Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Last First Day

Tuesday's opener was perhaps bittersweet for Boston's David Ortiz, who announced this past offseason that 2016 would be his last. However, it was also a triumphant one for the 40 year old slugger; who has been a staple of the past decade's leaderboards. In the 9th inning against Cleveland's Trevor Bauer, Ortiz launched a two home run into the right field bleachers to help seal a 6-2 victory. The blast was the 504th of his 20 year career; tying Hall of Fame member Eddie Murray for 26th on the all time list.

There have been several instances in recent memory when Ortiz's performance appeared to be severely declining. He obviously was no longer driving in over 130 runs, as he did during his peak in the mid 2000's; but Ortiz had spurts where he played like a shell of his former self. In 2015, "Big Papi" answered his critics by following a dreadful first half by his standards (.231 Batting Average/15 Home Runs/43 RBI over 340 plate appearances) with a spectacular second half (.325 BA/22 HR/65 RBI in just 274 appearances). 

After concluding 2016's Spring Training with just 4 hits in 35 at bats, it was fair to bring up the same questions once more. But on a frigid 34 degree day in Cleveland, he managed to silence those critics for what may be the final time. "When the lights go on, Papi goes on," he told the media after the game.

On the day of his 40th birthday, November 18th; Ortiz announced via The Players' Tribune his impending retirement after the 2016 season. Much like Chipper Jones in 2012, Mariano Rivera in 2013, and Derek Jeter and Paul Konerko in 2014, Ortiz will more than likely be serenaded for all of his career accomplishments by the Red Sox and his closest competitors over the course of the season. The fanfare and spotlight is warranted, but the ultimate question diehard baseball fans must eventually answer is whether he belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame or not.

From an offensive statistical standpoint, it's easy to see Ortiz giving an induction speech in Cooperstown one day. However, the catch to his Hall campaign is that he has played a whopping 1888 of his 2258 games as a Designated Hitter; the most controversial offensive position as far as comparisons go. 

The DH position was instilled in baseball's American League in 1973 to replace the pitcher in the lineup. By allowing this, pitchers were able to focus on what they were brought to their respective teams to do; rather than possibly embarrass themselves at the plate. At the same time, older players known for their offensive production were able to stay in the lineup while not having to play in the field. 

The Yankees' Ron Blomberg was the American League's First DH

Ortiz's defensive weaknesses forced him into the full time designated hitter role when he signed with Boston in 2003, and he's held the position ever since. He has become the most prolific and lethal DH the game has seen since the position's debut with the possible exception of Seattle's Edgar Martinez. But since he's mostly played half of every game, how could he be considered for the Hall of Fame?

Former White Sox great Frank Thomas played approximately 56% of his career at DH, and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2014. Meanwhile, over 87% of Ortiz's professional plate appearances came in the DH role. The difference in this percentage is crucial to Ortiz's candidacy because Thomas proved he could be relied on to play in the field when called upon. Playing only 277 games at first base in 20 seasons makes Ortiz a one dimensional player: a very good one, but still lacking the skills necessary of being an all around ballplayer.

The Hall has kept out Martinez for his first seven years on the ballot thus far. Because of a rule change in 2014 that effectively reduced candidate's appearances on the ballot from 15 years down to 10, Martinez's time is running out. Ortiz may have better power numbers than the Mariners fan favorite, but the jury is still out for whether DH's will get the same treatment as other dominant position players of their time.

Being a one dimensional star has not always been an issue for Hall of Fame's voting process. Perhaps the most famous example is Ozzie Smith; the former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop. Smith was a slightly above average offensive player at best but shined brightest in the field. "The Wizard" spent much of his 19 year career dazzling fans with highlight reel plays; charisma; and, of course, his celebratory backflips. Smith cruised into Cooperstown in 2002 on his first year on the ballot; thus proving you don't always have to be a five tool talent to receive baseball's biggest honor.

While Smith was making acrobatic plays to keep fans on the edge of their seats, Ortiz was doing the same with his bat. After all, he played an integral part of the Red Sox's 2004 World Series Championship; which broke their infamous 86 year drought otherwise known as "The Curse of the Bambino". He batted .409 with 5 home runs and 21 RBI throughout the 2004 Postseason while batting in the heart of the Sox's lineup. His ability to perform under pressure was rewarded by the Red Sox in 2006, when he was given a plaque proclaiming him to be their greatest clutch hitter in franchise history. Ortiz also was crucial for the Sox in 2007 and 2013, when they won their 7th and 8th World Series titles.

Ortiz crossing home plate after his clutch 2004 ALCS Game 4 Walkoff Home Run

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Ortiz, which leads to another critical component of his case. In 2009, a New York Times article cited he and fellow Boston star Manny Ramirez were part of a group of over 100 players who tested positive for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's). The MLB Players Association quickly shot down the article, and Ortiz has slammed them ever since for attempting to hurt his reputation of being a "clean" player. Depending on what side you choose to believe, the fact that his name was mentioned may keep him out of the Hall until more is known (similar to what Jeff Bagwell has been facing).

But when David Ortiz comes to bat for the final time, baseball fans will cherish his memories just as they would with any of today's modern day sports icons. Whether you love him or hate him, he will go down in history as one of the finest baseball has ever seen. The Hall of Fame may not agree at first, but his statistical comparison to Frank Thomas makes his case all the more interesting. 

Until his judgment day comes, it's been a hell of a ride Papi.