Big Papi: Is DH a first-ballot Hall of Famer?

December 16th, 2021

It’s Hall of Fame season, and in a little over a month, we’ll learn the fate of Red Sox legend , who retired after the 2016 season and appears on the ballot this year for the first time. A group of reporters gathered to analyze the Hall of Fame candidacy of Big Papi.

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: Let’s start with a simple question -- is this just a matter of David Ortiz being either a Hall of Famer or a first ballot Hall of Famer? Are we in agreement he should and will get in at some point?

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: To me, he’s a no-brainer. When you think of the most feared hitters of the past 20 years, Ortiz ranks right up at or near the top of the list. The guy was a threat every time he stepped to the plate, and nobody thrived in the big moments like Big Papi did.

Ian Browne, Red Sox beat reporter: Total Hall of Famer, in every sense of the word. I probably covered more of his games with the Red Sox than any other reporter, and it's hard for me not to think of him as belonging in that group. During the 2013 season and playoffs, playing for a veteran-laden team that included Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Jake Peavy, etc., Ortiz’s teammates simply called him “Cooperstown.” That seems to say it all, right?

Anthony Castrovince, reporter/columnist: My longstanding opinion is that if you're a Hall of Famer, you might as well be a first-time Hall of Famer, and the distinction that first-ballot Hall of Fame entry should be reserved for only a select few is silly. That said, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if Ortiz is not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But he should be.

Sarah Langs, reporter/producer: I am absolutely on board with [Castrovince] -- to me, a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer. He should get in at some point, for sure. But he certainly isn’t a player who needs to be revised and relitigated, stats-wise, to prove the point. His stats speak for themselves. Thus, that sounds like first-ballot to me.

Feinsand: With 541 homers, 632 doubles, 1,768 RBIs, a .380 on-base percentage and a .552 slugging percentage, Ortiz was more than just a guy who could run into a homer from time to time. Heck, he led the AL in doubles, RBIs, slugging and OPS in his final season at age 40. He probably could have reached 600 homers if he had decided to keep playing.

Footer: His 541 homers probably signal automatic enshrinement, though eclipsing the 500-homer mark today happens much more frequently than a couple of generations ago. Still, the raw numbers -- including in the postseason -- suggests Ortiz was one of the best when it mattered. What stands out to you as the defining stat or stats of his 20-year career?

Browne: Sure, he was a slugger, but the man could also hit (.286 career average, 632 doubles). How many players in history have 500-plus homers and 600-plus doubles? Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols. The list ends there. Miguel Cabrera is three doubles away from joining.

Feinsand: As good as Ortiz was during the regular season, he raised the level of his game in the postseason. His .947 OPS bettered his .931 mark in the regular season, he hit 17 homers and 22 doubles with 61 RBIs in 85 career postseason games, which projects to 32 homers, 42 doubles and 116 RBI over a 162-game season. And that was when the games mattered the most and the lights were shining brightest. You want one simple stat that defines him for me? Here it is: three. That’s the number of World Series rings he won with the Red Sox, who had won zero over the 85 seasons before he arrived in town.

Castrovince: .967: His OPS with runners on base. That's 15th all-time among those with at least 1,000 plate appearances in those situations.

You can't tell the story of baseball in the 21st century without prominently including Ortiz. He is the foremost figure of one of the foremost franchises in that era. The 2004 killing of the Curse, the 2013 World Series after the marathon bombing and an absurd collection of clutch hits are all part of his lasting legacy.

Browne: The hitter with the highest similarity score to Ortiz on Baseball-Reference is Frank Thomas, who was a sure-fire Hall of Famer, elected on the first ballot. He also played a lot of his career as a DH. Other players comparable to Ortiz per BB-Ref: Manny Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and Willie McCovey.

Langs: How about his final year? I love everyone else’s stats, and raise you: his 2016 season, with 38 homers and a .620 slugging percentage. Those two marks are the highest by any AL/NL player in his final career season (among qualified for slugging). That season was a joy to watch, and a fitting way for him to live up to the warranted adulation he got from city to city. It doesn’t always happen that a player goes out with such a great season (Buster Posey did this year!) -- and that’s ok, of course. But it was wonderful to see play out.

Footer: Part of the discussion has to be Ortiz’s alleged inclusion in the 2003 PED survey testing list that was not intended for the public. He never tested positive for any PEDs after testing was implemented in earnest soon after that first survey test. The PED issue has made the HOF debate a fine mess for the better part of the last decade. Is this going to be a problem for Ortiz?

Feinsand: It could be a problem for him when it comes to the first ballot, as some voters might leave him out due to his alleged inclusion on that list. That said, even MLB has come out and said that Ortiz should not be considered to be a PED user based on that report, which is something that doesn’t happen often. I think it may cost him some votes this year, though when voters look at some of the other names on the ballot there are those that have been proven as users, while Ortiz has not.

Browne: In 2009, we learned that Ortiz was one of 103 players who tested positive in anonymous survey testing in 2003. Steroid testing was not part of baseball’s drug policy at that point. Also, we never learned what substance Ortiz tested positive for. And in 2016, Commissioner Rob Manfred said that there was actually a chance Ortiz didn’t test positive in ’03, as those tests were inconclusive and used for survey purposes only.

Castrovince: Using the 2003 survey testing against Ortiz is shady. We don’t know what substances triggered the positive tests. We don’t know what levels were found in the samples. We don’t know what, if any, nutritional supplements played a role in any of the positives. MLB and the union said there were 96 positives under the Joint Drug Agreement, and the union disputed the results of 13 of those players. There was no need to do a retest of the disputed results at the time because the number needed to initiate a drug policy was reached, regardless.

