Is David Ortiz a Hall of Famer?

Is David Ortiz a Hall of Famer?
07 Apr
Not in Hall of Fame


Responding in late March to the allegations of performance-enhancing drug use that have dogged him throughout his career, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz forcefully denied the charges while stating unequivocally "[h]ell yes I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame" in a post entitled "The Dirt" on The Players' Tribune website.

As baseball fans and readers of this site know all too well, the issue of PEDs is very contentious, to the point that players being considered for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame fall under an intense lens of scrutiny for even the suggestion that they simply look as if they may have used PEDs at some point, let alone the reaction to candidates such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro whose connections to PEDs are more concrete.

In his post, Ortiz claims that "[n]obody in MLB history has been tested for PEDs more than me," citing more than 80 instances of his having been tested since 2004, and opening his post with the anecdote about how, this last winter, two MLB representatives arrived at his home in the Dominican Republic at 7:30 one morning armed with cups and syringes to take blood and urine samples.

As reported by The New York Times in July 2009, Ortiz was on a list of more than 100 players who allegedly tested positive for PEDs in 2003. Following that 2003 revelation, Ortiz publicly denied having ever bought or used PEDs, claiming that any positive test results could have been due to his taking over-the-counter supplements and vitamins. In "The Dirt," he repeats the denial, adding, "I never knowingly took any steroids. If I tested positive for anything, it was for something in pills I bought at the damn mall."

But even though we all know that these PEDs allegations will most likely not be forgotten when Ortiz does retire and becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, for our purposes here, let us examine David Ortiz's other claim that he does deserve to be in the Hall of Fame simply by evaluating his playing record.

Learning His Craft, Living with Injuries

Escaping the hardship of the Dominican, David Ortiz did what many from that impoverished Caribbean island nation do: They hit their way off the island. He came to the United States in 1994 under the auspices of the Seattle Mariners organization, playing three seasons in the minor leagues before being traded to the Minnesota Twins in 1996, his age-20 season.

Ortiz made his first major-league appearance for the Twins in 1997, appearing in 15 games for 51 plate appearances that netted him 16 hits including three doubles and his first home run. However, Ortiz was still learning the game offensively and defensively, and as a first baseman Ortiz has never been anything but a defensive liability, which had slotted him into the designated hitter role early in his career. Moreover, he was beset by injuries, notably in his knee and wrists, and he shuttled between the parent club and its minor-league affiliates during his six seasons with the Twins from 1997 to 2002.

He did attain near-full-time status with the Twins in 2000 and 2002. In 2000, in 130 games amounting to 476 plate appearances, he posted a .282/.364/.446 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage); his 117 hits included 36 doubles and 10 home runs as he drove in 63 runs and walked 57 times. His 2002 campaign offered similar results as in 125 games totaling 466 plate appearances, Ortiz counted 32 doubles among his 112 hits while doubling his long-fly tally to 20 homers and driving in 75 runs for a .272/.339/.500 slash line as his OPS+ rose to 120, indicating a hitter noticeably better than a league-average hitter. (OPS+ is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage added together, then adjusted against league- and park values, and then indexed to 100, with 100 indicating a league-average hitter.)

But Ortiz was hardly impressing the Twins. In six seasons comprising 455 games, 1693 plate appearances, and 1477 at-bats, he posted a .266/.348/.461 slash line that factored in 393 hits, 108 doubles, and 58 home runs and generated a modest 108 OPS+ as he scored 215 runs and knocked in 238. By his age-26 season in 2002, Ortiz hardly looked like a budding superstar, let alone a future Hall of Famer. The Twins certainly thought the same as they released him after the 2002 season when they could not find a willing trading partner among the 29 other MLB teams. Ortiz did sign a free agent contract with Boston Red Sox for the 2003 season, and it was with Boston that his fortunes changed dramatically.

Rise of a Red Sox Icon

Those fortunes didn't reverse immediately, as Ortiz filled a supporting role in Boston for the first two months of the 2003 season. But once he became a full-time player, primarily as the designated hitter although he made 44 starts at first base in 2003, Ortiz kicked off his first career peak. For five years, from 2003 to 2007, Ortiz finished in the top five in Most Valuable Player voting in the American League as he put together an outstanding .302/.402/.612 slash line, generating a 156 OPS+, and averaged 165 hits including 41 doubles and 42 home runs, 105 runs scored and 128 RBI, and 93 walks including 12 intentional walks. The 2006 campaign is arguably his best season as he led the AL in home runs (54; a career high), RBI (137), walks (119; a career high), and total bases (355), while his .636 slugging percentage was another career high. During this peak, Ortiz was named to four All-Star squads from 2004 to 2007.

