If anyone makes it into the Baseball Hall of Fame when the results of the ever-controversial vote are announced Tuesday, it’s legendary Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
The sociable postseason hero known as Big Papi is the only candidate leaning towards potential introduction to the ballots already made public, as followed by Ryan Thibodaux and his company. In his first year on the ballot, Ortiz stands out as one of the main issues with the Hall of Fame. One is obscure steroid suspicion — its only link to performance-enhancing drugs comes through a reported positive test during early MLB surveys, which was supposed to be anonymous and may have been unreliable.
The other is his position. Stars who mainly produced as designated hitters have suffered the damaging effects of the gut feeling that they didn’t play the entire game and of statistic guidelines like Wins Above Replacement that penalize lesser defenders.
A triumph for Ortiz would stand in stark contrast to longtime Seattle Mariners DH Edgar Martinez’s ten-year climb to eventually reach the writers’ 75% threshold in his final year on the ballot. Martinez went next to Harold Baines, a veteran committee pick who often plied his trade at DH, and both followed in the footsteps of the first baseman who became DH Frank Thomas.
Ortiz, the face of the 2004 curse-breaking Red Sox, certainly has other factors driving the wind in Cooperstown’s sails, but it’s worth asking if his strong performance is a turning point for the DH.
Designated hitters are rarely called Hall of Famers
With the possible exception of the more casual closer role, the DH is the baseball position with the least history.
Since its inception in the American League in 1973, DH’s role has been a point of contention and differentiation for fans, as well as a stain on the legacies of its greatest residents. It truly opens at bats for players whose skills would otherwise prevent them from becoming drafting fixtures. The trick is whether that reality should count against the hitters taking advantage of the opportunity it presents, and if so, how?
Think about this for more than a few seconds and one part is clear: it’s a position in the game. We didn’t scold pitchers for being useless as batters, even though they are. The difference with the DH undoubtedly stems from its AL-only status and its (relative) recency.
When asked about the lack of Hall of Famers who entered mostly DH in 2018 prior to Martinez’s election, baseball historian John Thorn alluded to Branch Rickey’s assessment of baseball’s icy beehive spirit.
“Baseball people are generally allegorical for new ideas,” Thorn told SABR researcher John Cronin. “It took years to convince them to put numbers on uniforms, and it’s the hardest thing in the world to get Major League Baseball to change anything — even spikes on a new pair of shoes — but eventually they will.”
Yet voters were never completely averse to capturing a DH. Paul Molitor, who played in several spots on the field but took much of his at bats as a DH when the Milwaukee Brewers were still an AL team, made it—possibly aided by 504 stolen bases that ruined any idea of him as a plodding sluggish. The 169 steals he recorded as a DH are more than double the second best total on the list.
It must be argued that DH acceptance has already been achieved 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 become uniformly baked in. WAR calculations use positional adjustments to reflect the relative difficulty of playing shortstop versus playing second base versus playing first base and so on. If you spend most of your career with DH, your WAR will decrease significantly compared to a player who produced the exact same attacking numbers, but also manned a proficient midfield.
That logic is based on the math of building a grid. If one of the 26 spots is taken by a batter who is not trusted to take a position, there is a cost to the team as a whole. But it’s possible that the positional adjustments, largely devised more than a decade ago, are more extreme at differentiating the positions than the contemporary game really supports.
Still, Ortiz’s early returns are proof that the mockery of the DH role has largely faded. More impactful is the quantified estimation of defensive value baked into easy reference pages at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. For some of the most feared hitters of the last generation, it probably would have increased their current Hall of Fame chances by ditching their gloves in favor of DH duties. Gary Sheffield lost more Baseball-Reference WAR to below-average defense, both overall and per season, than Ortiz…by playing consistently in the outfield. Sheffield has never come close to Hall of Fame induction despite a similar resume – 509 home runs, a career 141 OPS+, nine All-Star teams.
Meanwhile, Ortiz — with 541 home runs, a 140 OPS+ career and 10 All-Star teams — certainly looks set to reach Cooperstown based on voting patterns, even if he has to wait another year or two. Sure, Ortiz has some resume lines that go beyond the typical conversation around the DH.
David Ortiz is the Mariano Rivera of the DH
Just as Mariano Rivera’s unparalleled greatness wiped out all the usual questions about the value of an assist thrower, Ortiz isn’t just any DH. He is the DH.
He has made 2,241 more at bats in that position than any other batter in MLB history — the equivalent of nearly four full seasons. His OPS as a DH, a job many struggle with due to the intervals of nothing between at bats, only follows Martinez’s among those with at least 500 games to their name.
His candidacy basically turns the DH’s disadvantage on its head. This is one of the official positions shown 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 icing on the cake: his post-season history warning heroes. Ortiz’s moment in October spanned several 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 fortune of the designated batter in the Hall of Fame. Still, the precedent could matter as MLB and the players consider adding a universal DH as early as 2022, and as active boppers like Nelson Cruz retire and cement their legacy.