For the first time in two seasons the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) elected a player into the Hall of Fame, with 77.9 percent of their voting members casting ballots for Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz in his first year of eligibility. You will get no argument from me about whether the voters were right to honor Ortiz as a Hall of Fame caliber player, although I’ll evaluate some of the objections other writers have made in detail below. However, as elated as I am that one of my favorite players is heading to Cooperstown, I am troubled by a process that sees him celebrated as inarguably better players fall off the ballot. I cannot help but wonder if the process for voting for the Hall of Fame is broken.
I wanted to spend this piece celebrating the career of one of baseball’s fiercest hitters, and I will do that. However, I can’t do only that because I also find myself with questions.
What is the point of an institution that exists to “preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball” when the greatest player of a generation and all-time home runs leader, Barry Bonds, is excluded?
Furthermore, how are fans supposed to believe in an institution that enshrines the Commissioner of the League who sat idly by while performance-enhancing drugs made a mockery of baseball’s home run records only to then exclude the players whose home run race arguably saved the sport from the aftermath of the 1994-95 player’s strike?
The case for Big Papi
It is not difficult to make the Hall of Fame case for David Ortiz, although he was never a lock to get in on the first ballot. In fact, it’s worth noting that with 77.9 percent of the vote he has the fourth lowest percent of the vote among first-ballot inductees. However, they don’t put vote totals on a player’s plaque in the Hall of Fame, and Ortiz will always be a first-ballot inductee. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.
During a career that began on September 2, 1997 at Wrigley Field, Big Papi slashed .286/.380/.552 with a wRC+ of 140 across 10,091 plate appearances. He had a wRC+ over 150 seven times in his career. He was a 10 time All Star and a seven time Silver Slugger. He was recognized as the league’s best DH eight times. He hit 541 career home runs, 483 of which came with the Red Sox. That puts him second on the Red Sox all-time home run leaders list sandwiched between two other first-ballot Hall of Famers: Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.
The regular season numbers would be sufficient for Papi to make the Hall of Fame, but they do not capture his incredible postseason resumé. David Ortiz had 369 plate appearances in the postseason where he slashed .289/.404/.543. He won three World Series rings with the Red Sox and was instrumental in ending their title drought in 2004 when he was named the American League Championship Series MVP. That series would have been plenty dramatic all on its own given the rivalry element between the Red Sox and Yankees, but it was also the first time (and still the only time) any team had come back from a 3-0 deficit in postseason history. Long championship droughts, it appears, can only be ended in epic fashion.
This walk off home run to win Game 4 in the bottom of the 12th inning and extend the series certainly qualifies:
Ortiz is the all-time postseason leader in Win Probability Added (WPA), a stat you are no doubt familiar with from the long-running Heroes and Goats series here on Bleed Cubbie Blue. Ortiz’s mark of 3.2 is quite a bit higher than the 2.8 put up by the player in second on that list — another surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer you may be familiar with — Albert Pujols.
Baseball writers who love numbers, like me, often argue that clutch isn’t a real concept. To be fair, some articles that explore the concept of clutch and David Ortiz conclude our perceptions of Big Papi as the most clutch player ever are likely a mirage. Yet, he still had enough big moments for an ESPN bracket full of the most memorable in his final season. I was fortunate enough to be at one of the games in the Final Four of that bracket. To this day it is the loudest and most memorable baseball moment I’ve ever seen in person:
The case against Big Papi
As clear cut as I think the above argument is, there are dissenters. Almost 24 percent of BBWAA voters left Ortiz off their ballot and it’s worth diving into the reasons.
Of the 10,091 plate appearances I mentioned above, Ortiz played 8,861 of those as a DH. He did not field a ball in 88 percent of his time in MLB. His 51 fWAR accumulated over 20 seasons reflects his lack of time on the field, as Matt Klaassen noted at FanGraphs in 2014, the DH penalty is considerable. Of his remaining plate appearances, all were logged in interleague play at first base, another position with a fairly hefty fWAR penalty. That said, Jay Jaffe summed up Ortiz’s position in DH history far better than I can:
Ortiz is Martinez’s only rival for the title of the position’s greatest, and owns the advantage in counting stats, but his .288/.380/.552 batting line, assembled largely while calling Fenway Park home, is not the equal of Martinez’s .314/.428/.532 in the more pitcher-friendly environments of the Kingdome and Safeco Field. Adjusting for park and era and including their offensive performances at other positions, Martinez holds a 147-141 edge in OPS+ and a 532-455 edge in batting runs (the offensive component of WAR).
