Updated October 2018
The designated hitter was the most recent significant rule change in baseball, occuring in 1973. Because of this there are only 39 seasons of designated hitters to evaluate. Over those years, the Indians have only had two long term DHs, making this the least impressive of every top ten positional list. The rankings from 3-10 are players who have played between one and three years as starting DH. This includes every player who had even a single decent season at that position for the Indians. This list is the easiest for any future player to grab a place on as it could take as little as a single season. Including the five borderline players listed below the stats, every single player who has played a single season at DH (and did not make a top ten list at another position) for the Indians is on this page somewhere except Dave Clark (and now he is too).
10. Chris James – Years Starting DH: 1990-1991
James is on this list because the Indians didn’t have any full time starting designated hitters that aren’t listed. In 1991 he set the Indian record for most RBI in a single game with 9 on May 4th against Oakland. He only knocked in 41 total runs that season, making it even an even more impressive feat.
9. Oscar Gamble – 1973-1974
Gamble was the Indians first DH, when the new rule was instated in the AL in 1973. He held the job for two of his three years with the Tribe. This was his first chance to play an entire season in the pros after coming to Cleveland from Philadelphia and he played fairly well. Gamble hit more than 15 home runs with more than 50 runs and 40 RBI each season he spent with the team.
8. Richie Sexson – 1999
Although Sexson only spent a single season as a starter, he was around for a few years, filling in for Jim Thome at first base and alternating with Justice at DH. Despite his height, he was a below average defender at first, making him another great candidate for DH. While he played parts of three seasons, 1999 was by far his best and only starting year. That season he hit 31 home runs while knocking in 116. That year was enough on it’s own for him to make the top ten, while his other two partial seasons move him up to number seven.
7. Eddie Murray – 1994-1996
While Murray was a good defensive firstbaseman during most of his career, winning 3 straight Gold Gloves in the 1980’s, he was unavailable for anything but hitting duties when he joined the Tribe during the twilight of his career. Murray helped the Indians to the 1995 World Series and knocked in more than 200 runs in three years of limited service.
6. Edwin Encarnacion – 2017-Present
Encarnacion signed a four year deal heading into 2017 and burst onto this list after his first season. His 294 games played blow away the players listed as borderline top 10 at the end of this article and his .358 OBP and .490 SLG make everyone behind him look like chumps. Why did it take five years after Hafner left for the Indians to find a decent DH? The answer to that may be the same as why it took them from when Thornton left in 1987 until Hafner to find a DH who would stick around for more than three seasons. In any event, it appears Encarnacion will be around for at least three years and if he does so at his current level, he’ll easily move into the top three on this list.
5. Ellis Burks – 2001-2002
Burks was another player who was unable to perform in the field by the time he joined the Indians, but still put in three good seasons at the tail end of his career. His 2002 season was the second best in his 20 year career even though he only had two years (and 66 total games) left in his playing career. Like seven other players out of the top ten, Burks made his career elsewhere, with just a minor note in Cleveland.
4. Rico Carty – 1975-1977
Carty transitioned to DH when he came to Cleveland after a lengthy career in left field with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves. He was more successful than most of the short term DH’s for the Indians and is the only Indians DH to ever bat over .300 for the entirety of his time with the team.
3. David Justice – 1997-1998
Justice only played a couple of seasons as an Indian, but won a silver slugger at LF in 1997 and is third in almost every cumulative stat among Indians DHs. While his tenure with the team was short, it came during the prime of his career and he was very productive. In his career, he ranks in the top 10 among every Indians hitter in history in slugging percent and OPS.
2. Andre Thornton – 1981-1986
Thornton was the Indians first long term DH and the only one between 1973 and 2003. He missed all of 1980 due to injury and was replaced at first base by Mike Hargrove. From 1982-1984, without the stress of playing defense, Thornton became the crux of the Indians offense, leading all hitters in home runs, RBI and runs scored.
1. Travis Hafner – 2003-2012
It took the Indians over thirty years to find a player who truly fit the DH position so perfectly he spent more than a decade there. Hafner was physically unable to play any defensive position and was an amazing pure power hitter during his first few years with the Tribe. In his career he had more home runs than any player on this list except for Thornton and Thornton played half his career at first base. His slugging percent (the best measure of a successful DH) was higher than all but two of the shorter tenured players, despite playing in Cleveland through his whole career, including his decline over his last couple of seasons.