David Ortiz Had a Great MLB Career, but Not First-Ballot Hall of Fame Great

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2022

BOSTON - JUNE 02:  David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox takes his turn at bat against the Oakland Athletics on June 2, 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

David Ortiz deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He just shouldn't have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Yet after receiving 307 votes, which translates to 77.9 percent of the ballots, Ortiz is indeed a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

For many, the idea of a Hall of Fame player is more black and white than the current voting process allows it to be. A player is either a Hall of Famer, or he isn't.

Anyone who is on the Hall of Fame ballot has been retired for at least five years. These players are not still adding to their resume. So, how can a guy be a "no" vote one year and a "yes" vote the next?

It's a product of the current voting system, which limits voters to 10 picks per year and gives players a 10-year window to reach the 75 percent of support necessary to earn enshrinement.

Voters are often forced to decide which 10 guys get their vote from a large field of worthy candidates. They're sometimes directed toward players who need the support more as they inch toward their final year of eligibility.

Like it or not, the "first-ballot Hall of Famer" distinction is part of today's Hall of Fame story, and Ortiz is one of the most compelling cases to come along in recent years.

Before we dive into his credentials, let's start by setting the stage with a look at the position players who have earned first-ballot induction over the past decade:

  • Frank Thomas, 2014
  • Ken Griffey Jr., 2016
  • Ivan Rodriguez, 2017
  • Chipper Jones, 2018
  • Jim Thome, 2018
  • Derek Jeter, 2020

Meanwhile, here are the players who were first-time eligible in 2010 who took more than one year to get to 75 percent:

  • Roberto Alomar, 2011 (second year)
  • Barry Larkin, 2012 (third year)
  • Craig Biggio, 2015 (third year)
  • Mike Piazza, 2016 (fourth year)
  • Jeff Bagwell, 2017 (seventh year)
  • Vladimir Guerrero, 2018 (second year)
  • Edgar Martinez, 2019 (10th year)
  • Larry Walker, 2020 (10th year)

The easiest place to start for the sake of comparing Ortiz to that group is with wins above replacement or WAR, which provides a numerical figure for the number of wins a player was worth to his team above a replacement-level player over the course of his career.

  • Chipper Jones: 85.3
  • Ken Griffey Jr.: 83.8
  • Jeff Bagwell: 79.9
  • Frank Thomas: 73.8
  • Jim Thome: 73.1
  • Larry Walker: 72.7
  • Derek Jeter: 71.3
  • Barry Larkin: 70.5
  • Ivan Rodriguez: 68.7
  • Edgar Martinez: 68.4
  • Roberto Alomar: 67.0
  • Craig Biggio: 65.4
  • Mike Piazza: 59.5
  • Vladimir Guerrero: 59.5
  • David Ortiz: 55.3

No first-ballot selection checks in lower than 68.7 WAR, and Ortiz is all the way at the bottom among all of the position players to earn enshrinement over the past decade.

Not a fan of WAR? You aren't alone, so let's find another way to look at things.

The most obvious comparison for Ortiz is Edgar Martinez since both players spent the bulk of their career serving as the designated hitter. In fact, that's a big reason why Martinez spent 10 years on the ballot, as voters were hesitant to elect someone who didn't contribute defensively.

It took Edgar Martinez 10 years to earn induction.
It took Edgar Martinez 10 years to earn induction.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Here's a side-by-side look at their numbers:

  • Ortiz: 141 OPS+, .286/.380/.552, 2,472 H, 541 HR, 1,768 RBI
  • Martinez: 147 OPS+, .312/.418/.515, 2,247 H, 309 HR, 1,261 RBI

Both players' cases are entirely predicated on offensive production, and Martinez has a narrow edge in OPS+, an all-encompassing stat to measure a player's offensive contributions.

Despite that, Martinez received only 36.2 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, while Ortiz is currently tracking at 84.4 percent. That may more a case of Martinez being undervalued than anything else, but that's still a difficult margin to explain based on those side-by-side numbers.

Aside from the on-field production, Ortiz's ties to performance-enhancing drugs are the obvious elephant in the room.

In 2009, news broke that Ortiz was included on a list of 104 players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003 as part of a leaguewide survey. He never tested positive in subsequent years when testing was officially put in place, but it's still enough to raise a cloud of suspicion for some voters.

A similar suspicion without concrete proof likely kept Jeff Bagwell from earning first-ballot enshrinement, and the same can be said of Mike Piazza. Why should Ortiz be treated any differently?

There is no denying his impressive resume, especially in the postseason, where he hit .289/.404/.543 with 17 home runs and 61 RBI in 85 games. He won ALCS MVP in 2004, World Series MVP in 2013 and helped deliver three World Series titles to Boston while providing some of the most memorable playoff moments in franchise history.

His performance against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS alone is enough for some fans to punch his ticket to Cooperstown. He delivered back-to-back walk-off hits in Game 4 and Game 5 with the Red Sox facing elimination, and he finished 12-for-31 with three home runs and 11 RBI in the series to anchor the biggest comeback in MLB history.

That legendary clutch production, along with his 541 career home runs, is more than enough to warrant Ortiz's inclusion among the all-time greats. However, there are enough knocks on his resume that he should not have been placed in the same category as other recent first-ballot selections.

Like it or not, that's how Hall of Famers are judged in today's game. Ortiz should have had to wait his turn like so many others before him have.


All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.