But as good as Ortiz was during those five seasons, his legacy was writ larger during his postseason appearances, particularly in 2004. It was hardly a factor in the 2003 Divisional Series against the Oakland Athletics as Ortiz had an anemic .095/.174/.143 line with a pair of RBI, although the Red Sox won in five games and advanced to meet their rivals the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. In this seven-game series, infamous for Pedro Martinez's Game Seven start in which he stayed in to pitch too long as Boston gave up its lead and ultimately lost on Aaron Boone's most memorable home run, Ortiz perked up, posting a .269/.367/.538 line with two home runs and six runs batted in.

The following year, though, Ortiz came into his own as a postseason hitter. The Red Sox swept the (then-)Anaheim Angels in the Divisional Series, with Ortiz hitting safely six times in eleven at-bats for a blistering slash line of .545/.688/1.000 as he drove in four runs in three games. He capped his performance by slamming a two-run walk-off homer off Jarrod Washburn—a southpaw brought in expressly to face the left-handed-hitting Ortiz—in the bottom of the tenth inning at Fenway Park in the deciding Game Three that put the Red Sox into the AL Championship Series, facing, once again, the hated Yankees.

The situation looked grim for the Red Sox after they lost the first three games of the ALCS, although Ortiz so far had gone six-for-twelve with a triple, and with the Yankees leading 4–3 going into the bottom of the ninth at Fenway, the Red Sox had to face the Yankees' lights-out closer Mariano Rivera, who had given up a lead-off single to Manny Ramirez in the eighth inning before retiring the side in order, including a strike-out of Ortiz. But pinch-runner Dave Roberts, following the most memorable stolen base in Red Sox history, scored the tying run and forced the game into extra innings. Three innings later, with Ramirez again hitting a lead-off single, this one off Paul Quantrill, David Ortiz crushed one over the wall for another walk-off home run in the 2004 postseason.

However, that just ensured that the Red Sox would not be swept as the Yankees still led the best-of-seven series three games to one. With the Red Sox trailing by two runs going into the bottom of the eighth inning, Ortiz did homer to lead off the inning, and Jason Varitek's sacrifice fly later in the inning brought trusty pinch-runner Roberts in to score and force extra innings for the second time in twenty-four hours. The two teams battled into the fourteenth inning when, with two out and runners on first and second, Ortiz lined a single into center field that scored Johnny Damon from second base.

That prompted a Game Six in New York and the famous "Bloody Sock" start of Boston's Curt Schilling, which the (appropriately named) Red Sox did win, leading to another Game Seven showdown. And although Ortiz's bat was relatively quiet for these last two games, he did hit a first-inning, two-run shot off Kevin Brown in Game Seven, which along with Damon's two home runs, including a second-inning grand slam, and six RBI, secured the only seven-game series victory in baseball history in which the winning team had lost the first three games. David Ortiz had 12 hits in 31 at-bats including one triple and three home runs as he scored six runs and drove in 11 and, with two walk-off hits, he was easily named the ALCS Most Valuable Player, the first time a DH had ever been named an ALCS MVP.

The Red Sox went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, erasing the infamous "Curse of the Bambino" as Boston won its first World Series in 86 years with David Ortiz firmly at the center. Although Manny Ramirez emerged as the Series MVP, Ortiz was hardly a slouch as in four games he notched four hits in 13 at-bats including a first-inning, three-run homer in Game One for a .308/.471/.615 line as he drove in four runs and scored three. Curiously, neither the Yankees nor the Cardinals walked Ortiz intentionally although the Angels had done so three times in only three games.

But in 2005, the defending champions were gone after the first round of playoffs, losing in three games to the Chicago White Sox, who broke their own curse by winning their first World Series in 88 years, and the Red Sox did not even make the postseason in 2006 despite Ortiz's outstanding regular season, producing a .287/.413/.636 slash line while leading the league with 54 home runs, 355 total bases, 137 RBI, and 119 walks including 23 intentional walks. Ortiz's 5.7 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Baseball Reference) was the best of his career to that point, but his 6.4 bWAR the following season remains his career high. (FanGraphs, which uses a different calculation for its fWAR, has Ortiz evaluated similarly: 5.3 fWAR for 2006, and 6.3 fWAR for 2007).

In 2007, Ortiz helped lead the Red Sox back to the postseason with career highs in hits (182), doubles (52), batting average (.332), and on-base percentage (.445) as he led the AL in on-base percentage and bases on balls (111) while for the fourth consecutive season he generated a slugging percentage north of .600 as those 52 doubles combined with 35 home runs to produce a .621 slugging percentage. The 2007 season also saw Ortiz drive in at least 100 runs for the fifth consecutive year (he plated 117 runs) while his outstanding 171 OPS+ was the best of his career for a season in which he had enough plate appearances or at-bats to qualify for league-leadership.

David Ortiz At Bat

David Ortiz in prime hitting form, 2007. (Photo "DavidOrtiz" courtesy of Parkerjh at the English language Wikipedia.)

Having clinched the AL East, the Red Sox summarily dispatched the now-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three games of the Divisional Series, with Ortiz banging out five hits, two of those homers, in just seven at-bats as the Angels walked him six times, twice intentionally; he struck out just once as he scored five runs and knocked in three. The Cleveland Indians proved to be much tougher opponents during the lively AL Championship Series that went the full seven games; Ortiz scored seven runs and drove in three with a solo home run and two sacrifice flies. Then the Red Sox secured their second World Series win in three years with a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies, and although third baseman Mike Lowell was the Series MVP, Ortiz still went five-for-fifteen with three doubles, four runs scored, and four RBI.

Decline and Rebirth

A wrist injury at the start of the 2008 season hampered Ortiz for the campaign as he managed just 109 games, and while he was selected to his fifth consecutive All-Star game, his modest .264/.369/.507 slash line hardly seemed auspicious; he still hit 23 round-trippers and drove in 89 runs, but his 124 OPS+ and 1.7 bWAR (also 1.7 fWAR) were not indicative of one of the game's most feared sluggers. However, Ortiz struggled in the postseason, with even the Angels reining him in as they allowed him just four hits in 17 at-bats and walked him just three times, none of them intentional, even though the Red Sox won their Divisional Series in four games. The Tampa Bay Rays were even more unkind during the AL Championship Series, holding him to a .154/.313/.385 slash line with one homer and four RBI as they beat the Red Sox in seven games.

Ortiz was back as a full-time player in 2009, playing in 150 games with 627 plate appearances, but despite 35 doubles, 28 home runs, and 99 RBI he managed a paltry .238/.332/.462 slash line, with his league-average 102 OPS+ the worst since he came to Boston. Ortiz's woes continued in the postseason, with the Angels even more merciless in the Divisional Series as Ortiz managed just one single in 12 at-bats, striking out four times, while the Red Sox were swept out of contention.

In 2010, his age-34 season, Ortiz rallied somewhat with a .270/.370/.529 slash line while slamming 32 homers and plating 102 runs, respectable totals but perhaps an indication that Ortiz was starting his decline, which did not prevent him from being selected for the 2010 All-Star Game. Moreover, Ortiz returned even more strongly in 2011, with his .309/.398/.554 line informed by 162 hits including 40 doubles and 29 home runs as he drove in 96 runs, his 154 OPS+ his best since 2007 as he made another All-Star squad. An Achilles tendon injury in 2012 limited Ortiz to just 90 games and 383 plate appearances, but despite that he still excelled when he did play, posting .318/.415/.611 averages and a 173 OPS+, the highest of his career, as he hit 23 homers and notched 60 RBI while making his eighth All-Star team.

In his age-37 season in 2013, Ortiz had another banner year with a .309/.395/.564 line generated from 160 hits including 38 doubles and 30 home runs while scoring 84 runs and driving in 103, the seventh time he reached the 100-RBI mark during a season. And with his 159 OPS+ and 4.9 bWAR, both bests for a full-time season since 2007 (although FanGraphs has him at a more modest 3.4 fWAR), Ortiz finished tenth in MVP voting.

But it was in the postseason, to which the Red Sox had returned for the first time since 2009, that Ortiz began to cement talk that he was indeed a future Hall of Famer. In the Divisional Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Ortiz furnished a .385/.556/.923 slash line, that otherworldly slugging percentage resulting from two home runs and a double, with those round-trippers both solo shots coming off the Rays' left-handed ace David Price in Game Two, the second of which knocked Price from the game. The Red Sox won the series in four games, and then went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in six games for the AL Pennant. Ortiz had cooled off conspicuously, managed just two hits in 22 at-bats, although one of those hits was a grand slam off Joaquin Benoit in the bottom of the eighth inning in Game Two that tied the game, with the Red Sox winning the game in the next inning.

However, if anyone had counted out David Ortiz for the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, they were in for a rude surprise. The Red Sox won the Series in six games, earning their third world championship in a decade, in a campaign that saw the Red Sox hit .211 as a team and the Cardinals, despite some strong individual performances, hit just .224 as a team. Everyone on the Boston squad struggled to make the Mendoza line—except for Ortiz, who posted an amazing .688/.760/1.188 slash line as he collected 11 hits, including a pair of doubles and a pair of home runs, in 16 at-bats while drawing eight walks, four of those intentional, and scoring seven runs and driving in six. Not surprisingly, Ortiz was named the Series Most Valuable Player while his .688 batting average is the second-best for a single World Series ever, as is his .760 on-base percentage, while his 1.188 slugging percentage is eighth-best all-time.

In fact, Ortiz ranks second all-time in career World Series on-base percentage with .576 (Barry Bonds leads with a ridiculous .700) and fifth all-time in the Series in batting average with .455 and in slugging percentage with .795. With his World Series heroics and those in the 2004 American League Championship Series including a pair of walk-off hits, David Ortiz has been called the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history; he even began to collect nicknames such as "Señor Octubre" and "Cooperstown" as the legendary Carl Yastrzemski declared that Ortiz was the greatest hitter in Red Sox history . . . after Ted Williams, of course. But for Yaz, the man who is generally regarded as the second-greatest Boston hitter, to then hand the mantle to Ortiz is serious business. Ortiz even came in third in the 2013 Boston mayoral race when he amassed 560 write-in votes!

Ortiz's 2014 campaign, in his age-38 season, saw a drop in qualitative performance with a .263/.355/.517 line while his bWAR was 2.9 and his fWAR was 2.3, although his 142 OPS+ was still impressive, and he did slam 35 home runs while knocking in 104 runs, both bests since 2007. Ortiz is signed with the Red Sox for the 2015 season, a contact with two option years, although he will turn 40 this November, and in today's baseball environment, that is superannuated.

Three Strikes Against David Ortiz?

Despite his late-career surge, David Ortiz is inevitably winding down, and in the highly competitive Major Leagues with their pronounced talent compression, he will be leaving baseball fairly soon, at which time discussion about his legacy, and his chances for the Hall of Fame, will only intensify.

But although Ortiz could have a season or two more to increase his counting numbers—to reach milestones such as 500 home runs, 600 doubles, or 1600 RBI—his legacy has largely been written. This enables us to evaluate him with a fair degree of accuracy as attaining any of those just-mentioned milestones, or others, is not likely to make a substantial difference.

In evaluating his Hall of Fame chances, Ortiz does have three strikes against him already. The first, which we have just touched on, is that his record is largely written, and as we will see, it is an impressive record but it is not an automatic Hall pass. So, perhaps we can call it a foul ball instead.

The second strike is the question of PEDs usage, which is the focus of Ortiz's "The Dirt" piece on The Players' Tribune website. The question of PEDs and their impact on legacy has been hotly debated for years, and that impact has informed just about every Baseball Hall of Fame-related article I've written for this website, so to summarize briefly: It is clear that candidates with known or even merely suspected PEDs associations are being discriminated against by the voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA), or at least sufficient numbers of them to affect the voting.

Perhaps when David Ortiz becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in the early 2020s, the issue may have died down to the point that his mention in that 2009 New York Times article alleging that more than 100 players tested positive for PEDs in 2003 will hardly have any bearing on voters. It is also entirely possible that Ortiz, aware that his playing days are numbered, penned "The Dirt" piece to lay the groundwork for his Hall of Fame campaign.

This is not to suggest that the allegations are true, but it is crystal-clear that voting patterns and the comments of many BBWAA voters have a direct impact on Hall of Fame voting—and it is clearly negative for any candidate with even the hint of suspicion. And speaking of suspicion, some voters will look with a raised eyebrow at Ortiz's late-career surge from 2011 to 2014, his age-35 to -38 seasons, over which he averaged .298/.389/.556 with a 156 OPS+, 33 doubles, 29 home runs, and 91 RBI.

Ortiz's third strike is that almost his entire career has been spent as a designated hitter, and Hall voters have a prejudice about that too. Edgar Martinez, for whom the AL designated hitter award is now named, has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for six years and has never garnered more than 36.5 percent of the vote (that was in 2012); in fact, he has seen his vote totals slip to the 25-percent range in the last two years, although that could also be the result of an overstuffed ballot that is barely being eased. Yet Martinez has at least amassed a few seasons' worth of starts at a fielding position: In 1956 total games started, either as a fielder or a designated hitter, Martinez made 560 starts at a fielding position, 532 at third base and 28 at first base. By contrast, David Ortiz, in 1991 total starts, has made just 255 starts at first base as 1736 of those were as the DH.

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Last modified on Saturday, 13 June 2015 13:28

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