How much should October factor into Hall of Fame case for David Ortiz?
David Ortiz’s role in helping the Red Sox win their third championship of the past 10 years earned him World Series MVP honors and carved him several spots on the all-time Fall Classic leaderboard. Over the past couple of weeks, many national writers have suggested that his postseason performance should clinch him a spot in the Hall of Fame. In the past, I’ve pointed out some obstacles with regards to Ortiz’s candidacy, but the bigger question is the extent to which any player’s postseason credentials should boost his Cooperstown case.
The Hall of Fame is a collection of 300 individual honorees. By my count, 215 of them are there as major league players and another 85 as pioneers, executives, managers, umpires and Negro League players shut out of the majors. I’ve spent more than a decade studying the statistics and accomplishments of that former group — which was elected via a variety of voting rules and methodologies over the past eight decades — in an attempt to outline the standards and extrapolate them as they apply to new candidates via my JAWS system. In all of that, I’ve never come to an entirely satisfactory answer as to how much postseason excellence should boost a player’s candidacy.
Ortiz would appear to need just such a boost. His most prominent counting stats — 2,023 hits and 431 homers — don’t guarantee induction, particularly as they were accumulated in a high-offense era. In recent years, we’ve seen contemporary sluggers with even better numbers in those categories fall off the ballot or linger in its lowest reaches because they’re alleged to have used performance-enhancing drugs along the way. Like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco and Sammy Sosa, Ortiz has a PED allegation against him, though perhaps the most tenuous one from among that group. Until the BBWAA voters start admitting otherwise qualified players with PED connections, his candidacy may be at a standstill, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to set that aside.
A more advanced accounting of Ortiz’s body of regular season work, using tools to adjust for the context in which he’s played, suggests he’s still a ways off. As so often happens in these discussions, I prefer to rely on JAWS, which uses Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement, to compare each candidate’s value — career and peak (best seven years) — to the players already in the Hall of Fame at his position. Ortiz has 44.2 career WAR and 33.4 peak WAR for a JAWS (the average of the two) of 38.8. There are no full-time designated hitters in the Hall yet; Paul Molitor, the player with the most plate appearances at the position (5,344) who’s in Cooperstown, spent more than half his time at other positions, including more than 1,200 games at second base, shortstop or third base.
Because of that problem, I’ve chosen to measure players at the position they most commonly played, since they did accrue some value there beyond what a DH provides. Molitor is measured against third basemen, as is Edgar Martinez, who hasn’t gotten more than 36.5 percent of the BBWAA vote in four years on the ballot despite strong qualifications. Ortiz (who has spent about 86 percent of his career as a DH) and 2014 candidate Frank Thomas (who spent about 57 percent of his career at DH) are measured against first basemen. One can reasonably measure such candidates against all Hall of Fame hitters, but either way, the verdict in these cases doesn’t change:
|Avg HOF 1B||68.2||43.2||55.7|
|Avg HOF 3B||67.4||42.6||55.0|
|Avg HOF hitter||66.9||42.1||54.5|
One of these things is not like the others, and that’s Ortiz’s line, which is 15.7 points shy of the mark for all hitters and 16.9 points shy for first basemen. Among Hall first basemen, only Veterans Committee choices Jim Bottomley (35.4/28.7/32.0) and High Pockets Kelly (25.2/23.9/24.6) have lower scores, with Frank Chance (45.8/35.7/40.8) and Orlando Cepeda (50.1/34.4/42.3) the closest above him. The closest BBWAA-elected first baseman is Tony Perez (53.9/36.5/45.2).
For all that it captures, JAWS can’t incorporate everything that goes into a player’s Cooperstown case. It makes no attempt to account for postseason play, awards won, times leading the league in important categories or career milestones. Those accomplishments are better handled via the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor metrics, which award points for things like seasons hitting .300, winning an MVP award, earning All-Star honors, playing regularly for a championship team, leading the league in key categories and reaching certain milestones in a season or career.
Ortiz has a resumé that includes nine All-Star appearances, three championships, a .295/.409/.553 line in 357 postseason plate appearances and a searing .455/.576/.795 in 59 World Series PA, with each of those rate stats a record among players with at least 50 PA, plus one home run crown and two RBI titles. He has 132 points by the Hall of Fame Monitor system, which ranks 16th among active players, well short of Alex Rodriguez (363) and Derek Jeter (334) but above the line (100) that’s supposed to be the Hall average, though two decades of inductions and inflated offense have blurred that line. Those 132 points are tied for 104th all-time; 77 of the 105 players with scores as high or higher are enshrined already, and most of those who aren’t are on the way, though the PED issue stands as a roadblock for some. Of the 50 players who are within 20 points of his score in either direction, 28 are in, split about evenly on either side of his score.
