I predict that between today — when David Ortiz announced that 2016 will be his last year — and next October, when Ortiz’s career ends, there will be no fewer than 11,467 posts, columns and articles asking whether Ortiz deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. So, why waste time? Let’s beat the rush!
Actually, the rush began a long time ago. There was chatter about it for years and it spiked a good bit when Ortiz helped lead the Red Sox to the 2013 World Series title, the third for that club on Ortiz’s watch. I even wrote about it then too! Let’s update it, shall we?
David Ortiz is a career .284/.378/.547 hitter. He has 503 homers and 1,641 RBI. His OPS is .925 and his OPS+ — which adjusts him to the level of his competition, his era and the ballparks in which he hits — is 139, which means (for quick and dirty purposes) that’s he’s 39% above the average hitter. These numbers place Ortiz comfortably within the range of current Hall of Famers. Is he inner-circle? Not really, but he isn’t borderline on the offensive side at least. There are many worse hitters than Ortiz in Cooperstown whose primary argument for induction was their offensive output.
The Designated Hitter Factor
Of course Ortiz’s case is one of offensive output and offensive output alone. He has played a mere 277 of his 2,257 career games in the field, spending the rest of his time as a designated hitter.
The notion, however, that just because one has zero defensive value means one has no Hall of Fame case is silly. The DH has been part of the game for 43 seasons. It is not some novelty anymore. Relief pitchers are routinely inducted to the Hall of Fame now and they are specialists too. Many — specifically, one-inning closers — are the sorts of specialists that have only existed since the 1980s, really. If no one knocks them for not being all-around players no one should knock the DH. And the fact is that, with the possible exception of Edgar Martinez — who should be in the Hall of Fame in my view — David Ortiz has been the greatest (mostly) full-time DH in baseball history. It’s also the case that Paul Molitor and Frank Thomas would not likely have lasted long enough or produced enough as players to make the Hall of Fame without the aid of the DH as well.
Finally, as I noted above, there are guys in the Hall of Fame who played their entire career before the DH but whose Hall of Fame case rests solely on their bats. In light of that, I’m not gonna knock Ortiz for being a DH. He was given a position. He played it better than almost every player tasked with it before him. That’s good enough for me.
The Playoffs Factor
I believe in clutch hits — they happen! — but I don’t necessarily believe that there are clutch hitters. Meaning, guys who can be predicted to do well in tough spots and on big stages before the fact. So, if you make an argument that Ortiz had some clutch hitting skill that others didn’t have, I’m not likely to give it too much weight. But there is no escaping the fact that Ortiz has done well in tough spots and on big stages throughout his entire career, be they predictable or not.
In three World Series he has hit a mind-boggling .455/.576/.795 with 14 RBI in 14 games. Is he some freak of nature in this regard? Not really, as his career playoff line — including division series and league championship series — is almost identical to his batting line since he joined the Boston Red Sox. But that’s not to diminish his playoff performance. We notice what he does in the playoffs far more and are usually amazed. The fact that he has basically done that for his entire Red Sox career and some people think he is undeserving of the Hall tells us that we are underrating his regular season performance, not overstating his playoff performance. He has accomplished amazing things. Oh, and he played some first base in the World Series as well.
The Performance Enhancing Drugs Factor
A huge objection to Ortiz’s candidacy by many will be that he was once associated with performance enhancing drugs. Specifically, his name was leaked — but never confirmed — as one of the 103 players who tested positive for banned substances during baseball’s trial drug testing in 2003. Worth noting, of course, that this drug testing (a) was, by design, not to result in discipline; and (b) was supposed to remain anonymous but which had its anonymity compromised by over-zealous federal investigators.
You may have a personal rule holding that anyone who ever took PEDs hould not be in the Hall of Fame. We’ve handled these arguments here several times and I won’t rehash it here apart from noting that such a standard is often disingenuous and unfair as applied. Maybe nothing will change your mind, but know that there are already Hall of Famers who took PEDs and know that the accusations made against Ortiz are perhaps the thinnest that have been lodged against any player of his profile. And know that, in the past decade, he has never tested positive for PEDs despite his contention that he is tested more often than most players.
The “Fame” Factor
This is my personal hobby horse, and it’s one that isn’t a Hall of Fame standard as much as it’s a tiebreaker for me in close cases. I put it this way: can you tell the story of the player’s era without him? I mean really tell it? I would argue that, in Ortiz’s case, you can’t tell the a meaningful and deep story about baseball between 2000 and 2015 without mentioning his name or his exploits. I’m not saying that matters more than actual production or that a sense of such fame should push a less-than-worthy candidate over the top. But I do think it matters given that the Hall of Fame is part of museum, really, and that Ortiz’s kind of fame matters for such purposes.
So: He’s a Hall of Famer, Right?
I certainly think so. His numbers are strong. His accomplishments are great. His mark on the game is indelible. He has killed it in the World Series and it’s doubtful the Sox would’ve won any of their three recent rings without him. He is clearly the leader of one of the best teams of his era.
If that’s not Hall of Fame-worthy, there’s no point in having a Hall of Fame.