The Cooperstown Case for David Ortiz and Designated Hitters
The Baseball Hall Of Fame is a fun place to visit, but pretty backwards in some important ways where history is concerned. David Ortiz could be a victim of that.
Photo by Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
David Ortiz's announcement that he would retire following the 2016 season was an opportunity, and we pretty much blew it. Here was a chance to celebrate a terrific hitter and an even better personality, a player who was a key part of taking a franchise that had won fuck-all since the First World War to three World Series wins in 10 years. There was a lot to talk about, but instead we got a wearyingly familiar Hall of Fame discussion, which centered—as such debates tend to do—on negatives.
There are two perceived demerits on Ortiz's docket: his purported presence on a list of failed PED tests and his primary position, designated hitter. Both, it is worried, will disqualify him, not to those of us who watched him with such pleasure, naturally, but to the revanchist weirdos that decide who gets to be in the Hall.
"Love the museum, hate the debate" doesn't have the same resonance as "love the sinner, hate the sin," but there are only so many ways to talk about how strange the Baseball Hall of Fame has made itself. That it may well exclude one of the best hitters of a generation because of PED conjecture and a refusal to accept the DH—which turns 43 next year—just about sums this up. So does its decision to shiv the perspective that time brings by reducing ballot eligibility from 15 years to 10, the better to scoot players it perceives as embarrassing, like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, out of view.
That ain't history; it's clumsy editing. It's also totally irrelevant: as we see in the case of Alan Trammell, who deserves inclusion and won't get it, Hall of Fame voters and museum executives have as much power to validate a player's career as the House of Representatives does to outlaw vanilla ice cream. Greatness is in the eye of the beholder and the mind of the man or woman able to construct a defensible argument in its favor. "Yeah, buh heeze a DH" is not a counterargument, but it is what we, and David Ortiz, are dealing with here.
Let's push the irresolvable PEDs thing aside for now and focus on the DH. The argument against enshrining players whose primary position was DH is that they somehow do less than the guys who wear gloves. This is true in a basic sense, but with players whose defense is below average, the DH adds to their value by not requiring them to do things they aren't good at, be that fielding (Frank Thomas, Chili Davis), staying healthy (Paul Molitor, Edgar Martinez), or both (Ortiz). Looking at hitters as talented as Ortiz or Martinez and concluding that the DH allowed an inferior talent to have a career is backwards. There is no team in history that would have benched bats that special; they would have been out there galumphing around if it had come to that. Happily, the DH allowed teams to put these players in a lineup without paying a penalty in lost defense or disabled list stays. This is true of nearly every team in baseball history: the better the player's bat, the more likely the team will be to overlook defensive weakness.
There are a few examples of good hitters whose careers were curtailed by a lack of defense, but very few. In the 1920s and 30s, outfielder Ike Boone couldn't hit his way into long-term jobs with the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Brooklyn beat writer Tommy Holmes said Boone was "bearlike," "painfully slow," "practically stationary," and that he "didn't cover much more than the ground he stood on in the outfield." He could also rake, and hit .321 in 356 major league games, which he played between being sent down to do things like hit .407 for the Mission Reds or .372 for the prehistoric minor league team in Toronto.
Boone is the exception. At the same time Boone was having that .372 season in pre-expansion Canada, a clumsy Louisianan first-sacker named Zeke Bonura was a regular for the White Sox. His manager, Jimmy Dykes, called him the worst first baseman who ever lived. "He doesn't wave at the ball," Dykes said, "he salutes them." He also said Bonura never made errors because "you can't miss what you can't get to." Yet Bonura played as long as he hit—defensive concerns tend to wither in the face of a .345 batting average.
There have been more players like Bonura than Boone. The Phillies went to four postseasons with Greg "The Bull" Luzinski as their left fielder, a defender so clueless as to present a problem in quantum physics—by observing the ball, he lost himself and vice versa. But Luzinski hit .300 with up to 39 home runs a year, heady stuff in the mid-1970s, so on he went. What Holmes said about Boone also broadly applies to Darryl Strawberry, who had had speed, a great arm, and absolutely zero interest in moving more than a yard in any direction. Longtime Mets fans will remember a discolored bit of turf in Shea Stadium's right field that came to be known as the Strawberry Patch—the grass had died because, regardless of the batter, that was where Strawberry stood.
When it comes to defensively challenged first basemen, teams have devoted roster spots to a caddy rather than ditch them. We only have to look as far back as the 2015 Pirates, who had the iron-gloved Pedro Alvarez start but rarely let him finish; his .978 fielding percentage was the lowest by any regular first baseman since World War II save for fellow Pirate Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart in 1959. Utility man Sean Rodriguez came on in relief of Alvarez 90 times in the course of the season. If a player hits well enough to earn four at-bats per game, managers will find someone to do the defensive dirty work at the end of the game. The best known of these caddies is probably most famous for not playing: Dave Stapleton stood in for Bill Buckner late in most games of the 1986 postseason, except for Game 6 of the World Series.
The poster child for the irrelevance of the DH-as-scarlet-letters argument is the recently retired Adam Dunn. Dunn got over 1,600 games in the outfield and at first base, despite having less range than William Shatner, because he was capable of hitting 40 homers a year. By Baseball Reference's calculations, for every run above replacement Dunn gave the 2009 Nationals, with his 38 home runs and 116 walks, he gave back a little more than a run in the field. Nonetheless, the Nationals gave him 153 games in the field the next year, and after he moved to the AL the White Sox gave him regular work at first base.
These teams were not totally self-defeating in deferring to offense. Defense matters a great deal, but teams need less of it now than ever. In the 1970s, when the DH came into being, the average pitching staff struck out five batters per nine innings. Today we're up to about eight, and more strikeouts mean fewer chances for fielders. It's still helpful to have a Doug Mientkiewicz picking it at first base, but if you choose to go with Chewbacca McBash for his bat, the odds are somewhat better these days that you'll get away with it.
There's one more purist argument against the DH, which is that it artificially prolongs careers. It's hard to know what this even means. Even if we could ascribe enough meaning to the question to say, "Yeah, it did," so what? This is the sort of thing that could only matter in an argument whose governing criteria are golden numbers—3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins—that qualify a player for election. When those numbers matter too much, the finer points of getting there will matter too much as well.
One good outcome of the ascendance of the steroid-scolds is that those Big Numbers no longer serve as excuses not to think. McGwire, Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, all with more than 500 home runs, aren't in and aren't going. Now, if you can break with the Big Numbers, you should be able to go the other way and ask yourself if Fred McGriff's 493 home runs is in any real way different from 500, or how Tommy John's 288 wins (or Mike Mussina's 270) is materially different from 300. That is not to say that those players should necessarily be in the Cooperstown, absent other qualifications—the whole point is that no single number tells the entire story and that sometimes, as in pitcher wins, these numbers tell us very little at all.
There is no Hall of Fame; there is only a baseball museum. Museums tell stories, and David Ortiz was a key character in baseball's. Carping about specialists like closers and designated hitters is adding boundaries to the indefinable at the expense of what matters. If the DH bothers you, well, if you care about that kind of thing then that is the kind of thing you care about. Let's not confuse those concerns with baseball, or history.