David Ortiz was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday. He was the lone player from the ballot elected, but he will join six others selected by Era Committees.
Yesterday was the first day that David Ortiz’s Baseball Reference page is adorned with the yellow Hall of Fame banner above his other career accomplishments. As a Boston Red Sox fan, this warms my heart. However, I was a bit surprised by the fact that, not only did he get in on his first appearance on the ballot, but that he was the only one to be elected. More on that later. First, let’s talk about why he’s absolutely deserving.
Analytics be damned.
Big Papi got into the Hall of Fame despite below average bWAR numbers across the board. Of course, part of the problem there is how difficult it can be to do Hall of Fame comparisons for Designated Hitters. Therefore, his numbers are compared to average first basemen enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Average Hall of Fame first basemen have 66.0 career WAR, a 42.4 7-year peak, 54.2 JAWS, and 5.0 WAR per 162 games. Big Papi’s numbers fell short at 55.3 career, 35.2 7-year peak, 45.3 JAWS, and 3.7/162. As Jeff Sullivan noted, Ortiz’s WAR is basically the difference between Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.
the difference between Barry Bonds' career WAR and David Ortiz's career WAR is equal to Alex Rodriguez's career WAR
— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) January 26, 2022
Wait, didn’t I say I wanted to talk about why he deserved to get into the Hall of Fame? Must be the pre-2004 Sox fan psychology still haunting some musty corner of my brain.
Big Papi aka St. David of Fenway.
Ortiz came to Boston due to Pedro Martinez urging Sox ownership to sign him after he’d been released by the Minnesota Twins. In 455 games with the Twins, Ortiz slashed .266/.348/.461 and only hit 58 homers. Pedro saw something in the big lefty that hadn’t yet emerged. The Sox took a chance on a 27-year-old who had failed to make any major impact with a $1.25 million deal. To say the risk paid off would be a massive understatement. In his first season with the Sox (2003), Ortiz clubbed 31 homers and drove in 101 runs. The slugger had sprung forth from seemingly nowhere. His 3.4 bWAR that season eclipsed his career total in six seasons with the Twins.
Becoming a star.
Ortiz was an important part of Boston’s lineup, particularly paired with fellow slugger Manny Ramirez. However, he hadn’t really cemented himself as Big Papi yet. He wasn’t quite yet the massive hero that Sox fans now look back on. Part of that is because of Aaron “F***ing” Boone.
It was the next year, the greatest year ever, in 2004, that he would become a god. During the regular season, Ortiz smacked 41 dingers and drove in 139. Like a wine and cheese pairing done right, that meant he and Manny combined for 84 homers and 269 RBI; a lethal combo usually hitting together in the middle of the lineup.
The greatest championship in Red Sox history.
Kevin Millar, the mouthy prophet, deserves credit for drawing the walk that led to Dave Roberts stealing second. Bill Mueller deserves credit for singling off Mariano Rivera to bring Roberts home to tie the game. The whole team deserves credit, of course. Yet, it was Papi homering off of Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning that allowed an entire fanbase, even those no longer living, to exhale. They never looked back in crushing the collective heart of Yankees’ fans by achieving the greatest comeback in the history of major American sports. The level of veneration for Ortiz could never fade after what he did in vanquishing the much hated Yankees and then ending the 86-year championship drought for the Sox. It is no coincidence that it was an Ortiz jersey that a construction worker buried in cement during the erection of New Yankee Stadium. In that postseason, Ortiz slashed .400/.515/.764 and hit 5 huge home runs. That alone probably guaranteed him a bronze statue outside of Fenway Park. What he did for the rest of his career ensured the cast of that statue long before his enshrinement into Cooperstown.
Some more numbers!
Let’s start at the end, so to speak. In 2016, Ortiz’s final season, he had what is arguably the greatest final season ever. Particularly if you account for it being his age-40 season. He is the only player in their age-40 season to hit 30 or more home runs, drive in 120+, and have an OPS over 1.000. That season he led all of MLB in doubles (48), slugging percentage (.620), and OPS (1.021). Additionally, he led the American League with 127 RBI. What a way to make your final exit!
For his career, Papi is in very exclusive company. There are only four players in major-league history to have 2,000 or more hits, at least 1,700 driven in, 600+ doubles, 500+ home runs, and 1,300+ walks. That would be Henry Aaron, Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds, and David Ortiz. Now, Pujols isn’t yet eligible to be on the Hall ballot and Bonds sadly fell off the ballot on Tuesday. Those look to be Hall-worthy numbers, unless you are being blacklisted by a third of the voters. Hopefully there will be a day when all four of those names appear on plaques in Cooperstown.
A quick note about that.
To reiterate, I am thrilled that Papi got elected and slightly stunned that it came on his first ballot. That said, I do feel like there is a small rain cloud hovering over his election. Bonds and Roger Clemens falling off the ballot is just insane. They both deserve to be in the Hall. The infuriating irony is that they’re shunned by moralizing voters who want them to shoulder the blame for almost the entire so-called Steroid Era. Ironic, because we all know – what we weren’t supposed to know – that Papi’s name was in the Mitchell Report. He tested positive in an evidentiary survey for the Report, at a time when PEDs weren’t banned by MLB. If a portion of the voters feel the need to moralize players from the Steroid Era, then they should at least be consistent. To be clear, I don’t think that means Papi shouldn’t be in. I think they all should be in if their career achievements merit induction. Apparently, for those voters, PEDs are a worse transgression than being a racist or a drunk or a domestic violence offender or someone who took “greenies.”
Most importantly, in celebrating Ortiz’s election, so many of us will remember the smile, the whipping bat speed, the life-saving walk-off hits, and the man who came from seemingly nowhere to become the heart of a team that went from tragic last-minute losers to a squad that spoiled their fans with almost two decades of dominance. Congratulations Papi!