Browne: The whole steroid issue is getting harder and harder to use to keep a guy out, unless you have definitive proof of a positive test. I'm quite sure some PED users have been inducted in recent years, even if they didn't have a big paper trail. It's really hard to be judge and jury on this unless the player was actually disciplined by MLB for failing a test.

Castrovince: If you, as a voter (and more importantly as a reporter), feel completely confident proclaiming Ortiz to be a “steroid guy” based on that, you are giving our profession a bad name. And of course, let’s not forget that Ortiz played the majority of his career under a drug policy initiated in 2004 and never failed a drug test within that timeframe. So there’s that.

Langs: These things are always tricky and lead to so many verbalized opinions. But ultimately, the stats of his case are indisputable in terms of the weight they carry, and I think we’re seeing momentum toward that overall. I don’t think it holds him out overall, though as Mark said, it could lead to fewer of those "first ballot" votes, we’ll see.

Footer: While voters aren’t always on the side of a DH earning consideration as a Hall of Famer, there are a few elites who were no-brainers -- specifically, Thomas, Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez. Presumably, Papi falls into this category? Do you foresee any voters giving the “nah, he only played ‘half’ the time” argument?

Feinsand: I know some people will hold the DH thing against him, but they shouldn’t. Had he played a below-average first base his entire career, nobody would count that as a strike against him given his offensive prowess. This guy is simply one of the best hitters of his generation. If other DH-types such as Molitor, Harold Baines, Thomas and Edgar are in the Hall, I don’t want to hear about the DH thing anymore. It’s a position just like closer -- another maligned job in the eyes of many Hall voters -- and Ortiz is one of the best ever to play that position.

Castrovince: Some will, but the die has been cast, the precedent set. It makes no sense to keep Ortiz out based on that. I will say, however, that, because the DH has been legitimized as a Hall of Fame position, it's probably unfair to use bad defense as a reason to keep out some great hitters who stunk in the field.

Browne: I think the whole DH argument is ridiculous when closers -- who only perform 1-2 innings per game -- have been getting into the Hall of Fame for years. The Big Hurt DH'd a lot. Granted, it's ridiculous that Baines is in the Hall of Fame in the first place, but he is, and he was a DH. Before Papi, the best DH of all-time was Martinez, and it's amazing it took him the maximum of 10 years on the ballot to get in, all because he was a DH. Let’s stop this madness now. By the way, Martinez and Ortiz had almost the same career OPS, but Papi hit 230 more homers than Edgar did.

Langs: There are now three Hall of Famers who played at least 50% of their games at DH: Thomas, Baines and Martinez -- as Ian noted. I think the days of seeing DH as tangibly different are past, as long as the offense holds up. And Ortiz hit 541 homers, the most of anyone to primarily DH in their careers. The same is true for RBIs, doubles and so on. Even if DH is seen as a slight, the way he dominated the position (or lineup notation) should assuage that.

Castrovince: Hopefully Ortiz won't have to wait 10 years on the ballot like Edgar.

Feinsand: I don’t think he will have to wait that long.

Browne: I think Ortiz was in the limelight so much more than Edgar, who was really only in the center of our minds in the 1995 playoffs. I think Papi is foremost on the minds of a lot of writers for what he did, especially in October. And though this shouldn't influence voting, I don't think it will hurt his cause that he was great to the media his entire career.

Footer: Some would argue it's harder to not play defense -- a lot of hitters hate sitting around and thinking about their terrible prior at-bat for two or three innings.

Castrovince: I've heard that. But I would not argue that. Fielding a position while ruminating on your last at-bat is a billion times more difficult than sitting on your butt while ruminating on your last at-bat.

Browne: That's the thing though, Castro. Ortiz was never sitting on his butt.

He was looking at video most of the time or taking extra swings between at-bats. The dude was a workhorse even as a DH: Constantly in motion. And he really studied the pitchers he was going to face.

Castrovince: I was being facetious, Brownie. But yes, point taken. I loved talking about the art of hitting with Ortiz during his career. He was a great student of the game and had so much knowledge of opposing pitchers.

Browne: He knew all of their tendencies through endless preparation, which led to many of his big moments.

Feinsand: If Ortiz played first base his whole career, but was a bad first baseman, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Which is silly.

Castrovince: Exactly!

Browne: Bingo, like was Frank Thomas some great first baseman?

Castrovince: This reminds me of the Vlad Guerrero Jr. vs. Shohei Ohtani MVP "debate" (to the extent there was one). That some people tried to use a bunch of subpar defensive innings for Guerrero as a separator was hilarious.

Feinsand: When Jason Giambi won the AL MVP award, it had nothing to do with his play at first base.

Footer: Last question. Best guess: Does Papi get in on his first try?

Feinsand: I say yes. Probably around 80 to 85%.

Browne: It's going to be close, very close. I say he gets in with about 78% of the votes.

Langs: Feeling similarly -- I think it’ll be close, but I’ll be an optimist and say he does get in.

Castrovince: Man ... I'll be the contrarian and say he misses by 10 or fewer votes. Not because I want that to happen but because somebody's got to be "That Guy" here.

I think there are just enough silly things stacked against him -- the 2003 testing, the DH, the sanctimonious views of what it means to be "first ballot" and a few people regrettably submitting blank ballots -- that he could come up a little bit short.