At this point, it’s worth considering how Ortiz stacks up on the JAWS and Monitor fronts compared to other notable October heroes. Combining a top-of-my-head list with cursory peaks at a few leaderboards, I drew up a list of 10 hitters with cases worth investigating. I excluded obvious Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and (with one exception) players with 3,000 hits, because Ortiz’s case is far removed from theirs. I also avoided Deadball Era players — who entered the Hall via the Veterans Committee and its precursor, the Old Timers Committee — and active players. What I want to get a sense of, without employing a bank of mainframes to systematically evaluate hundreds of players, is what kind of gap an outstanding postseason resume can close.
Lou Brock (1961-1979). LF, 38.6 JAWS (14.5 below average), 152 HOFM. Brock is in the Hall because he collected 3,023 hits and retired as the single-season and career stolen base leader, but he was also an October superstar, hitting .391/.424/.655 with four homers and 14 steals in 92 PA for the Cardinals in the 1964, 1967 and 1968 World Series. Though the shape of his production is vastly different from that of Ortiz (he was a career .293/.343/.410 hitter), their actual JAWS and Monitor scores are reasonably similar. The boost Brock receives from the postseason helped position him as a much more reasonable Hall candidate than he might otherwise be, milestones aside; if Ortiz follows that pattern, he’ll be in Cooperstown some day.
Steve Garvey (1969-1987). 1B, 33.0 JAWS (22.7 below average), 130 HOFM. The longtime Dodgers first baseman was a perennial All-Star who hit .300 and collected 200 hits like clockwork. He was part of five World Series teams, though just one winner; he hit .319/.342/.407 in 118 PA in the Fall Classic but a more robust .338/.361/.550 with 11 homers in 232 PA for all of the postseason. Even so, and even after accumulating 2,599 hits, he never polled higher than 42.6 percent in 15 years on the ballot. Maybe he’s not a great comparison for Ortiz except based upon the Monitor stuff, but he’s proof that such a score doesn’t necessarily translate to a plaque.
Reggie Jackson (1967-1987). RF, 60.4 JAWS (4.0 above average), 170 HOFM. Mr. October was part of five world champions and six pennant winners (he missed the 1972 World Series due to injury). He hit .278/.358 /.527 with 18 homers — a record for the era of the two-tiered playoff system — in 318 postseason PA, and was the MVP of the 1973 and 1977 World Series, capping the latter with a three-homer game. With 563 career homers and a strong JAWS score, the Hall was an inevitability.
Still, the fact that a controversial, often divisive player who was regularly criticized for his strikeouts and his outsized ego received 93.6 percent of the vote on the first try testifies to the power of shining in the postseason spotlight. Some will classify Ortiz’s postseason performance as similar, though Jackson had the much deeper resumé.
Bill Mazeroski (1956-1972). 2B, 30.9 JAWS (26.1 below average), 71 HOFM. Maz was a fielding whiz who was part of two championship Pirates teams and hit .323/.364/.581 in 34 PA, punctuated by one of the most famous home runs in World Series history, the Game 7 walkoff that defeated the Yankees in 1960. A VC honoree who never received more than 42.3 percent on the ballot, he benefited thanks to that homer as well as an outsized estimation of defensive value. If Ortiz is anywhere close to that lucky with voters, he’ll wind up with a plaque.
Thurman Munson (1969-1979). C, 41.4 JAWS (1.7 below average), 90 HOFM. He died tragically at age 32, but before he did, Munson was part of three pennant winners and two world champions. He hit .357/.378/.496 in 135 postseason PA and .373/.417/.493 in 72 World Series PA while playing the most defensively demanding position. Even with a shortened career, he’d seem to have some advantages over Ortiz, but he received more than 10 percent of the BBWAA vote in only the first of his 15 years on the ballot, and has been bypassed by various Veterans Committees since.
