If anyone makes the Baseball Hall of Fame when results of the always contentious voting are announced Tuesday, it will be legendary Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
The gregarious postseason hero known as Big Papi is the only candidate trending toward potential induction in the ballots already made public, as tracked by Ryan Thibodaux and company. In his first year on the ballot, Ortiz stands out as a bellwether of several hot button Hall of Fame issues. One is murky steroid suspicion — his only link to performance-enhancing drugs comes via a reported positive test during early MLB survey testing, which was supposed to be anonymous and may have been untrustworthy.
The other is his position. Stars who produced predominantly as designated hitters have suffered from the deleterious effects of the gut feeling that they didn’t play the whole game and from statistical guidelines like Wins Above Replacement that penalize lesser defenders.
A triumph for Ortiz would come in stark contrast to longtime Seattle Mariners DH Edgar Martinez’s 10-year climb to finally reach the writers’ 75% threshold in his final year on the ballot. Martinez went in alongside Harold Baines, a veteran’s committee pick who often plied his trade at DH, and both followed in the footsteps of first baseman-turned-DH Frank Thomas.
Ortiz, the face of the curse-breaking 2004 Red Sox, certainly has other factors putting wind in his sails to Cooperstown, but it’s worth asking whether his strong showing represents a turning of the tides for the DH.
Designated hitters rarely designated Hall of Famers
With the possible exception of the more informal closer role, the DH is the baseball position with the least history accumulated.
Since its inception in the American League in 1973, the DH role has been a point of contention and differentiation for fans, but also a smudge on the legacies of its greatest inhabitants. It truthfully opens at-bats to players whose skills might otherwise prevent them from becoming lineup fixtures. The trick is in whether that reality should count against the hitters who use the opportunity it provides, and if so, how?
Think about this for more than a few seconds and one part is obvious: It’s a position in the game. We haven’t been dinging pitchers for being useless as hitters, even though they are. The difference with the DH undoubtedly stems from its AL-only status and its (relative) recency.
Asked about the dearth of Hall of Famers who predominantly slotted in at DH in 2018, prior to Martinez’s election, the baseball historian John Thorn alluded to Branch Rickey's assessment of baseball's glacial hive mind.
“Baseball people are generally allegoric to new ideas," Thorn told SABR researcher John Cronin. "It took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms, and it is the hardest thing in the world to get Major League Baseball to change anything — even spikes on a new pair of shoes — but they will eventually.”
Still, voters were never totally averse to enshrining a DH. Paul Molitor, who starred at several infield spots but took a huge portion of his at-bats as a DH when the Milwaukee Brewers were still an AL team, made it in — potentially aided by 504 stolen bases that squashed any idea of him as a plodding slugger. The 169 steals he logged as a DH are more than double the second-best total on the list.
There’s a case to be made that DH acceptance has already been reached through quantification. As more Hall of Fame voters refer to all-encompassing value metrics like WAR and the related Hall of Fame-specific JAWS system devised by Jay Jaffe, the pros and cons of designated hitting are baked in uniformly. WAR calculations use positional adjustments to reflect the relative difficulty of playing shortstop vs. playing second base vs. playing first base and so on. Spending most of your career at DH will result in a significant downward tug on your WAR compared to a player who produced the exact same offensive numbers but also manned a competent center field.
That logic is based in the math of building a roster. If one of 26 spots is occupied by a hitter who isn’t trusted to field any position, that has a cost to the team as a whole. But it’s possible the positional adjustments, largely conceived over a decade ago, are more extreme in differentiating the positions than the contemporary game really supports.
Still, Ortiz’s early returns are evidence that off-the-cuff derision of the DH role has largely faded. More impactful is the quantified estimate of defensive value that gets baked into easy reference pages at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. For some of the last generation’s most feared hitters, throwing away their gloves in favor of DH duties would likely have bolstered their current Hall of Fame chances. Gary Sheffield lost more Baseball-Reference WAR to below-average defense, both overall and per season, than Ortiz … by consistently playing the outfield. Sheffield has never gotten close to Hall of Fame induction despite a similar resume — 509 homers, a career 141 OPS+, nine All-Star teams.
Here's how David Ortiz is tracking through 170 ballots compared to Pudge Rodriguez in 2017 (when he was elected with 76.0%) and Jeff Bagwell in 2016 (who came close at 71.6%): pic.twitter.com/KpgLZX6Thm
— Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs) January 16, 2022
Meanwhile, Ortiz — boasting 541 homers, a career 140 OPS+ and 10 All-Star teams — looks certain to reach Cooperstown based on voting patterns, even if he has to wait another year or two. Of course, Ortiz has some resume lines that transcend the typical conversation around the DH.
David Ortiz is the Mariano Rivera of the DH
Much as Mariano Rivera’s unprecedented greatness quashed any of the usual questions over the value of a relief pitcher, Ortiz isn’t just a DH. He’s the DH.
He has taken 2,241 more plate appearances at the position than any other hitter in MLB history — the equivalent of almost four whole seasons. His OPS as a DH, a job many struggle with due to the intervals of nothingness between at-bats, trails only Martinez’s among those with at least 500 games under their belts.
His candidacy, in effect, turns the DH disadvantage on its head. This is one of the official positions that appears on lineup cards, and Ortiz is the game’s most accomplished star to ever grace that position. How could he not be in the Hall of Fame?
Then there’s the cherry on top: His history-alerting postseason heroics. Ortiz’s clutch October moments spanned multiple decades and made him synonymous with Boston’s transformation from cursed to spoiled.
Ortiz, then, may be more of an exceptional case than a sign of a shift in the designated hitter’s Hall of Fame fortune. Still, the precedent could prove significant as MLB and the players consider adding a universal DH as soon as 2022, and as active boppers like Nelson Cruz retire and cement their legacies.