The Hall of Fame Case for David Ortiz

Not quite #1 in the stat books, but #1 in the hearts of Sox fans

Not quite #1 in the stat books, but #1 in the hearts of Sox fans

David Ortiz had himself a hell of a year.  At age 37, he hit .309 with 30 home runs and an OPS+ (adjusted OPS, which takes into account park factors to normalize OPS) that ranked 4th in the majors.  Then, in the postseason, he displayed the heroics that people have become accustomed to from the man they call Big Papi.  Though he struggled in the ALCS, his 8th-inning grand slam tied the game, and changed the complexion of the series, helping the Red Sox go, in the words of Al Michaels, “from last rites to the World Series.”  As if he hadn’t done enough already, Ortiz then proceeded to have a Fall Classic for the ages.  His .688 batting average ranked second all-time in a single World Series (behind, oddly enough, reserve outfielder Billy Hatcher, who hit .750 for the upstart 1990 Reds and still didn’t win the MVP).  It was another stellar season for Ortiz, and his role in carrying the Red Sox to their third title in 10 years incited the question: Is David Ortiz worthy of the Hall of Fame?

Let’s look at the statistics.  Over the course of his career, Ortiz has a triple slash line of .287/.381/.549, for a OPS of .930.  The OPS ranks him 38th all time, ahead of upper-echelon Hall of Famers like Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson.  So clearly, his offensive rate stats are Hall of Fame-worthy.  But there are flaws — first of all, Aaron and Robinson  played 23 and 21 years in the big leagues respectively.  While Ortiz has played 17 years thus far, his first 6 were a wash; while with the Twins, he averaged only an .809 OPS and 76 games a year.  Ortiz didn’t start putting up Hall of Fame numbers until the Twins non-tendered him to save 1 million dollars and he latched on with the Red Sox.

Another problem with Ortiz’ candidacy is the obvious one; he doesn’t play defense.  Bill James argues that hitting, baserunning, and defense together make up 63% of the game; hitting makes up only 42%.  So hitting is only 2/3 of the game for position players.  Ortiz does not run the bases well; since he entered the league in 1997, he has cost his team 57.9 runs on the basepaths, second-worst to only Paul Konerko.  And Ortiz has played only 13.4% of his games in the field, which would be by far the lowest for any Hall of Fame candidate.

Ortiz only excels in 2/3 of the game; he’s not a five tool player, he’s a one-tool player.  In order to overcome that, his hitting must be transcendent, and while it is excellent, it’s not good enough to set him apart.  Overall, Ortiz racks up only 44.2 bWAR, ahead of only a handful of Hall of Famers (none of whom began their careers before WWII).  Even though he has a chance to add more to his candidacy over the next couple of years, his statistical profile will likely not look good enough to have him gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.

But a Hall of Fame career isn’t solely about statistics.  The Baseball Hall of Fame instructs voters to base their decisions “upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”  In that final category, Ortiz is off the chart.  Sure, other Red Sox players may have contributed more statistically to the Red Sox (Williams, Yastrzemski, and the HOF-ignored Dwight Evans come to mind), but no player can claim to have contributed more to changing the culture of the Red Sox franchise, and indeed, the town of Boston, than David Ortiz.

Ortiz was a key cog in the “Idiot” Red Sox of 2004, a team that defied expectations, beat the Yankees, swept the Cardinals, and showed an entire city that curses (real or imagined) were capable of being broken.  He was a key cog in the 2007 Red Sox team, who breezed through the World Series and proved that the Sox were not a fluke, but a force to be reckoned with.  And he was a key cog in the Red Sox of 2013, a team that once again defied expectations, and allowed a hurting city to rally around their (rather hirsute) ballclub as they helped prove to the world that Boston was indeed stronger than ever.  Ortiz is the only player who was on all three of those teams, the binding force behind a Red Sox dynasty that helped turn the image of Boston from long-suffering New England town to sports powerhouse.

But more importantly (at least to me), as someone who came of baseball age during the early and mid-2000s, I can’t envision baseball, and the rich history of the sport, without David Ortiz.  If Ortiz were not in the Hall of Fame, the Hall would be missing something; The Hall of Fame is not complete, and does not fully tell the story of the game, without David Ortiz.

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