Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hall of Fame Watch: David Ortiz

I'm going to start a regular feature on the blog assessing the Hall of Fame chances of a variety of borderline players. I'm going to try not to focus on the obvious candidates (Maddux, Pujols, etc.) and instead discuss the guys with question marks.

First up: David Ortiz.

Ortiz has two things working for him and two things working against him:

1. Clutch play and postseason success
2. Big seasons for a famous, winning team

1. Late start
2. No defensive value

Let's take those one at a time:

Clutch play and postseason success

If you look at his overall postseason statistics, you'll realize they don't differ greatly from his regular-season production: .317 BA, .418 OBP, .587 SLG in the postseason vs. .288, .382, .554 in the regular season. He clearly steps up his game in the playoffs and World Series, but it's not like he goes hog wild.

Still, his performance in the 2004 ALCS alone has cemented his reputation in the annals of clutch hitting. He drove home the winning run in extra innings two days in a row, and he notched 11 RBIs overall. He did just as well in that year's Division Series. And in the 2007 Division Series, he was lights out: an .846 on-base percentage (!) and 1.571 slugging percentage (!!!).

Big Seasons for a Successful Team

Just check out his entry on Baseball-Reference.com and pay particular attention to his numbers since joining the Red Sox in 2003. He's finished in the top 5 in MVP voting every year from 2003 through 2007, and his team has made the postseason four times. "Big Papi" was one of the key cogs in the the most successful Red Sox machine since 1918.

Now the negatives.

Late start

This isn't totally accurate. He actually came up with the Twins in 1997 at age 21. If he had started producing big seasons within the next three years, as many Hall of Famers do, then he would be a no-brainer. But the Twins released him at age 26 after he failed to live up to their expectations. Did they give him enough of a chance to succeed? Probably not. But the fact that he was 27 before he established himself as a star works against his Hall of Fame chances because he probably won't achieve magic numbers like 500 home runs or 1500 RBIs.

With a body like his (he's listed at 6-4, 230 pounds, but I suspect he's more like 250), he's a huge injury risk. Look at Mo Vaughn, a very similar player in both skills and body type. He was washed up at 34. Baseball history is filled with big sluggers whose careers fall apart after age 34 or so. Carlos Delgado is in the same boat.

Only 32 now, Ortiz may very well continue producing into his late 30s. If he hits 35 homers a year for the next 5 years, or if he'd done it from age 22 through 26, he would be a lock for the Hall. I'm just saying the odds are against him.

No defensive value

Ortiz has spent 80% of his career at the DH spot, and that percentage only figures to go higher as time goes on since he almost never plays first base anymore. That doesn't necessarily doom him, of course, because the Hall of Fame is only now beginning to sort out how it deals with the first generations of players who came up in the DH era. I think it simply means his road will be tougher than players who contributed both offensively and defensively.

Bottom line

I think Ortiz needs at least 400 career home runs to even have a chance. He's about 125 shy, but at his current rate, he could reach that mark in three injury-free seasons. With his injury risk and his probably natural decline in skills, I would place his chances of doing that at about 50%.

Even 400 home runs would be kind of low for a 1B/DH in this modern lively ball era, but I think HOF voters would fondly remember his smile, his clutch play, and his association with the first Red Sox championships in 86 years, and vote him in on the second or third ballot.

If he somehow reached 500 home runs, he'd be a lock, but that's a very tall order.

Big Papi is very easy to root for, so I'll be on his side.

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