Fred McGriff (1986-2004). 1B, 44.3 JAWS (11.4 below average), 100 HOFM. McGriff bashed 493 homers and collected 2,490 hits in his career while batting .284/.377/.509 at five different stops. He made his postseason mark primarily with the Braves, hitting .303/.385/.532 with 10 homers in 218 PA and .279/.385/.605 with four homers in 62 PA in the 1995 and 1996 World Series. Despite all of that, he’s well below average on the JAWS scale, and has gotten lost in the shuffle in the voting, topping out at 23.9 percent in four years on the ballot. His resumé might have more substance than Ortiz’s, but a lack of pizzaz may be why he can’t get any traction.
Kirby Puckett (1984-1995). CF, 44.1 JAWS (13.2 below average), 160 HOFM. Though his career was shortened by vision problems, Puckett packed a lot into his 12 seasons, racking up 2,304 hits and leading the Twins to World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. In those series, he hit .308/.393/.519 in 62 PA and for the entirety of the postseason, he hit .309/.361/.536 with five homers in 109 PA. An enormously popular player due to his outgoing personality (albeit with some ugly allegations that only came to light later) he was elected to the Hall on the first ballot with 82.1 percent of the vote. Excluding the unsavory stuff, he’s not a bad parallel for Ortiz when it comes to closing the gap.
Enos Slaughter (1938-1959), RF 45.0 JAWS (11.4 below average), 90 HOFM. Slaughter wasn’t the caliber of bopper that Ortiz is; he homered just 169 times in his career but did have 2,383 hits and a career .300/.382/.453 batting line. His totals were suppressed by missing his age 27-29 seasons due to military service, though he did stick around as a part-timer through his age-43 season. He was part of five World Series teams for the Cardinals and Yankees, hitting .291/.406/.468 with three homers in 96 PA. The best of those performances came in 1946, when he hit .320/.433/.560 and dashed home from first base with the winning run in the eighth inning of Game 7 against the Red Sox.
Slaughter got as high as 68.9 percent of the BBWAA vote before running out of eligibility, and he was eventually inducted by the VC six years later. He’s not a great parallel for Ortiz, but he’s not a bad one either.
Willie Stargell (1962-1982). LF, 47.5 JAWS (5.6 below average), 106 HOFM. A masher who hit 475 home runs and set distance records in multiple parks with a few of those blasts, Stargell was a key component on Pittsburgh’s 1971 and 1979 title teams. Overshadowed by Roberto Clemente in ’71, he earned regular season, LCS and World Series MVP honors in ’79 while serving as the team’s emotional center as well. He hit .315/.381/.574 in 63 World Series PA, and .278/.359/.511 with seven homers in 153 PA for the postseason as a whole. He was elected on the first ballot. He’s not a bad comparison for Ortiz, though he was closer to the position average.
Bernie Williams (1991-2006). CF, 43.5 JAWS (13.8 below average),134 HOFM. Williams collected 2,336 hits and 287 homers and was a starter on four world champions and six pennant winners for the Yankees during the Joe Torre era. Thanks to that perennial participation, he ranks second only to Derek Jeter in postseason plate appearances with 545 and to Manny Ramirez in homers with 22. He fell a bit short of replicating his regular season line (.297/.381/.477) in the postseason (.275/.371/.480) because he hit just .208/.319/.358 in 141 World Series PA; his best series came in a losing cause in 2003. All of that — not to mention his fade in his mid-30s — probably hurt his cause when he reached the ballot; he fell of after just two election cycles. His JAWS and HOFM are close to those of Ortiz, but as a quiet player who shunned the spotlight, he fell from memory fast.
In this admittedly non-random sample of October heroes, that’s nine players who were below the JAWS standard at their position, many by similar amounts to Ortiz. As a group, they average 42.9 JAWS, 11.6 below the standard at their positions (a bit better than Ortiz), and had Monitor scores of 120 (a bit worse than Ortiz)
All of which is to say that anecdotally speaking, the postseason and other considerations can certainly close the gap when a player’s regular season resumé is substantially short of Hall standards. Ortiz appears to be within hailing distance, but he’s by no means a sure thing. A couple more strong regular season performances accompanied by additional October appearances — hardly out of the question given that he’ll be part of next year’s defending champions and is still an elite hitter — could help his cause considerably.
Until the voters set a precedent by admitting any player with the faintest connection to PEDs, I’m still skeptical that Ortiz will get in, but given that we’re at least six years away from voting on his candidacy for the first time, it hasn’t been ruled out. Big Papi may end up in Cooperstown after all.