The big question for Big Papi
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Edgar Martinez appears on the Hall of Fame ballot after the 2009 season, Boston designated hitter David Ortiz might be watching the election results closely. Ortiz, like Martinez, was a relative late-bloomer in the majors who became a dominant hitter with no significant defensive component to his game. Neither gained full-time status early enough in the majors to accumulate traditionally "magic" lifetime numbers, such as hits, home runs and RBIs. But both men were universally respected by their peers to be among the very best pure hitters of their era.
I thought about Martinez, Ortiz, DHs and the Hall of Fame the other day after I sat down with Ortiz at his makeshift breakfast table in the middle of the Red Sox clubhouse. Ortiz hacked away at a plastic bowl filled with granola and a paper plate stressed by almost a dozen hard-boiled eggs, of which Ortiz ate only the whites. Bland? Given Ortiz's lack of enthusiasm for his morning gruel, you could probably find more satisfied diners at the Guantanamo Bay mess hall.
"Boring," Ortiz complained. "But this is what I have to do. You don't get better as you get older in your career. It's not natural to have your best years late in your career. So I'm trying to do whatever I can to keep my body feeling good for as long as I can."
Ortiz is 32 years old. He has started to think about retirement. No, Sox fans, he's not ready to pack it in any time soon. But Ortiz has reached a point where he is beginning to think about the end.
"What I don't want to do," Ortiz said, "is just play for the sake of playing. If I can't hit at a high level, I won't play, and I know there comes a point where my body won't be able to do that."
Ortiz is signed through 2010 and the Red Sox hold a rather affordable option for 2011 at $12.5 million. He will turn 36 after that 2011 season. And then?
"And then two, maybe three more years," Ortiz said. "We'll see."
Ballplayers are notorious for being wrong about forecasting the endgame to their careers. Very few leave the game too early. And Ortiz is so valuable a clubhouse presence that his services will be coveted even when he no longer is a middle-of-the-order hitter. Think Don Baylor, who played key roles for three playoff teams in his final three seasons.
But let's say Ortiz does play another six years and decides that's it. That might leave him on the light side of 500 home runs (he has 266, 23 fewer than Fred McGriff at the same age) and 1,500 RBI (he has 880). The question then would be, was Ortiz's peak dominant enough to offset the lack of so-called magic numbers when it comes to statistical milestones -- especially with no defensive component to consider? Or look at it this way: should Jim Thome be considered a lock for the Hall just because of 500 homers and Ortiz might not be granted the same preferential status?
Those questions come from a voter who has a decided bias against DHs. They are specialists, not complete ballplayers. That doesn't mean they can't be Hall of Famers, but they better be extraordinary at their specialty because they contribute nothing to half the game. Think closers and field-goal kickers.
Ortiz has a remarkable streak going. His OPS has improved four consecutive years, and that's beginning with an impressive 144 number back in 2003. So it's logical to assume he's not headed for a decline soon, especially if he keeps to his bland breakfasts.
Here's something else unusual about Ortiz: He has slugged at least .592 for five consecutive seasons, a level of sustained power-hitting excellence that is historically rare. Ortiz is one of 11 players in history with that kind of streak, with only Barry Bonds (eight straight), Babe Ruth (seven and six), Hank Greenberg (seven), