This past Tuesday David Ortiz was the only player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. The announcement left me in that odd position of being shocked yet not surprised at the same time. Shocked that Ortiz is a member of the Cooperstown elite (and that far, far, superior players did not get into the increasingly more ridiculous and trivial club) but also not surprised because the BBWAA is consistently good at not making much sense.
Ortiz collected 55.3 WAR over 20 MLB seasons. That’s 2.75 WAR per season, which is essentially the same as Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot put up in 125 games last season. (Margot is a nice player but I’m sure if he repeated his 2021 campaign a bunch of times, no one would be clamoring for him to get into Cooperstown.) Ortiz’s 2.75 WAR per season average is also a good chunk less than Brett Gardner’s career WAR average of 3.16 per season. Again, that may speak to Gardner being underrated, but even his staunchest supporters won’t claim he’s a Hall of Famer when he retires.
If you prefer totals instead of averages, Buddy Bell played in almost the exact same number of games as Ortiz and produced 11 more WAR, while Lou Whitaker played in 18 fewer games than Ortiz and produced 20 more WAR. Bobby Bonds (yes, “Bobby” not “Barry”) produced more WAR than Ortiz and played in almost 600 fewer games, while Dick Allen produced more WAR in almost 700 fewer games. Reminder: Buddy Bell, Bobby Bonds, Lou Whitaker, and Dick Allen are not in Cooperstown.
Ortiz’s supporters have pointed out that he finished in the top five in MVP voting in five consecutive seasons which puts him with some very elite company. Remember what I said about the BBWAA? In those five seasons from 2003 – 2007 Ortiz’s American League finishes in WAR were 38th, 21st, 8th, 5th, and 6th place, respectively.
Two things are worth noting here: First, those rankings are among position players – had I included pitchers, his rankings would have been lower. Secondly, if you noticed that it seems he got better each year, you’re right – his WAR totals rose each season from ’03 to ’07.
Guess what that also coincided with? Getting him off the playing field because he was utterly inept at either throwing or catching a baseball. In ’03 he played 45 games in the field, then in ’04 played 34 in the field – after that, he never played more than 10 in the field. Remember – DHs are punished by WAR because they don’t provide any value with their glove. Ortiz was SO BAD in the field he generated more value to his team and more WAR when he was in the damn dugout! Unlike Edgar Martinez who was a good third baseman but DHd because he kept getting hurt (or Giancarlo Stanton in recent years) Ortiz was completely incapable of throwing or catching a baseball – and he’s in the Hall of Fame.
FanGraphs writer Jay Jaffe has a great system that grades potential HOF candidates by equally weighing a player’s career WAR and their peak WAR (their best seven seasons). Among first baseman and DHs Ortiz ranks behind Jason Giambi, Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, John Olerud, and Todd Helton in Jaffe’s system. Again, you’re correct, none of those players are in Cooperstown. (Jaffe’s book “The Cooperstown Casebook” is phenomenal. There’s a link on the side of this page to check it out if you’re so inclined.)
Some might say, “Bah – I’m an old man who yells at clouds, and I don’t care about what the nerds think with their fancy-schmancy stats – he has 541 HR and 1,768 RBI!” – that’s a Hall of Famer!”
OK, if that’s your position then I’m hoping you’re pining for the induction of the six players who have more HR who aren’t in Cooperstown or the four with more RBI who aren’t in Cooperstown. (Four players have both more HR and RBI than Ortiz and haven’t been inducted.)
If we’re being honest, we can stop right there. When I say “right there” I mean without ever mentioning Ortiz’s numerous departures from what would be considered normative behavior off the field, or (wait for it) PEDs.
I’ve written about it before, so there’s no need to completely re-hash, but I don’t give two lab rats’ behinds whether or not Ortiz used PEDs. It has nothing to do with my opinion and I just wrote 700 words confirming my indifference. That said, I know many people do care, so let’s go there:
The idea that someone can look past Ortiz’s (cough, “alleged”, cough) PED use but not vote for Barry Bonds, Álex Rodríguez, or Manny Ramírez is about as hypocritical as a baseball fan can be. To be clear, I’m referring to those three because they were on this year’s ballot, but we can throw Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa in the conversation too – I’m not sure those three are Cooperstown worthy but I know they were all significantly better players than Ortiz, as are several PED users who are already in Cooperstown.
For some perspective, Ortiz could replicate his career another 20 years and he still wouldn’t catch A-Rod in WAR. (A-Rod also had more WAR than Ortiz’ 55.3 by the time he was 26 years old.) Ortiz would have to have his career three times to barely pass Barry Bonds in WAR. If you’re curious, Bonds was 27 when he passed 55.3 WAR…
And with regards to the specific and commonly used critique of PED users and alleged PED users that they were only productive into their late 30s and early 40s because they were cheating, let me give you a head’s up From ages 34-40, Ortiz posted a 151 OPS+ – that was the best seven consecutive season stretch in his career.
It’s really hard when you write about baseball to not care about the baseball hall of fame. As a fan, I love the discussions, and obviously, I’m asked for my opinions often. Cooperstown kind of comes with the territory, so it’s hard to say “I’m done with it, I’m ignoring it ongoing.” But the inductions of Bud Selig and Harold Baines pushed me close to that position, and David Ortiz’s name on a plaque in upstate New York has pushed me one step closer.
Signed, an old man who’s yelling at clouds.
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