Before getting to the designated hitter stuff, let’s first get down to a couple of extraordinary David Ortiz numbers.
1. By the end of the 2016 season — what Ken Rosenthal and others are reporting will be Ortiz’s last season — a healthy David Ortiz will become just the third player in baseball history to hit 600 doubles and 500 homers in a career. The first two? Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds.
2. Again assuming health, David Ortiz this year will pass the following players on the all-time extra-base hits list: Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, George Brett, Manny Ramirez, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb and Carl Yastrzemski. He should finish his career 11th all-time in extra-base hits.
Note: Neither of these crazy statistics even include Ortiz’s October heroics, and few in baseball’s history have had as many October heroics as Big Papi.
In other words: The number case for David Ortiz is fairly impressive. Of course, impressive is a subjective term. Cooperstown standards have shifted over the last few years, largely because of the PED-infused post-strike era. It used to be 400 career home runs would likely get you elected to the Hall. Now there are players with 500 homers (Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez) and 600 homers (Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez) and even 700 homers (Barry Bonds) who will have a very hard time getting in. Some of them, in fact, won’t get in.
The dampening of numbers even hurts someone like Jim Thome, who mashed 612 career homers and has never had any PED connections but whose Hall of Fame case at this point seems to be inspiring yawns. Big numbers do not inspire awe in the same way.
In this context, Ortiz’s 503 homers and 584 doubles and career .547 slugging percentage don’t wow like they once might have. Still impressive. But no jaws drop.
There are other things for Ortiz to contend with on his way to Cooperstown. Ortiz has had to wear the “Scarlet S” for failing a drug test back in 2003. That was supposed to be a secret test — it was before MLB and the players’ union had agreed on a testing policy — but Ortiz’s name was discovered, and for many (including, undoubtedly, some Hall of Fame voters) that test invalidated everything he did from that point on.
But then there’s another challenge — Ortiz’s life as a designated hitter — that I want to talk about here.
We never quite know how to honor the greatest specialists in sports. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has one pure kicker (Jan Stenerud) and one pure punter (Ray Guy). Is that enough? Too much? People disagree. Morten Andersen is the NFL’s all-time leading scorer; I have sensed that no one is picketing Canton to get him in. There is a chance that the seemingly ageless Adam Vinatieri could pass Andersen on the points list — he’s probably about three seasons away — and with Vinatieri’s Super Bowl heroics, I imagine he will inspire some support. But who knows, really? They’re kickers.
In baseball, Bruce Sutter stands alone in the Hall of Fame — he’s the only pitcher in the Hall who did not start a single game. Sutter’s election was a bit of an anomaly; it came at a time when there just weren’t any persuasive starting pitchers on the ballot (the Baseball Writers were not persuaded by Bert Blyleven’s case for a long time).
With no starters getting the electorate excited, superb relievers like Sutter and Goose Gossage (along with Lee Smith, who would receive almost half the vote) filled the void. There’s a pretty good argument that relievers are specialists who, for the most part, lack the stamina, staying power or pitch variety of starting pitchers. Sometimes that argument prevails (top-notch closers like John Franco, Roberto Hernandez, Todd Jones and Troy Percival barely got a glance) and sometimes it doesn’t. Coming up, we know Mariano Rivera will get elected first ballot but nobody seems too sure what kind of support Trevor Hoffman will get this year.
Then, there are the designated hitters. At this moment, there is only one player in the Hall of Fame — Frank Thomas — who spent at least half his career as a DH.
Here is how it breaks down:
Hall of Famers who were DHs at least 50 percent of the time:
Hall of Famers who were DHs between 40-50 percent of the time:
Hall of Famers who were DHs between 30-40 percent of the time:
Hall of Famers who were DHs between 20-30 percent of the time:
Hall of Famers who were DHs between 10-20 percent of the time:
Obviously most of these guys only started playing DH after they grew older and slower and could no longer play in the field. You would probably say that only Thomas and Molitor became Hall of Famers because of the time they spent at DH.
David Ortiz will be the purest DH ever to be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame. So far, he’s gotten 83 percent of his plate appearances as a designated hitter — that number will go up — and only one player with 3,000 plate appearances, Travis Hafner, played so much DH. Even Frank Thomas got almost 1,000 games at first base. Ortiz played fewer than 300 games in the field.
And so when it’s Ortiz’s time, the question will be asked again: Should a designated hitter — someone who lacked the defensive skills and/or athletic ability to play in the field — be elected to the Hall of Fame?
My opinion: I don’t think designated hitters should be viewed as specialists in the way that relief pitchers or NFL punters are. I personally believe Edgar Martinez should be a Hall of Famer, even though he spent the majority of his career as a DH. And I believe Ortiz should be a Hall of Famer, too. I think they should be viewed the same way we would view the case of a poor first baseman or left fielder who could really hit.
Look: There are MANY hitters in the Hall of Fame who were liabilities as defensive players. In fact, there are MANY hitters in the Hall of Fame who, had the rule been in place, would undoubtedly have been designated hitters. Think Harmon Killebrew. Think Ralph Kiner. Think Willie Stargell. Willie McCovey probably would have spent half his career as a DH; Billy Williams might have; Orlando Cepeda might have. And then you go back to the old days — Harry Heilman, Chuck Klein, Sam Crawford, many others, there’s no telling for sure how poor they were as defenders.
Also: Consider Ted Williams. He had a reputation — one that seems to be backed by whatever stats we can muster — as a brutal defensive player. Uninterested. Often injured. How many games do you think Ted Williams would have seen as a DH, especially the last 10 years of his career?
Would that have changed the way we view Williams? I’m not sure. There is something comforting about the fact that Ted was out in left, even if he didn’t want to be. But that’s an illusion. He was in left only because the Red Sox would have put him anywhere to get that bat in the lineup. But the game has always been filled with great hitters who really didn’t belong in the field. They were put out there anyway because offense is much harder to find than defense. If you are willing to completely sacrifice offense, you could put nine Gold Glove fielders out there. But if you are willing to sacrifice defense, you could not just field a team that would lead the league in runs. If you could, teams would sacrifice defense like mad.
Defense is important collectively. It’s important certainly for middle-of-the-field players. But for the most part, the corners have been where managers have tried to hide their best hitters. Now, in the American League, managers also have the DH option. They could put David Ortiz at DH and put a better fielder at first base, and that made the team better. Ortiz did exactly what they paid him to do. Papi hit.
David Ortiz’s full Hall of Fame case is nuanced. His career numbers fall somewhere between Fred McGriff and Frank Thomas, which puts him right on the border. His extra-base hits total is massive — some of that is Fenway Park. His postseason heroics boost him considerably. His failed drug test will be considered. And yes, he spent almost his entire career at DH. I think you have to throw all of that into a tumbler, shake it up and roll it out. I vote for him.