Martinez does not have Ortiz’s lengthy postseason resumé, but his biggest October hit probably saved baseball in Seattle, and he does have significant edges in WAR (68.4 to 55.3) and JAWS (56.0 to 45.3). Defensive value is built into WAR, both via a comparison of the player’s fielding work to that of the average player and via a positional adjustment that rewards those at harder positions on the right of the defensive spectrum and penalizes those at the easier ones on the left. A full-time DH, playing 150 games a year, is assessed a positional adjustment of -15 runs via Baseball Reference’s version, 5.5 fewer than the same amount of time at first base, and 17 fewer than the same time at third (which pertains to Martinez’s case).
Here it’s worth noting that FanGraphs’ version uses -17.5 runs for DH, and +2.5 for third base, so Edgar has a slightly bigger edge on Big Papi in WAR, 65.5 to 51.0. Because of that significant positional penalty, Ortiz only cracked the league’s top 10 in WAR in 2005 (5.2 WAR, eighth), ’06 (5.8 WAR, sixth) and ’07 (6.4 WAR, sixth); meanwhile, he placed second, third and fourth in the MVP voting in those years, respectively. He had three other seasons worth at least 4.0 WAR, the championship seasons of 2004 (4.3) and ’13 (4.4) plus his swan song (5.2).
Which brings us to the subject of the DH penalty and Ortiz’s near-misses at MVP. It also brings us to the elephant in the room because in 2005 and 2007 the AL MVP was none other than Alex Rodriguez, who was also on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, but was a distant 10th in voting, at 34.3 percent.
A problematic ballot - PEDs
Here we get to the more likely reason so many voters left David Ortiz off their ballot: the so-called “Steroid Era.” While some associate Ortiz with PEDs because his name was in the leaked 2003 report, he never failed a test. Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, has two failed tests. He also has better numbers than Ortiz in almost every category. He has 3,115 hits and 696 home runs. He tallied more than double Ortiz’s fWAR at 113.7. He was a 14 time All Star and a three time MVP. I take some solace in the fact that Papi has more rings.
But more incredibly than those numbers: Alex Rodriguez isn’t even the third-worst snub on this ballot. You see, that fWAR total puts Alex Rodriguez at 13th all-time in fWAR — a whole David Ortiz Hall of Fame career behind number two all-time. Another man who was on this ballot — Barry Bonds (164.4 fWAR).
We’ll get into the Hall of Fame character clause below, but before we do I really just need to emphasize how incredibly large the gap between Ortiz and A-Rod is, let alone the gap from Ortiz to Bonds. Let’s start with this tweet:
David Ortiz’s career OBP: .380.— Kendall Baker (@kendallbaker) January 25, 2022
Barry Bonds’ career OBP if you turned all 762 of his home runs into outs: .384.
We talk about Bonds and the all-time home run record a lot because it’s a revered record in the sport. It’s also far easier to focus on long balls than other stats. Bonds was not merely (or primarily) a slugger for most of his Hall of Fame worthy career. For the record, Bonds slashed .298/.444/.603 for his career. Bonds had an OPS over 1.000 from 1992 until 2005 and again in 2007 (he just missed 15 straight years because his 2006 OPS was .999). Those are not typos. He had an on-base percentage of .444 over 12,606 plate appearances. He had career SLG of 607. Yes, Bonds has a career OPS of 1.051.
