Feature photo courtesy of Jkaradell.
What’s the easiest way to start an argument between baseball fans? Having them discuss the merits of the designated hitter.
Any conversation about the subject is guaranteed to incite declarations that either the American or the National League is superior, insults thrown at pitchers trying to hit and certain hitters sitting all day, praise bestowed on “craftier” NL managers, and undertones of modernism versus traditionalism.
It’s all fodder for healthy, harmless debate, with people almost always taking the side of whichever league their favorite team plays in. Everyone assumes the style of play they watch most often is the correct model of baseball.
Knowing the outcome of that previous conversation is so predictable, some may crave something more, a topic that inspires greater thought and more passion. If that’s the case, take the next step in having them evaluate the worth of the designated hitter. Ask if the designated hitter has a place in the Hall of Fame.
The answer, so far, has been met by a resounding, all-caps, “NO,” with a line of exclamation points for emphasis, even by what we hope are the most rational judges of baseball careers, the Hall of Fame voters.
Whereas the great Edgar Martinez has failed to even slightly alter the thought process in the past, Red Sox DH David Ortiz should change everything.
Frank Thomas finally got the ball rolling for the position by reaching Cooperstown. A 2014 electee, Thomas was the first to reach the Hall while spending a majority of his career as a DH.
That’s a small victory, but certainly not one that would open the floodgates for future designated hitters. Thomas entered the position in a stereotypical way: due to a combination of age and bulk, he became a defensive liability at first base, one the White Sox could no longer deal with.
By the time that shift came, Thomas had already made his Hall case. At first base over his career, he produced a dominant .337/.453/.625 slash line. At DH, it was a good but less intimidating .275/.394/.505.
Paul Molitor was similar. Another first ballot electee back in 2004, Molitor played about 44 percent of his games as a DH. Like Thomas, he accumulated the better half of his resume at other positions, so his time at DH was more like an unfortunate, but forgivable, side note to his career for voters.
Martinez and Ortiz are different. They’re almost unquestionably full-time designated hitters. Martinez played 27 percent of his career games at third, at the beginning of his career. Ortiz, on the other hand, may or may not own a glove: he’s played 84 percent of his games at DH.
Without defense, a player’s offense needs to be outstanding to have a chance at the Hall of Fame. Using Fangraphs’ WAR as a guide, Martinez’s 64.7 WAR was just behind Thomas’ 67.7 to give him the second-highest total from 1990 to 2004, which covers the time from Martinez’s first full season to his last.
Martinez wasn’t merely a great DH; he was a great hitter, period. Among all players, he had the eighth-most WAR of that time period, behind the likes of Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell, among others. He was ahead of Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Ivan Rodriguez.
With only his bat helping him, Martinez finds himself in great company. Baseball Reference’s JAWS system, which attempts to provide comparisons to the average Hall of Famer by position, lumps Martinez in with the third basemen, simply because they have no designated hitters to compare him to. Given that he was doing no fielding, Martinez still does very well, surpassing the positional average in the Hall and ranking as 11th best all-time at the hot corner, Hall of Fame or not.
That hasn’t been enough so far: in six years on the ballot, he’s maxed out at 36.5 percent, well short of the 75 percent needed for induction. And, to some extent, that’s understandable. He averaged 24 homers, 41 doubles and 99 RBI a season, and finished with 309 career home runs and 1261 RBI, which are good but not extraordinary power numbers. Contact was more his game, as he produced an excellent .312/.418/.515 slash line over his career.
If you want to compare him to Molitor, he had much more power (10 homers a year more on average), similar contact numbers and less than a tenth of the speed (Molitor stole 504 bases, Martinez took 49).
But unlike Martinez, who may have been overshadowed by Thomas to some extent, Ortiz has had no rival since coming to Boston in 2003. In those 13 seasons, Ortiz has accumulated 43.6 fWAR as a DH. The next closest is Victor Martinez, at 29.9. Then it’s players like Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, Edwin Encarnacion and Travis Hafner hovering between 22 and 23, and then oblivion: the Jack Custs and Billy Butlers of the world.
