David Ortiz and the Very Large Hall

The Hall of Fame buzz around David Ortiz is understandable given the amazing World Series he just had. With few exceptions, Ortiz has been an outstanding hitter since coming to Boston in 2003, a performance that will certainly make him an intriguing candidate for the Hall of Fame. I do not know whether he will get elected to the Hall, and there are others who are good at such analysis.

But when we as fans argue about the Hall of Fame, we mostly argue about whether a player should go into the Hall of Fame. In this context. Ortiz’s career usually draws comparisons of his career numbers with other players who were primarily DHs like Frank Thomas and (more often) Edgar Martinez. Obviously, this is not an either/or proposition. Just because Thomas and Martinez are (in my mind) clearly worthy of enshrinement does not mean Ortiz cannot be. Thus the “Edgar first” position is not all that interesting to me.

I do happen to believe that Thomas and Martinez are worthy and that Ortiz is not, but rather than getting into that way of looking at the issue , I want to take a different approach. If Ortiz’s career to date makes him worthy of being in the Hall of Fame, what other players might also be worthy based on their numbers? Exactly how large are Ortiz’s advocates willing to make the Hall?

I like Wins Above Replacement and believe it is a useful tool (although not exclusively so) for making points about a player’s Hall of Fame credentials. WAR graphs are good for representing and comparing peak and career value. For this post, though, I want to leave that aside. I also want to leave aside the issue of whether DHs should be in the Hall of Fame. I think they should be, and I think WAR does a good job of representing their relative value. Edgar Martinez looks worthy despite being a DH for the bulk of his career.

But I am going to take a different approach. Rather than consider whether Ortiz is as good as a player who is worthy of the Hall, but whether he has better credentials than a player most would not consider to be a Hall of Famer. This player is one of Ortiz’s contemporaries. This player has spent less time at DH, but since we are not using WAR and its positional adjustments, we do not need to worry about it. We can just compare their offense above average: hitting according to park-adjusted batting runs above average and base running (yes, DHs still have to run the bases, so it counts). Does Ortiz have a clearly better Hall of Fame case than this player?

Let’s begin with a classic Rob Neyer-ism using career regular season numbers:

Player A: 8249 plate appearances, .287/.381/.549, 138 wRC+, 431 home runs, 330 runs above average on offense
Player B: 8838 plate appearances, .278/.400/.519, 141 wRC+, 438 home runs, 427 runs above average on offense

Player A is David Ortiz. Player B is Jason Giambi. Jason Giambi has had a really good career. However, and maybe it is simply the circles I run in, but I do not recall anyone making an argument for Jason Giambi being a Hall of Famer. I do not think he is.

Giambi has seven more home runs career home runs than Ortiz, but he also has about one extra season worth of plate appearances. Still, his wRC+ is higher. I have heard some people suggest only Ortiz’s Boston years should be relevant, and his rates would take a boost. I am not sure what is meant by this argument. Avoiding easy jokes about Boston myopia, I assume it means a player’s peak years (which clearly came in Boston for Ortiz) are the most important for this sort of consideration. That makes sense. But that cuts both ways for the comparison, since Giambi’s rate stats have mostly below his prior career averages since leaving the Yankees after 2008.

It is also true that even if Giambi plays in the majors next year, beyond small accumulations of raw counting stats, he is almost certainly done adding anything to his more useful measures of value. Ortiz, on the other hand, looks like he has at least a couple of good-hitting years ahead of him that will at least add to his total. Barring a disaster, he will pass Giambi in home runs. Catching Giambi in career offense above average might be a tougher task, but he might come pretty close.

But when it comes to the Hall of Fame, we want players with remarkable peaks, not just players who hung around forever being average or above average. We want at least a decent stretch of legitimate greatness. What “greatness” means in just batting runs is open to debate, but we do not need to worry about that much here since we are simply comparing two players. Here are each player’s best six offensive season in offense above average:

David Ortiz

57.3 in 2007
47.1 in 2006
43.2 in 2005
35.4 in 2004
32.1 in 2011
30.9 in 2013

Nice. But check out Jason Giambi’s six best:

Giambi best six:

79.1 in 2001
75.2 in 2000
57.8 in 2002
46.1 in 1999
41.2 in 2003
40.5 in 2005

Giambi’s two best seasons blow away Ortiz’s best, and his third best is (since we don’t want to mince decimal points) just as good (both were at 175 wRC+). Giambi’s fourth-best season is virtually equal to Ortiz’ second-best. All of Giambi’s six best seasons were at least 40 runs above average on offense, which Ortiz has only accomplished three times so far in his career (which is what we are considering, hey, it could still happen, I suppose).

Although Ortiz and Giambi have been pretty close in career offensive value, it is pretty clear that Giambi’s peak seasons are far superior to Ortiz’s. But there are a couple points people might want to to make to separate Ortiz from Giambi.

Supporters will note that Ortiz has been better than Giambi in the playoffs. This is true, but how much better? For his career, Ortiz has a 148 wRC+ in 357 plate appearances in the playoffs. Carlos Beltran (196 wRC+) might scoff, but it is fine for the rest of us to be impressed. But it is not as if Giambi has been bad in the playoffs, and, in fact, it is pretty close: 145 wRC+ in 174 plate appearances. I think most teams would take that.

Most people agree that playoff greatness (and much of Ortiz’s greatness comes from his three World Series performances) should count towards Hall-worthiness. Again, we are not talking about whether Ortiz has done enough in the playoffs to make up for any perceived regular-season value shortfall to get him into the Hall, but whether it is enough to make him a clearly better candidate than Jason Giambi. I do not think three points of wRC+ is a big deal.

Of course, Ortiz has better playoff counting stats, and has about twice as many playoff plate appearances as Giambi. Ortiz should get some credit for that, of course, as he was part of the reason his teams have been in the playoffs and had success there. But how much more credit for this should he get than Giambi, who also helped teams get to the playoffs with both Oakland and New York (although he clearly made a grievous mistake of peaking in Oakland rather than the Big Apple) and overall hit well while in the playoffs? Ortiz has the better playoff resume, but is it enough to separate him from Giambi given their similar career numbers and Giambi’s clearly superior peak?

Yeah, but wasn’t Giambi’s peak tainted by his link with performance enhancing drugs? I dislike talking about PEDs — other people might do it in an interesting and informative manner, but I am not one of those people. I only briefly mention PEDs here because others clearly think it is very important. If one wants to dock Giambi for his links with PEDs, that is fine, but given that we are comparing him with David Ortiz, I think an ellipses might be appropriate here…

What exactly constitutes a “Small Hall” (one that is only for the elite of the elite) versus a Large Hall is a semantic debate in itself, aside from what one thinks is the best way to represent the best players in baseball history. I have left aside the question of whether or not David Ortiz is a Hall of Famer in the body of this post. My point is has simply been that if one wants a Hall of Fame Large enough to include Ortiz, it is hard to see how to would be too small for players like Jason Giambi (or even Carlos Delgado, who I ended up omitting for simplicity), whose case seems to be just as good. This would open the Hall to a numbers of players that have rarely been considered to be Hall-worthy, something those promoting Ortiz’ Hall-worthiness need to consider.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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