For the first time, five years after retiring from an esteemed playing career, long-time Red Sox slugger David Ortiz appears on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year. Going simply on gut feeling, I think Ortiz has the best chance at induction among the 30 former players on this ballot. He's not a sure thing, but if I had to bet, I'd say he gets in.
Should he? Let's dig in.
Coming off a year in which he hit .272/.339/.500 (120 OPS+) with 20 homers in 412 at-bats, the Twins cut Ortiz in December of 2002. More than a month later, young general manager Theo Epstein of the Red Sox grabbed him on the cheap. The seemingly-insignificant move at the time would help set both on a Hall of Fame career path.
Ortiz would finish in the top five of AL MVP voting each of the next five seasons. He later added two more top-10 finishes. He'd end up a 10-time All-Star and seven-time Silver Slugger winner. He led his league in homers once, RBI three times, walks twice, on-base percentage once, slugging once, OPS once and doubles once.
A career .286/.380/.552 (141 OPS+), Ortiz racked up a great case on both rate and counting stats.
Ortiz had 10 100-RBI seasons. Only 12 players in history did it more often. He finished with 1,768, good for 23rd all-time.
With 541 home runs, Ortiz sits 17th all time. His 632 doubles rank 12th in history. Piggybacking off those two stats, he is eighth in career extra-base hits, trailing only Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and A-Rod.
Ortiz compiled 2,472 hits and 1,319 walks (41st all-time).
He also ranks 26th in slugging, 38th in OPS, 91st in runs, 32nd in total bases, 77th in OPS+, 64th in times on base and 60th in sac flies.
For comparison's sake, there are currently 183 offensive players in the Hall.
Ortiz's top eight statistical similar players on baseball-reference.com are: Frank Thomas (Hall of Famer), Fred McGriff (should be a Hall of Famer, in my opinion), Manny Ramirez (not in due to PED ties), Miguel Cabrera (will be a Hall of Famer), Jim Thome (Hall of Famer), Rafael Palmeiro (not in due to PED ties), Jeff Bagwell (Hall of Famer) and Willie McCovey (Hall of Famer).
If we put Ortiz at first base in JAWS, he sits 29th, a decent touch below the average current Hall of Famer (the average sits between 14th and 15th right now). He's ahead of Hall of Famers Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda. He's behind non-Hall of Famers like Keith Hernandez and Will Clark. I suspect defense is the primary culprit here, as Ortiz sits 21st in offensive WAR. And we'll get to that.
The postseason performances
Where Ortiz likely gets a boost from where he sits in JAWS -- other than the raw counting stats above -- would be in October.
In 85 career playoff games, Ortiz hit .289/.404/.543 with 22 doubles, two triples, 17 homers, 61 RBI and 51 runs. Multiple that out to 162 games and Ortiz hit in the playoffs -- remember, against much stiffer competition than the regular season -- at a full season 42-double, 32-homer and 116-RBI pace.
It could be argued the most important playoff series in Red Sox history was the 2004 ALCS. Ortiz went 12 for 31 (.387) with three homers and 11 RBI in those seven games. He hit an extra-inning walk off homer in Game 4 to keep the Red Sox alive.
He hit a 14th-inning walk off single in Game 5 to send the series back to Yankee Stadium.
He hit a two-run home run in the top of the first in Game 7.
He would win ALCS MVP.
Ortiz would win three rings with the Red Sox, who previously went 86 years without one. He also won the 2013 World Series MVP, going 11-16 (.688!) with two homers, six RBI and eight walks (four of which were intentional).
Ortiz is fourth all-time in postseason doubles and RBI while sitting sixth in total bases, seventh in walks and 10th in runs.
Penalty for designated hitter?
In Ortiz's career, he started 2,009 games in the DH slot compared to 265 at first base. For years, something like this has been a non-starter in Hall of Fame discussions. The argument goes that if his teams actively kept him off the field due to being such a poor fielder, how could he be a Hall of Famer?
I'd counter that there are players in the Hall who were less-than-good hitters and are there due to being such incredible fielders (Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski come to mind and they aren't alone).
Back in 2015, when I was stumping for Edgar Martinez, I noted a group of excellent hitters who were poor defenders and made the Hall of Fame. Their poor defensive skills were overlooked due to them being such needle-movers on offense. In the cases of Martinez and Ortiz, the negative value brought to the team on defense was simply removed. That means that we can logically say the existence of the DH made them more valuable to their team.
Further, now that Frank Thomas (1,308 starts at DH, 968 at 1B) and Martinez (1,396 at DH, 560 elsewhere) are in, we should probably quite splitting hairs over Hall-worthy DHs. I know Ortiz is more extreme in terms of playing positions vs. DHing, but who really cares at this point if the offensive numbers are overwhelming?
In 2003, Major League Baseball conducted what was supposed to be an anonymous and confidential survey round of drug testing to see if a system of PED testing needed to be implemented for the 2004 season. The league determined that, yes, testing was needed and a Joint Drug Agreement was drawn up in front of 2004 and has been in place ever since.
In 2009, a New York Times report said that Ortiz was among a group of players who tested positive in the 2003 survey. Ortiz vehemently denied ever using any PEDs. He never tested positive at any point from 2004 through the end of his career.
Further, commissioner Rob Manfred has since said that there were serious legitimacy issues with the 2003 survey testing (remember, it wasn't official). Via ESPN Boston in 2016 (emphasis mine):
"The list was supposed to be confidential. I take very seriously the commitment on confidentiality," Manfred said. "It is really unfortunate that anybody's name was ever released publicly, Point 1. Point 2: I don't think people understand very well what that list was.
"There were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives. If, in fact, there were test results like that today on a player and we tried to discipline them, there'd be a grievance over it. It would be vetted, tried, resolved. We didn't do that. Those issues and ambiguities were never resolved because we knew they didn't matter.
"We knew we had enough positives that everyone agreed on that we knew were going to trigger the testing the following year. Even if Rob Manfred's name was on that list, he might have been one of those 10 of 15 where there was probably or at least a very legitimate explanation that did not involve the use of a banned substance."
There might be enough here for those wanting to avoid voting for Ortiz to have an excuse, especially since those comments above were made at a weekend where the Red Sox were honoring Ortiz's retirement.
Still, there are certainly an awful lot of questions -- especially Ortiz never testing positive from 2004-16 and the possibility that anything from 2003 seems murky, at best.
Didn't David Ortiz, aka "Big Papi" feel like a larger-than-life, Hall of Fame player? If the numbers aren't there, sometimes it seems like a silly avenue to explore, but he seems to check many other boxes anyway, so why not give bonus points? The dude was a rock star in Boston and the Dominican Republic throughout his career and still remains as such. He gave the "this is our fucking city!" speech after the tragic Boston Marathon bombing. He was the driving force in the offense for three World Series titles, especially with all those clutch hits in the faux-curse-breaking 2004 title (yes, all "curses" are fake).
The fear factor of Ortiz stepping in the box was real, too. Even in powerful lineups throughout most of his career, he racked up 209 career intentional walks, good for 16th most in history. It lasted until the end. He led the league in intentional walks in three of his last four seasons (ages 37, 39 and 40).
His arrival with the Red Sox for 2003 and then what happened with that franchise through the rest of his career really seems like it should matter as well. He had a big hand in altering a previously woebegone franchise, at least in terms of the playoffs.
Ortiz has the offensive numbers without the defense, though the postseason numbers surely give him a boost. There are questions on the PED front, though those seem pretty flimsy. The lack of a positive test through the overwhelming bulk of his career should mitigate any question.
In closing, I think Ortiz gets in eventually, if not this year, and deservedly so.