Ortiz has clobbered 444 home runs in this time, light years away from the runner-up Thome’s 278. His 1399 RBIs lead Martinez by more than 400.
It’s positional dominance. Looking in the window of 2003 to 2015, there is only one position where the gap in WAR between the leader and runner-up eclipses the one between Ortiz and Victor Martinez: second base, where Chase Utley’s 61.3 is nearly 20 wins higher than Robinson Cano’s mark. However, Cano has one more home run than Utley, and Dan Uggla is only two behind. Dustin Pedroia, who didn’t enter the league until 2007, has an MVP award. Utley didn’t necessarily dominate his position.
Then again, Albert Pujols may not have dominated per se at first base, since Miguel Cabrera is also surely Hall-bound and Joey Votto and Ryan Howard have taken an MVP award each. There’s an argument to be made that, in limiting the sample size to half a position over 13 years, there’s a chance that only one excellent player may be found, rather than a couple or a handful.
Let’s expand the pool then. Ortiz has the 13th-highest fWAR among all hitters from 2003 to 2015. That’s without any of the defense that drives up the numbers of Utley, Ichiro, Adrian Beltre and Jimmy Rollins.
Outside that window, his numbers stand up in any era. He’s the 27th player to join the 500 home run club, which he did last week with a vintage two-home run game against Tampa Bay. He’s in the top 30 in slugging percentage (26th, .546), RBI (30th, 1637), and doubles (20th, 581). He’s far from the classic all-or-nothing, strikeout or home run, .250 hitter. He strikes out a very reasonable 17.6 percent of the time while slashing .284/.378/.546.
Those numbers would be good enough for any normal hitter trying to gain entry into baseball’s sacred halls, but the DH is always met with extra scrutiny. So here’s some extra credit: Ortiz’s remarkable postseason resume. Reggie Jackson already claimed the nickname Mr. October, but there’s little difference between the two.
Jackson has four rings and two World Series MVPs; Ortiz has three and one, plus an ALCS MVP for leading Boston’s epic, unprecedented 3-0 series comeback. Jackson had 18 home runs and 48 RBI in 77 postseason games; Ortiz has 17 and 60 in 82. Jackson slashed .278/.358/.527 with an .885 OPS; for Ortiz, it’s .295/.409/.553 with a .962 OPS.
Jackson has the three-home run World Series game as his signature moment; Ortiz had the walk-off dinger in Game 4 of the ‘04 ALCS and another walk-off single in Game 5, plus a historic 2013 World Series in which he batted .688 with two home runs.
Even though “clutch” is a term widely mocked in the analytics community, there is not a soul denying Ortiz is the very embodiment of the word.
Considering all variables, Ortiz presents what should be a slam dunk body of work for Cooperstown. Inevitably, he will be met with resistance.
His career is like paying with change: when everything’s added up, the desired total is there, but people don’t like the intervals in which it was reached. (It’s amazing DHs have never been labeled “quarters,” as in the percentage of the game they play in.)
The main point: If Ortiz was employed in the field and played the worst first base of all time, with the same offense, he would likely have little trouble getting elected. “He tried, at least, unlike that bum so and so,” voters might say. Since he sits a majority of the game, people can reason that he doesn’t get tired or beat up like other players and that extends his admittedly impressive longevity.
Tell me, what sense is there in having the DH position if all the achievements players generate out of that slot are discounted, if not thrown away? For the most part, DHs are all but ruled ineligible for MVP awards and the Hall of Fame. I recognize it takes an incredible season or career for a DH to be granted these honors, but that doesn’t mean such an outcome is an impossibility.
Cooperstown is a museum of baseball history. Why are the greatest players in the history of any position ignored?
Many years down the road, when Ortiz finally hangs up his equipment and appears on the ballot as one of the most feared hitters of his era and likely the greatest full-timer in the history of his position, voters will need to seriously reevaluate their exile of the designated hitter. American and National League allegiances notwithstanding.