On a rainy July night in Boston with first place on the line, the Red Sox trail the Rays by one run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Two outs, runner on first, up steps the 37-year-old designated hitter best known for postseason heroics almost a decade in the past. Rays manager Joe Maddon puts up four fingers.
The free pass pays off, as Mike Napoli strikes out to end the game. David Ortiz is stranded on second base, his menacing gameday scowl gradually giving way to the cherubic grin that tells his teammates we’ll get ‘em tomorrow.
Sixteen years into an illustrious career, the man with the gap-toothed smile that, on a good day, stretches from his native Santo Domingo to Boston, still strikes enough fear into opponents that one of the game’s most cerebral managers would rather put the winning run on base than risk Big Papi depositing the winning run into the rightfield seats.
Three years into a renaissance of sorts that followed Ortiz’s long, slow recovery from a wrist injury that threatened to derail his career, Ortiz is chasing two distinctions. One is the Hall of Fame; the other is the title of best designated hitter ever.
In terms of value, Ortiz probably needs a few more productive years to solidify his Hall of Fame case. According to fangraphs, Papi’s 40.3 career Wins Above Replacement rank just 307th all time among position players, ahead of lesser Hall of Famers like Roger Bresnahan and Pie Traynor, but behind names like Andy Van Slyke and David Justice, good players who were never likely to be immortalized in bronze. Give Ortiz three more seasons at two-thirds his current level of production and he retires right around 50 WAR, which is Jim Rice and Ralph Kiner territory, but also Jack Clark and Ed Konetchy-land.
WAR employs a positional adjustment that severely hinders designated hitters. While Hall of Fame voters have applied a similar, if subjective, adjustment, in evaluating Edgar Martinez’s case, Big Papi has a resume that speaks far louder than advanced metrics. For over a decade now, he’s been a leader on a Red Sox team that has contended almost every year, winning two World Series and making the postseason four other times. He’s been a beast in October, batting .283 with 12 home runs in 66 postseason games. And so many of his 434 home runs and 2,043 hits (including the playoffs) have been of the walk-off variety that Ortiz is generally regarded as the best clutch hitter of his generation.
Two Hall of Famers with resumes similar to Ortiz’s are former Red Sox star Jim Rice and, believe it or not, Bill Mazeroski. Rice, like Ortiz, was a slugger who offered little value in the field or on the bases. His career batting line of .298/.352/.502 in just over 9,000 plate appearances was 28 percent better than the league average. Ortiz has more patience and more power, as evidenced by his .287/.382/.550 line, but in an era in which offense has dominated, those numbers are just 39 percent better than league average. In 1,000 fewer plate appearances, their cumulative offensive value has been similar. If he stays reasonably healthy, Ortiz will pass Rice in offensive value, but just by standing in left field and occasionally catching a ball, Rice gets some of that edge back on Ortiz, who has played just 2,025 innings in the field, equivalent to a season and a quarter, in his career.
On the surface, Mazeroski may seem diametrically opposed to Big Papi, but their Hall of Fame cases are actually very similar in that they require the voter to ignore one major aspect of baseball and focus on one incredible skill and some timely performances. Maz was a below-average hitter for the Pirates from 1956 to 1972, but he played second base like no one before or since, racking up 6,694 assists and 147 fielding runs above average. He also hit the first World Series-winning walk-off home run, knocking off the Yankees in Game Seven in 1960. Legends of his fielding exploits and clutch ability overwhelmed his sub-.300 on-base percentage in the minds of the Veterans Committee that elected him.
Rice and Mazeroski are both controversial Hall of Fame choices, but they’re both in, which bodes well for Big Papi’s chances. Ortiz combines the enormous peak offensive value of Rice with Mazeroski’s iconic imagery. That might be enough for the voters to dismiss the advanced metrics that will likely prove him just shy of Hallworthiness.
One player whose Hall of Fame case doesn’t bode well for David’s is the original Papi, Edgar Martinez, who doubles as the only other man one might consider the greatest designated hitter ever. Martinez built a resume that far and away exceeds those of Rice and Mazeroski, accumulating 65.6 WAR with a brilliant .312/.418/.515 batting line, 47 percent better than his league. He did so in 8,672 plate appearances over 18 seasons, good for more offensive WAR than no-doubt Hall of Famers like Tony Gwynn, Johnny Bench and Willie Stargell.
Edgar’s Hall case is derailed by two factors, his late start (he never played more than 100 games in a season until he was 27) and his position. After parts of six seasons as a league-average third baseman, the elder Papi assumed DH duty for the Mariners, perhaps maximizing his offensive output while minimizing his value according to the metrics that would one day illuminate his Hall case.
Both of those factors work against Ortiz as well. He first played a full season with the 2000 Twins, when he was 24, but did not break out until his Red Sox debut in 2003, the same age his nicknamesake started raking in Seattle. And after sharing first base in Minnesota with future Boston teammate Doug Mientkiewicz, Ortiz was relegated to the dugout while his teammates took the field in Boston. There is no active designated hitter any team would rather have in its dugout than Ortiz, but his position, or lack thereof, has kept him from winning an MVP Award, despite three seasons with 40 home runs (peaking at 54 in 2006), three seasons getting on base at a .400 clip, and five seasons slugging over .600. He’s on pace to add to each of the latter two totals in 2013.
Any claim Ortiz may have to the best DH ever title rests heavily on the belief that clutch hitting is a skill and the evidence that Big Papi has it in spades. Edgar has one memorable postseason moment of his own, dispatching the Yankees in the ALDS in 1995 with a clutch double, but he only played 34 postseason games and never reached the World Series, while Bigger Papi has won two titles and ranks among the top 10 all time in postseason doubles, walks and RBI.
With a little imagination, one can build a case that David Ortiz will retire as the best designated hitter of all time and a surefire Hall of Famer. Even if he’s the second-best DH and a borderline Cooperstown case, Big Papi has been an absolute pleasure to root for in Boston for the last 10 years.
And if his recent success is any indication, he may have a few good years left in the tank.