David Ortiz and the Hall of Fame

Due to his extraordinary World Series performance in which he hit .688 with two home runs and led his team to a decisive victory, there has been an increase in discussion about whether or not David Ortiz is a Hall of Famer. Ortiz's Hall of Fame candidacy rests on two very strong pillars. One is his consistent elite level offensive production. The other is his reputation as a great clutch hitter and post-season player. There are, however, two arguments frequently made against his candidacy: that is he a designated hitter and the rumors of steroid use that have dogged much of his career.

Ortiz's offensive numbers rest on a short but impressive peak from 2003-2007 when he posted an OPS+ of 156 while averaging 42 home runs and 128 RBIs a year. These years were at the tail end of a strong offensive era, but are nonetheless impressive. After a few off-years, in 2010-2013 Ortiz hit another peak in his later years with an OPS+ of 154 while playing fewer games in an era where there is less offense so he has only averaged 28 home runs and 90 RBIs a year during this period. At 37, Ortiz is likely in the decline phase of his career, but if he can play three more years and hit 69 more home runs while avoiding seeing his percentage rates collapse, Ortiz will likely retire with more than 500 home runs and an OPS+ of 140. If he is able to do that, Ortiz will have a strong case for Cooperstown.

Ortiz's case will be bolstered by a well-earned reputation as the best clutch hitter of his generation. His post-season slash numbers of .292/.409/.553 with 17 home runs and 60 RBIs in 295 plate appearances are extraordinary and bolster his reputation for clutch hitting. The narrative for Ortiz, building on his great clutch hitting is a strong one. He has been instrumental in three Red Sox World Championships and, probably more than any other player, is the face of the Red Sox resurgence in the 21st century. Ortiz, perhaps more than any other player, is responsible for burying the Curse of the Bambino.

Ortiz's case is weaker because he has only played in the field 263 times in his entire career. Because he has been essentially a full time DH, some will say he is not a complete ballplayer. This is true, but the Hall of Fame is filled with players who contributed very little defensively. Some played in the corner outfield, others at first base, but Ortiz, because of his era and league was a DH. The difference between a DH and poor fielding outfielder and first baseman like Hall of Famer Willie Stargell is not significant. If Stargell had been born 20 years later and played with the Rangers or White Sox, he too would have been a DH. Similar things are true of, for example, Harmon Killebrew or Ralph Kiner, who were also elected to the Hall of Fame despite very limited defensive value.

Ortiz, like many, perhaps most, of the great players of his generation has been linked to steroid use. Ortiz was among the players who, according to the Mitchell Report, may have tested positive for steroids in 2003. Ortiz offered a murky explanation and apology, and has never tested positive since. However, because of the incomplete and inconsistent way baseball has sought to address steroid use, suspicion has continued to follow Ortiz. Some proportion of fans, and probably writers, assume that there is more to the Ortiz connection with steroids than just the Mitchell report.

In recent years, players have been kept out of the Hall of Fame for general suspicion of steroid use, most notably Jeff Bagwell, but Ortiz represents something else. Ortiz, is different from Bagwell, a great player who spent most out of his career out of the spotlight, or Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, who were superior to Ortiz as players, but whose image in the media was never positive. Ortiz is a media favorite, the face of his franchise and one of the most popular, recognizable and beloved players in the game, despite the steroid rumors.

This will, and probably should, be enough to get Ortiz into the Hall of Fame. On the surface it seems wrong that a player who is, on the numbers, a strong, but not overwhelming Hall of Fame candidate and who has some connection to steroids will get into Cooperstown before some of the greatest players of his generation who have their own strange and unclear relationship with steroids. There is, of course, an inconsistency here. Had Ortiz not been so good with the media, and such a likable player, the Hall of Fame discussion, and the discussion of his recent World Series performance, would be very different right now. It is possible that if Ortiz is elected, the rancor towards other players with connections to steroid use will slowly recede because the questions around Ortiz will linger. If not, the Hall of Fame will look even more absurd with Ortiz on the inside and Bagwell, not to mention Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rodriguez on the outside.

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