David Ortiz turns 38 years old today and is coming off another big season, highlighted by his monster World Series performance. Probably no player did more to help his potential Hall of Fame case than Ortiz did in 2013. Consider:
With offensive numbers once again in decline across the majors, Ortiz hit .309/.395/.564 with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs, ranking fourth in the American League in on-base percentage and third in slugging. His OPS+ was the fourth-highest of his career, following his injury-shortened 2012 season, 2007 and 2006. He finished 10th in the MVP voting, his first top-10 finish since 2007.
Those numbers also indicate he has a lot left in the tank, suggesting he should still be an effective hitter for at least two more seasons, maybe three or four. That will help some of those all-important counting stats that Hall of Fame voters love. Ortiz has 431 home runs, making 500 a possibility; with 1,429 RBIs, another 300 would put him into the top 20 all time.
The World Series heroics -- he hit .688 with eight walks -- boosted his reputation as a clutch postseason performer. While his overall postseason batting line isn't that different from his regular-season numbers (.962 OPS versus .930), it's that reputation that will matter more than a strict analysis of his numbers, much like how we remember Jack Morris' Game 7 shutout in the 1991 World Series and not what happened in the 1992 World Series, when Morris got hammered twice and lost two games. With three World Series rings, plus several memorable October home runs, Ortiz will gain extra support from those factors, the way they pushed marginal Hall of Fame candidates like Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter into Cooperstown.
The big knocks against Ortiz remain: 1) he's largely been a designated hitter; 2) tenuous ties to PEDs; and 3) his career Wins Above Replacement. At 44.0, he's below Hall of Fame standards and even below another designated hitter candidate in Edgar Martinez (68.3). But Ortiz's fame and career counting stats should eventually help him get in.
By the way, one more quick note on Ortiz. Whenever I write about him, the haters always bring up PEDs. They also like to point to his rejuvenation in recent years as "proof" that he's juicing. In 2008 and 2009, Ortiz hit .250/.348/.482, and in 2009 he got off to that awful start when he'd hit one home run through May while batting under .200. Since 2010, he's hit .300/.392/.560. The haters extract this to argue that he obviously must be cheating. I mean, Hank Aaron had the two highest slugging percentages of his career at ages 37 and 39, but whatever, Ortiz must be cheating.
Of course, that narrative leaves out something important. Check out Ortiz's strikeout rates:
2009: 21.4 percent
2010: 23.9 percent
2011: 13.7 percent
2012: 13.3 percent
2013: 14.7 percent
Ortiz's line drive percentage in 2013 was 25 percent, the highest during any season of his Red Sox career. Even when he hit .332 in 2007, it was much lower, at 19 percent. It seems to me that Ortiz has simply become a better hitter, better against left-handed pitching and willing to sacrifice a few home runs to put the ball in play more often. The guy who struck out 134 and 145 times in 2009 and 2010 struck out just 88 times in 2013.
Here are four other players who most helped their Hall of Fame cases in 2013 -- I wouldn't include somebody like Mariano Rivera, who was a lock no matter what he did this year, or even Miguel Cabrera, whose Hall of Fame credentials are already firmly established.
After injury-plagued 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Mets, Beltran's career appeared in jeopardy, but he's put together three consecutive good-to-excellent seasons, hitting .288 while averaging 26 home runs and 88 RBIs. Although he wasn't quite the terror in the postseason that everyone kept mentioning, he did drive in 15 runs in 17 games. As with Ortiz, it's the perception that matters here. Beltran's career WAR of 67.5 puts him above many recent Hall of Famers -- in some cases, well above -- and though he'll turn 37 in April, he appears to have a couple more good seasons in him. With 358 home runs and 1,327 RBIs, his counting stats are starting to impress as much as the advanced metrics like him.
Beltre is similar to Beltran -- he's a good all-around player who has kind of snuck up as a Hall of Fame candidate. Beltre has now had four straight terrific seasons, averaging 6.5 WAR; according to Baseball-Reference, the only position players with more WAR since 2010 are Robinson Cano and Cabrera. Much of Beltre's chances of eventually getting in rest in how much value voters will place on his defense, but his offensive numbers are now strong enough -- and he'll be just 35 next year -- that voters will pay attention to the entire package. Factor in that he's been one of the best players in the game over a period of years (plus 2004, when he was second in the MVP voting while with the Dodgers) and his case looks better and better.
He obviously has a long way to go because he's just 25, but the important things Kershaw did were win another Cy Young Award, and do it with a high level of dominance, posting a sub-2.00 ERA. There's no doubt that his peak level of performance has made him into being the best pitcher in the game. Certainly, many other young pitchers have been at this stage in their careers -- Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen -- but Kershaw's established level of performance means all he has to do is remain healthy.
Pedroia isn't a classic Hall of Fame candidate because he doesn't hit a lot of home runs or drive in 100 runs, but he's building a lot of positives on his résumé; adding a second World Series ring was a big plus. Pedroia now has four seasons of 5+ WAR, and a fifth at 4.9. Those totals are starting to line up with players like Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, both of whom had six 5+ WAR seasons. Pedroia turned 30 in August and his career WAR is 38.1, so he has a long way to go to become a Hall of Fame candidate, but if he can churn out three more peak seasons, he's going to have a strong case.
The thing to remember is that fame remains an important consideration for Hall of Fame voters. Fame is why Jim Rice is in and Tim Raines isn't. For Ortiz and Pedroia, they have that "winner" tag applied to them as well; if their cases end up borderline, they now have a check in the extra-credit column. It could make the difference.