Sports Opinion & Analysis

Hall of Fame DH?

In MLB on July 12, 2013 at 10:30 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

With the Designated Hitter having now existed in the American League for 40 years, it is evident that it is not some passing fancy that baseball purists like Crash Davis can simply wish away. Since the position is here to stay, David Ortiz breaking the all-time record for hits by a DH raises the question: is there such thing as a Hall of Fame DH?

For the sake of reference, let’s begin by laying out the resumes of the two best everyday DHs the game has seen, Edgar Martinez, who this year received only 35.9% of the vote for the Hall of Fame this year, and David Ortiz. (Slash lines are batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.)

Edgar Martinez was so good as an everyday DH that after he won five Outstanding Designated Hitter Awards, Major League Baseball threw up its hands and named the award after him. His career numbers: .312/.418/.515, 309 HR, 1,261 RBI (Stats junkies claim RBIs are overrated, but for a DH, driving in runs is the primary job. As a result, RBIs are as important to this analysis as any other accomplishment.) and 2,247 hits.

David Ortiz .287/.381/.551, 420 HR, 1,391 RBI and 1,953 hits (statistics are as of the end of day on July 10, 2013)

This first hurdle for arguing that either of them are Hall worthy is the worn-out old claim that since DHs don’t field, they only play half the game and therefore cannot ever rank among the game’s all-time greats. Interestingly enough, one never hears it said of American League pitchers that since they don’t hit they only play half the game and therefore shouldn’t be eligible for the Hall. Now there is not perfect symmetry to those claims, but I hope it shows something of the absurdity of diminishing a player’s accomplishments at their primary task due to rules that they don’t control. More seriously, let’s consider the case of Brooklyn Dodgers catcher and deserving Hall of Famer Roy Campanella. With career totals of .276/.360/.500, 242 HR, 856 RBI and 1,161 hits, Campanella didn’t make Cooperstown on his bat. It is of course necessary to remember that his MLB career started at the age of 26 due to the color barrier (he joined the Dodgers the year after Jackie Robinson did), but the point is that he is a Hall of Fame defensive catcher, not a Hall of Fame hitter. One doesn’t have to be an all-time great both offensively and defensively to be an all-time great.

So on principle an everyday DH should be able to join the immortals in Cooperstown, but do either Martinez or Ortiz meet the threshold? Let’s compare them to some other Hall of Famers. Legendary Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew hardly generated controversy by entering the Hall with totals of .256/.376/.509, 573 HR, 1,584 RBI and 2,086 hits. Both Martinez and Ortiz have much better slash lines than Killebrew, with Martinez having over 150 more hits and Ortiz likely to pass Killebrew’s hits total by this time next year. Martinez’s hit total also stacks up nicely with other no-doubt Hall of Famers, including Eddie Mathews (2,315).

A more recent player whose best know skills are quite apt for this discussion is Jim Rice. Jim Ed is in the Hall of Fame primary based on being a fearsome slugger who dominated his era and whom Commissioner Giamatti called “the Hammer of God sent to scourge the Yankees.” His stats? .298/.352/.502, 382 HR, 1,451 RBI and 2,452 hits. Both DHs under consideration can compete with his slash line (Martinez beats it on all counts), Papi has more homers and will likely surpass Rice’s RBI total in 2014, while Martinez ended his career only 205 hits shy of Rice’s mark.

Now some challenge whether Rice, elected in his final year of eligibility after a major push by the Red Sox organization to convince voters that his accomplishments measured up with those already in the Hall, should have been put in the Hall. Personally, I don’t think that matters as at the end of the day he is in the Hall. But to assuage those critics, let’s turn to Reggie Jackson, who we all agree is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. He’s in Cooperstown with a slash line of .262/.356/.490 that is inferior to both Ortiz and Martinez on all counts (albeit with 563 HR, 1,702 RBI and 2,584 hits, all of which dwarf both DHs). What is particularly telling is where Jackson made his nickname. When Mister October played in October the totals were 77 games, .278/.358/.527, 18 HR, 48 RBI, 78 hits (1.01 per game) and 2 World Series rings. For Señor October it is 66 games, .283/.388/.520, 12 HR, 47 RBI (that is one fewer RBI in 11 fewer games), 69 hits (1.05 per game) and 2 World Series rings. Ortiz’s postseason numbers thus compare very favorably with the most famous postseason performer in the history of the game, a fact that cannot be ignored in any Hall of Fame debate.

I could keep the examples coming all day to show that Martinez and Ortiz, who has a legitimate chance of joining the 500 home run club in the next few years, stack up with guys already in the Hall, but I don’t want to belabor the point. The bottom line is that calling a DH half a baseball player doesn’t make sense. The position is part of the fabric of the game now. It is time for the voters to wake up to the fact that this is the 21st century and vote in the man from whom the Most Outstanding DH Award is named for, and brace themselves for the fact that a second everyday DH, perhaps even better than the first, is getting ready to slug down Cooperstown’s doors.

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