P/C: Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press
If you’ve watched a few baseball games in the last decade, chances are you know that few baseball athletes have meant more to the great city of Boston than David “Big Papi” Ortiz. From his well-documented contributions on the field, to his personality that endeared him to even some Yankees diehards who cringed every time the massive beast entered the white box. At his position, as well as for his franchise, he will go down as a legend. In addition to being second in Red Sox history in home runs, third in RBIs, fourth in slugging percentage, and fifth in runs scored, he also boasts top-five career finishes in almost every major statistical category for designated hitters.
My understanding: David Ortiz is a legend for Boston. David Ortiz is a legend for Massachusetts. David Ortiz is a legend for New England.
My contention: David Ortiz is not a legend for Cooperstown, New York.
On their face, Ortiz’s numbers after joining Boston definitely seem like those of a player that you’d consider a somewhat decent candidate for the Hall of Fame. In 14 years as a Red Sox player, he averaged 34 homers and 109 RBI per year, 81 walks to just 101 strikeouts, and a .290 batting average with a .956 OPS. Not overpowering numbers, but solid nonetheless at least in the power department. Add in his achievements in postseason baseball, where he played 85 games and put together a nice .289 average and .947 OPS, not to mention keeping up his usual consistency in the power and plate discipline departments with 17 home runs and 61 RBIs to go with 59 walks and 72 strikeouts. In over 350 postseason plate appearances en route to three World Series titles (including the memorable 2004 historic run), he hit a staggering combined .455 with a 1.372 OPS. This is even more impressive when looking at the fact that he is remarkably streaky during the postseason. Out of 18 postseason series, he has the impressive history of recording an OPS of at least .900 in 10 different series (hitting for an average of over .500 three times). In contrast, in the other eight series in which he played in the postseason, he never recorded an OPS over .700 (eclipsing a .240 batting average just once).
A Hall of Fame hitter? Very possibly. A Hall of Fame Major League Baseball player? That’s another story.
At some point, it can’t be ignored that David Ortiz had a not-top-tier career participating in one facet of the game. Only twice in his entire career did he ever exceed 300 innings in the field (barely equivalent to one-fifth of the season). In bWAR, a total of 5.0 or greater is considered to be an “All-Star” season. This is a feat that Ortiz achieved in just four of his 20 years playing (2005-07, and 2016), yet he was named an All-Star in 10 seasons (also 2004, 2008, 2010-13). Let’s examine these latter five seasons for him, statistically. When combining his 2008 season statistics with those from his 2010-13 campaigns, we get an average of 27 homers and 90 RBI and a .293 batting average. Let’s take Eric Hosmer as a 2017 single-season comp to this line (which is a little generous since despite his 24 homers and 89 RBI being in step, his batting average is a much more impressive .323). His DRS? An unimpressive -5. Was Hosmer an All-Star this year? No. Cherrypicking? Hardly. This is simply a drawn-up example of how usage of All-Star appearances when arguing for (or against) HOF candidacy is often completely misguided. Another award he won multiple times? Silver slugger for designated hitters. He was deemed the “best offensive player” seven times playing 18 years an offense-only position. Personally, if I’m giving a guy half of a job that over 300 individuals each year do just fine handling in its entirety, I would expect to see him at the top a few more times, especially after factoring in big-market bias. Edgar Martinez’s Outstanding Hitter Award? We are now up to eight recognitions (why he won this award and not the DH Silver Slugger in 2003 when in each of his other seasons he received either both or neither is rather peculiar to me, but I digress). The Thomas A. Yawkey Red Sox MVP award? He won this four times in his 14-year career in Boston. In less than one-third of his seasons with the Red Sox, he was deemed the most valuable player.
Ortiz was a terrific power hitter, as well. In fact, of his Red Sox/MLB records, only one doesn’t pertain to home runs or RBIs (he also is tied with Billy Hatcher for all-time consecutive postseason on-base streak (10 games)). He was never an MVP and only finished top-three twice in his career (again, not something that really jumps off the paper for a guy who played 18 of his 20 seasons doing half of what most MLB players are expected to do). His only time leading the league in a category were three AL RBI titles. No disrespect to Ortiz, but if you put his power in the heart of an order with eight other players with .350+ OBP in 2005, four in 2006, and seven in 2016, playing half their games at Fenway Park, that’s hardly an impossible stat to accumulate.
What we have here is, essentially, a great home run hitter for the Red Sox who was consistent between the regular season and the postseason. Even then, let’s look at the 16 players ahead of him on the all-time list, and the eight immediately after him. In those 24 spots, we have 16 enshrined Hall-of-Famers and one of the greatest first basemen ever, a future enshrinee in the actively-playing Albert Pujols. Nine of these players don’t have a Gold Glove to their name. Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Mel Ott were all either finished playing or on the verge of ending their careers by the establishment of the Gold Glove Award. Frank Thomas was a primary designated hitter. Eddie Mathews had the misfortune of starting his career several years before the award was created and having star defenders like Ken Boyer and Billy Cox play at the same time as his best defensive years after 1957. Reggie Jackson was underrated as a right fielder and advanced metrics such as Range Factor, Zone Runs and variations of the two (in which he topped or near-topped many right field leaderboards during his career) add merit to the argument that he would have been more highly regarded defensively were he playing today when such metrics are more prevalent in the game. Willie McCovey is probably the only one whose status in Hall of Fame is unjustifiable with respect to his defensive metrics in supplement to his offensive abilities, and it seems likely that his lack of defensive ability was (not necessarily rightfully) forgiven by his ability to put up 16 different seasons with .800+ OPS across a 22-year career for a major market team, not entirely unlike the situation with Ortiz and the Red Sox. That being said, in all fairness, McCovey did make the top-five in appearances at 1B six times in his career (and once as a left fielder) and is 18th in MLB history in games played at the position in an era where fielding metrics were almost an afterthought.
In my next point of contention, I cite the Baseball Writers Association of America Election Rules located on the official Baseball Hall of Fame website. Rule 5 specifically names the following criteria for voting situations: “…playing ability…and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Ortiz is someone who is ultimately unworthy for lack of defensive superbity. Some voters willfully and completely ignore the total absence of statistics necessary to solidify his case to be placed among the 220 currently-enshrined playing legends elected as Hall of Fame players, not Hall of Fame batters. On what basis can those charged with the coveted task of electing a future class of baseball immortality become thinkers in the school of “the absence of a negative is a positive”, as opposed to “only the most veritable pantheon of baseball legends shall receive permanent enshrinement in Cooperstown”?
David Ortiz, #34 on the wall. David Ortiz, not for The Hall.