Dodgers

Entering Wednesday, Ohtani owned a .370/.434/.705 slash line and 217 wRC+ while on track to compile 48 home runs, 61 doubles, 136 runs, 118 RBIs, 451 total bases and 11.7 fWAR. That last total, as you’ll see with the list below, would shatter the previous single-season record by a full-time DH. 

Ohtani’s current projections would also transcend the modern era, as only two players have tallied 11.7 fWAR or more in a season since 1928. Moreover, Ohtani’s 217 wRC+ would be the highest mark since Barry Bonds eclipsed it three times in the early 2000s and the best non-Bonds figure since 1957. 

With that, here are the 10 best DH seasons ever, according to fWAR (minimum 100 games at DH):

10. Travis Hafner (Guardians), 2005: 5.3 fWAR; .305/.408/.595, 33 HR, 108 RBI, 166 wRC+
Hafner’s breakout season earned the last spot on our list by virtue of a tiebreaker. While his fWAR equaled two seasons apiece from Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz, Hafner’s 166 wRC+ topped the Hall of Famers.

That 166 OPS+ was also the first of two consecutive seasons in which he posted at least 165, making him one of just two players to do so in 2005 and 2006. The other was Albert Pujols. Pronk, as he is known from his playing days, also drew MVP votes, finishing fifth in the 2005 AL race.

9. Rafael Palmeiro (Rangers), 1999: 5.4 fWAR; .324/.420/.630, 47 HR, 148 RBI, 156 wRC+
Never mind the Gold Glove that Palmeiro was bizarrely awarded in 1999. Upon rejoining the Rangers, he became their full-time DH and continued hitting at an elite level. This was arguably his best year at the plate, and it earned Palmeiro a fifth-place finish in the AL MVP race. More than two decades later, he’s still one of just five players since 1939 to post a .320 batting average with 45 homers and 145 RBI in a season. 

8. Edgar Martínez (Mariners), 1998: 5.5 fWAR; .322/.428/.564, 29 HR, 103 RBI, 156 wRC+
Although Martínez had more impressive seasons (more on that later), this one remains notable. At 35 years old, he led the AL in on-base percentage and eclipsed the .425 mark for a fourth consecutive year. The only other player to accomplish that from 1995 to 1998 was Bonds.

Shohei Ohtani crushes homer in third consecutive game

7. Frank Thomas (White Sox), 2000: 5.9 fWAR; .328/.436/.625, 43 HR, 143 RBI, 160 wRC+
The two-time MVP nearly claimed a third award in his age-32 season. The 2000 AL runner-up hit a career-high 43 homers and became the first (and still the only) full-time DH to hit 40-plus homer while also registering 140 RBIs and 110 walks.

6. Edgar Martínez (Mariners), 1996: 5.9 fWAR; .327/.464/.595, 26 HR, 103 RBI, 163 wRC+
It’s another Martínez sighting, but not the last. For the second straight year, Martínez recorded at least 50 doubles and 25 homers. He was the only player to do that in both 1995 and 1996. The latter was also the second of four straight seasons in which he tallied 100 RBIs and 110 walks.

5. Travis Hafner (Guardians), 2006: 6.0 fWAR; .308/.439/.659, 42 HR, 117 RBI, 176 wRC+
This was Hafner’s best season, as he led the AL in slugging and OPS (1.097) and the majors in wRC+ and finished eighth in MVP voting. He also joined Jay Buhner (1995) as the only players in MLB history to post 40 homers and 115 RBIs despite playing fewer than 130 games.

4. Edgar Martínez (Mariners), 1997: 6.1 fWAR; .330/.456/.554, 28 HR, 108 RBI, 164 wRC+
Martínez makes up nearly half of this list, and his 1997 campaign was historically memorable. Despite turning 34 years old before the season, he managed to walk 115 times and post a 160 wRC+. Only five other players have reached those benchmarks at that age, and you’re certainly familiar with them (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth). Martinez was quietly but inarguably one of the best hitters of the past 50 years.

How Shohei Ohtani is surpassing his 2023 MVP pace

3. David Ortiz (Red Sox), 2007: 6.3 fWAR; .332/.445/.621, 35 HR, 117 RBI, 175 wRC+
Welcome to the only member of this list to win a World Series. It’s probably no coincidence that Big Papi won it all in the same season that he posted his best numbers at the plate (although he and the Red Sox also won titles in 2004 and 2013). In 2007, Ortiz led the AL in walks (111) and OBP and finished fourth in AL MVP voting. He also became the first full-time DH to compile 6.0 WAR in a season this century.

2. Shohei Ohtani (Angels), 2023: 6.5 fWAR; .304/.412/.654, 44 HR, 95 RBI, 180 wRC+
The record-breaking phenom took home AL MVP honors in 2023. It was an uncontested race after he produced like a frontline starter on the mound and led the league in homers and total bases (325) — despite missing nearly all of September. Oh, and he paced the majors in OBP, OPS (1.107) and wRC+. This marked Ohtani’s second unanimous selection, which puts him in a club of one, and it represents his best season at the plate. For now. 

1. Edgar Martínez (Mariners), 1995: 7 fWAR; .356/.479/.628, 29 HR, 113 RBI, 182 wRC+
This is the year that Martínez cemented himself as the premier designated hitter of his era and remains the gold standard for DH campaigns. In his best season at the plate, Martínez led MLB in doubles (52), OBP, OPS (1.107) and wRC+. He also won his second batting title and scored an AL-best 121 runs while finishing third in MVP voting. Martínez became just the second hitter since 1938 to post a .350 average with 50 doubles and 25 homers. Six players have now reached all of these marks in the same year, but only Martínez and Magglio Ordóñez pulled it off past their age-30 seasons. 

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