Normally, we would cover all of the modern first basemen at the same time, but occasionally you get a case that deserves more focus. David Ortiz retired following a seemingly brilliant career in 2016. He had one of the best closing seasons in baseball history and that should be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. After all, he has more than 500 home runs and 1700 RBI.
The index has always been meant to be a guide. No statistical formula is meant to solve every puzzle. If David Ortiz’s candidacy is anything it is a puzzle. His counting numbers are no more a definitive statement on his fitness than anything else. However, they are a good place to start when looking at what the voters will be considering.
Runs: 1419 (89th)
RBI: 1768 (22nd)
HR: 541 (17th)
2B: 632 (10th)
OPS: .931 (35th)
EBH: 1192 (8th)
Of course, this is only a smattering of the career numbers that people would consider, but all of those numbers say pretty much the same thing. Ortiz was one of the best hitters in the modern era. So, it stands to reason that he would be a shoo in for the Hall of Fame. Of course he is. The question though is whether he should be.
Before we take a look at the index we should look some of the peculiarities around it. There is a secret sauce that goes into it. Essentially, what we need to know for players like Ortiz is that bWAR and fWAR have built in a punishment in a way for designated hitters. It can be seen more readily in bWAR with their defensive WAR statistic. Win shares builds from zero, so if a player never plays in the field he is worth zero in terms of fielding shares. bWAR takes the replacement level player overall and builds defensive value from there. Therefore, most first basemen are below replacement level already and that is that much worse for designated hitters.
In most instances we would trust the index to give us an accurate assessment of a player’s value. In this case (and Edgar Martinez) we are not quite sure. Is it fair to penalize designated hitters? Of course, this is the main reason we use three sources of data for the index. We want to have a consensus. Unfortunately, a consensus does not necessarily mean the same thing as accurate or precise.
If we were to follow the strict rules of the index, we would immediately eliminate Ortiz from consideration. The problem is that most of the BBWAA holds to those counting numbers. Counting numbers have to be considered in the context they were accrued. Ortiz played in a hitter’s ballpark, in an offensive era, and on one of the better teams in the time period. So, it is hard to discount the numbers above out of hand, but most people would agree with the notion that something doesn’t feel quite right.
*did not finish in the top ten
It should be noted that Ortiz played in only 90 games in 2012, so he did not qualify to finish in the top ten in either runs created or offensive winning percentage. Had he played a full season he likely would have top five finishes in both of those categories. We obviously see that not playing in the field hurt him in terms of the value numbers we use for the index. That undoubtedly should be the case, but to what degree is anyone’s best guess. Runs created and offensive winning percentage demonstrate he was one of the most valuable offensive players from the period.
One of the many arguments used to support a player like Ortiz and his greatness is his reputation as a clutch performer. There are any number of ways to measure that, but we begin with the notion itself. Does clutch performance exist? The working theories have varied over time with the luminaries of the sport vacillating from one extreme to the other. Conventional wisdom says it must exist. When sabermetrics first began we naturally assumed that when the sample size is large enough then performance would naturally level out.
The pendulum has swung the other way as data sources have been able to more clearly define clutch performance. The working theory is that a neutral player would perform just as well in the playoffs as during the regular season. That may or may not be the case. Pitching should be better in the postseason, so actually you would expect hitters to perform a little worse in the postseason as they would in the regular season. Ortiz is known for some pretty big hits in big moments. How did he do overall in the playoffs?
The usual standard for clutch performers is that they get better when the stakes are higher. Fortunately, the good folks at baseball-reference have broken down performance based on low, medium, and high leveraged situations. We don’t need that here. Ortiz was better in the World Series than he was during the league championship series and during the divisional round. The Red Sox won every World Series they participated in. He obviously had a lot to do with that.
The theories and relevance of clutch performance is one of the big bones of contention between those behind WAR and Bill James and his win shares formula. The when of performance is often overlooked in WAR as they assume everything evens out over time. They focus on the what. Yet, if there is a positive variance in when players perform at their best then it could be argued that someone like Ortiz would be more valuable than his index numbers would otherwise indicate.
Anyone that has paid attention to baseball knows this is not a normal distribution. Some players seem to get worse as the situations grow more tense. The best you can usually hope for is for performance to remain level as the situations get more tense. Ortiz was far better in clutch situations than he was in low pressure situations. This could be seen in his rates of contact as well. Either way you slice it, Ortiz has to be considered in a different light due to the fact that he was such a clutch performer.
The Steroid Issue
To make matters more complicated, David Ortiz was mentioned in the Mitchell Report in 2003 in connection to steroid use. He supposedly tested positive for steroids when MLB was going through its non-penalty phase of steroid testing. Of course, no official statement was made as to such and nothing was ever reported as to what substance he tested positive for if he ever tested positive at all.
Ortiz has always denied using and he never tested positive once testing was made official after 2003. What’s more, his performance didn’t really change following 2003 when he joined the Red Sox. We could assume that he used steroids to go from being cut in Minnesota to being an all-star in Boston, but we would then have to suppose that he continued using throughout his career to maintain that level of performance.
This is where the guessing game goes off the tracks. History shows that players discover their game at different times. There are general rules of thumb that we see with most players, but not every player fits the model. Are we to assume that everyone that suddenly discovers more power discovered it based on a needle? We can in some instances when we know what happened. We can when there is no other logical explanation. Ortiz didn’t necessarily get stronger in Boston. He played in a better ballpark for him and he played in a better lineup. Those factors had just as much to do with his power surge as any potential steroid use.
The additional of the steroids question makes Ortiz’s candidacy hard to predict. Usually, steoids would destroy that candidacy as it did for the likes of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. On the other hand, the rumors came relatively early and he seemingly rebounded well. When in doubt I usually follow the index, but I’m just not sure how relevant the numbers are in this case. I just don’t think either WAR formula treats DHs fairly.
When James designed his win shares formula he postulated that 300 win shares was the normal dividing line between being in and out of the Hall of Fame. Like the rest of us, that wasn’t meant to be a hard and fast rule, but Ortiz’s 325 win shares would seem to put him in based on those numbers. Add in the playoff numbers and he would seemingly be put over the top. I’m inclined to put him in at this point, but it isn’t as easy as his counting numbers would make it seem.