Now that David Ortiz has hit his 500th career home run, you can naturally expect some comments about his all-time greatness. Because let’s face it, Davis Ortiz is an all-time great -- as a designated hitter, as big a part as any player of what has made the game fun to watch for more than a decade. There are people who love baseball just a little bit more because of what David Ortiz has done over the course of his career.
But on a more practical level, in the 43 years of history with the designated hitter rule in play, we really haven’t seen many “true DHs” have careers that took advantage of the rule, which is part of what makes Ortiz so extraordinary. Among players with 1,000 career plate appearances, there have been just 19 guys play more than half their careers at DH, from Hall of Famer Frank Thomas to journeyman Glenn Adams. If you want to evaluate them on the basis of their greatness as hitters -- you know, the key criterion over whether or not they were excellent DHs -- instead of a sorting tool like WAR at Baseball-Reference.com, let’s look at them on the basis of offense-only WAR (or oWAR).
Sorted in those terms, just 11 players have generated double-digit value at the plate as far as wins on their careers, and just five have tallied 30 or more wins’ worth of value at the plate. Here’s a quick look at that fistful of hitting stars, with some other notes for good measure:
Frank Thomas, 79.8 oWAR, 521 career HRs, .301/.419/.555, .974 OPS
Edgar Martinez, 66.4 oWAR, .312/.418/.515, .933 OPS
David Ortiz, 51.6 oWAR, 500 career HRs, .284/.378/.547, .925 OPS
Harold Baines, 40.0 oWAR, 2866 hits, .289/.356/.465, .820 OPS
Don Baylor, 34.6 oWAR, .260/.342/.436, 267 HBPs, 285 steals, .777 OPS
So how has history -- as far as it’s entrusted to the BBWAA to punch people’s ticket to Cooperstown -- remembered the best DHs in MLB history? Baylor never got more than 3 percent of the vote in his two years on the ballot. Baines fell below the 5 percent mark in his fifth year on the ballot in 2011 when the crush of alternatives and ballot entry caps cinched his elimination, but he never polled even 10 percent of the vote. Martinez has never approached 40 percent of the electorate in his six years on the ballot. And Thomas was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2014.
What does that mean for Papi? I would bet on his ultimately making the Hall of Fame, not merely because of a magic round number like 500 home runs -- although that helps -- but because he was a key contributor in all three of Boston’s World Series wins, capped by his MVP performance in the 2013 victory against the Cardinals. Even his oWAR tallies will justify a few votes, because I think there will be enough people looking for reasons why to vote for him that they’ll use whatever is handy to put him on their ballot.
The irony with saying that I think he’ll be voted in is that Ortiz failed a PED test in 2003, before the owners and the union agreed to the rules which govern the game today on the subject of punishing those who would build a better body through chemistry. And given that it was belatedly leaked years later, he has been understandably defensive about it, pointing to his successfully passing tests since. That may ultimately mean nothing, and we’ve seen whispering campaigns without much evidence get used against players currently on the ballot, such as Jeff Bagwell or Mike Piazza.
Ortiz’s clean history since, his postseason performance and his overall numbers will add up to induction. Since he is not done just yet, he might also benefit from the passage of time, as 2003 and the suspicious drip-drip-drip of supposedly destroyed yet leaked test results finally dries up. He could also profit from an unsurprising if belated realization there are almost certainly PED users in the Hall of Fame already, and not just all those amphetamine-popping players. He’ll probably also be helped by an electorate that has already been willing to reward guys such as Jim Rice and Andre Dawson for achieving less.
Consistent with what I’ve said in the past, I’m totally OK with his getting in the Hall come the day. If I get the opportunity -- it’s three more years until Keith Law, Rob Neyer and I are eligible -- and have the space on my ballot, I will vote for Ortiz. After all, if the history of the game is what is at stake, how do you tell the story of the game over the past 15 years without Ortiz? It isn’t like the Curse of the Bambino fled Fenway out of mere impatience -- great players delivered great results. And he earned that opportunity to shine on October’s stage because he has been pretty awesome season after season as an everyday DH.
I’ll be voting for Papi while also trying to squeeze in Martinez. Because how can you not vote for Edgar? He wasn’t the first true DH specialist, but he was overwhelmingly the best before Thomas came up in his wake, better than Papi will wind up being, before and without adding any extra credit for postseason performance, despite not playing on teams as strong as Papi’s. That Martinez played with the Mariners shouldn’t obscure what he did on the field -- or even his greatness in the few postseason opportunities he did get (.873 OPS).
I’ll be glad to see Ortiz make it. But I’ll be just as glad to see Edgar in there too, so the game remembers that DH is a position with more than four decades of history under its belt, and finding greatness at the position isn’t as easy as it might seem.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.