In 2004, Barry Bonds had an on-base percentage of .609. To put this in perspective, Ted Williams has the career OBP record of .482 (Bonds is sixth). Williams never logged an MLB season with an OBP over .600. In fact, let’s take a closer look at the all-time single season OBP leaderboard according to Baseball Reference:
Top OBP seasons All-Time
|Barry Bonds (39)
|Barry Bonds (37)
|Josh Gibson+ (31)
|Ted Williams+ (22)
|Charlie Smith (27)
|John McGraw+ (26)
|Babe Ruth+ (28)
|Babe Ruth+ (25)
|Tetelo Vargas (37)
|Barry Bonds (38)
Barry Bonds has three of the top ten seasons by OBP all-time. He also recorded all of them after he was 37 years old.
Let’s be clear about a few things here, Barry Bonds was in the middle of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career before he touched steroids. It is also unavoidably true that performance enhancing drugs contributed to his absurd statistics in his late 30s and into his 40s.
But Bonds is not alone in flummoxing voters for the last decade. This ballot also included Roger Clemens, the all-time pitching leader in fWAR at 133.7 (Cy Young is second at 131.5). It included Sammy Sosa and his 609 home runs that many believe helped bring fans back after the strike, possibly saving the nation’s pastime — while possibly providing a catalyst for Bonds to begin using performance enhancing drugs, due to the frenzy surrounding a home run race he wasn’t yet part of.
A problematic ballot - the character clause
It’s unbelievably tangled and messy to extract the baseball talent and historic on-field heroics from the performance enhancing backdrop. It’s even more impossible to disentangle the many questionable things we’ve learned about some of these players in the context of the character clause, which states that voters should consider character and integrity of players in their vote:
Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
Whether performance enhancing drugs are a sufficient character clause violation for some of these players is likely a secondary question for some voters. Look no further than the fates of Curt Schilling and Omar Vizquel — both players who were not linked to PEDs but saw their vote totals shrink in 2021. In Schilling’s case that came from some seriously questionable social media posts the last few years, in Vizquel’s it’s the result of investigations into domestic violence and sexually harassing a minor league bat boy.
They aren’t the only players linked to problematic behavior on the ballot. Clemens had an inappropriate relationship with Mindy McCready when she was 15 years old. Bonds faced domestic violence allegations during his divorce. Andruw Jones has seen his vote totals increase to 41.1 percent as writers recall his legendary center field defense, but that increased momentum is sure to also invite increased scrutiny into his 2012 arrest for domestic violence.
Finding some way out of here
I have never shied away from looking at complicated issues in baseball. My favorite sport is imperfect, like all human endeavors. I think baseball should be applauded for being more introspective and honest about problems that exist with the sport and it’s players. The PED era may be over, but the controversies arising from players’ malfeasance are likely to rise in coming years. This isn’t because players are inherently worse people now than they were in 1936, it’s because society and the league have evolved to have a better understanding, and lower tolerance, for poor behavior.
But it seems pretty clear that the process for electing players to the Hall of Fame is more than a little broken. As of this writing the museum tasked with preserving and telling the story of the nation’s pastime to fans does not include the all-time hits leader (Pete Rose), the all-time home run leader (Bonds) or the greatest pitcher by fWAR (Clemens) — yet it does include Bud Selig, the Commissioner who reaped the benefits of the PED era and then left the players and writers holding all the consequences of his inaction. As MLB increases their ties with legal gambling it is increasingly farcical that many of the players on the ineligible list are there for ties to gambling, as if that is somehow more important than the issues detailed above.
I am certain that the Hall of Fame already contains problematic people who did terrible things in their personal lives en route to stellar records and on-field heroics. I am equally certain that our imperfect systems of human justice and scrutiny mean some people are more likely to be penalized for their off the field actions than others.
The members of the BBWAA have imperfect information and are not in some uniquely valuable position to judge human character. They are in a unique position to evaluate baseball talent. Frankly, watching them fumble around applying the character clause in seemingly random ways to some players rather than others with similar problematic pasts is exhausting all on its own.
David Ortiz was rightly elected to the Hall of Fame in my opinion, but pretending that he was a more important player in his era than Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling or Alex Rodriguez is a fantasy. It’s ahistorical, and I’m more than a little concerned that the current plan for telling the story of baseball in the 1990s-2000s seems to be just walking away from the complicated legacies of the players who dominated the game during that time and hoping the fans don’t notice.