On June 5, 2009, David Ortiz was hitting .187 with one home run and had struck out 48 times in 46 games. Just two seasons earlier, he had hit .332 with 35 home runs in helping lead the Boston Red Sox to their second World Series title in four seasons.
Ortiz got his eyes checked that day even though he said they weren't the reason for his season-long slump. There were predictions of his imminent release. Some maintained he was older than his actual age. Bill Simmons joked that Red Sox fans needed to mail some human growth hormone to Ortiz.
Instead, the Red Sox rolled the dice. General manager Theo Epstein and consultant Bill James concluded that such slumps were normal for a player of Ortiz's age. Ortiz hit .266 with 27 home runs the rest of that season. Since 2010, he has hit .298/.390/.562. The only hitters with a higher wOBA since then are Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista and Ryan Braun.
On Tuesday night, Ortiz hit a three-home run off Matt Moore in the first inning, although Moore shut down the Sox after that in Tampa Bay's 5-3 victory. At age 37, Big Papi is still going strong, hitting .333/.370/.613. The guy who struck out in 21 percent of his plate appearances in 2009 and 24 percent in 2010 now strikes out less than 15 percent of the time and remains one of the most feared hitters in the game, not much different from his 2003-2007 peak, when he finished in the top five of the MVP voting five years in a row.
This post-2009 rebirth and hot start in 2013 has thrust Ortiz back into the spotlight: Is he the greatest designated hitter of all time? And how do his Hall of Fame chances stack up?
With apologies to Paul Molitor (more games in the field than at DH), Frank Thomas (best years came when he was playing first base), Jim Thome (ditto) and Harold Baines (great longevity), the greatest DH of all time is Edgar Martinez. Which I suppose some people would rank somewhere higher than greatest LOOGY of all time but below greatest utility infielder of all time.
Martinez and Ortiz were both originally signed by the Mariners and both had their breakout seasons at age 27 -- Martinez when he finally got a chance to play and Ortiz after getting released by the Twins and going to the Red Sox.
Here are their career numbers:
Martinez: .312/.418/.515, 309 HRs, 1,261 RBIs, 147 OPS+, .405 wOBA, 68.3 WAR
Ortiz: .285/.380/.549, 406 HRs, 1,346 RBIs, 138 OPS+, .392 wOBA, 40.2 WAR
That's Baseball-Reference WAR, by the way. FanGraphs has a similar difference. Why such a large split in career value? Some of that is simply career length; Martinez has about 900 more career plate appearances, so Ortiz will close the gap a bit -- but not all of it -- as he continues to play. A little bit of it is fielding -- B-R credits Edgar with plus-17 runs defensively from his days at third base and Papi at minus-13 runs. That's a 30-run difference, worth about three wins of those 28 wins. Martinez picks up a little more value in positional adjustments -- he played third base for a few years while Ortiz played first base.
But the big difference is simply that Martinez was the better hitter. Yes, Ortiz has more power, but Martinez was an on-base machine. He created runs while using up fewer outs than Ortiz, and that creates a lot of value. Martinez had 11 seasons with a .400-plus OBP, including three that led the American League and seven more that ranked in the top five. Ortiz has had only three -- including the partial season of 2012 -- and ranked in the top five only three times. On-base percentage is still king, and Baseball-Reference rates Martinez having eight seasons of 5.0 WAR or greater, Ortiz with three of 5.0 or greater.
Here's another way to look at it: Ortiz has created about 1,409 runs in his career while using up 4,970 outs; that's 7.6 runs per 27 outs. Martinez created 1,631 runs while using up 5,273 outs, or 8.3 runs per 27 outs.
Martinez was better, and it's not really a debate. I'm not arguing that just because I'm admittedly a huge Martinez fan; I'm arguing that because the numbers don't lie. And before you mention "BUT WHAT ABOUT CLUTCH! BIG PAPI IS THE CLUTCHIEST OF THE CLUTCH!" well, Ortiz has hit .264/.376/.514 in "late and close" situations; Martinez hit .312/.449/.471. Ortiz is feared; Martinez was feared, just as respected by opposing pitchers as Ortiz is now.
Ortiz did fare better in MVP voting with those five top-five finishes; Martinez had only one. But perception of value is not the same thing as real value.
That said, Ortiz may end up being a better Hall of Fame candidate, depending on how the allegations of performance-enhancing drugs play out down the road. He'll have more home runs and RBIs, and Hall of Fame voters love those home runs and RBIs. The MVP voting results will help. The clutch hitting -- especially in the postseason -- will help define memories of him. He'll earn bonus points for being arguably the best player, or at least the face of the franchise, on two World Series winners. And, importantly, Ortiz was simply more famous than Martinez, one of the most famous players of the 2000s. Ortiz played for the Red Sox; Martinez for the Mariners. Ortiz is big and jovial and owns that big left-handed uppercut; Martinez was quiet, disciplined and overshadowed by Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez.
Of course, like Martinez, Ortiz will face the DH bias, and that might be a tougher hurdle than the PED stain. Personally -- and, yes, again, I'm biased -- Martinez is a pretty clear-cut Hall of Famer. Many people don't think DHs should be in the Hall of Fame, but I don't have an issue there. Edgar's 10-year peak as one of the best hitters in the game is Cooperstown-worthy, and his career WAR justifies his inclusion.
Ortiz is a notch below, and even giving him credit for his postseason heroics I have trouble getting him into Hall of Fame territory. He'll have trouble cracking 50 career WAR, even with a couple more strong seasons, which would make him a weak Hall of Fame candidate by that measure. But if he pushes past 500 home runs and 1,600 RBIs, I can see Ortiz reaching Cooperstown before Martinez.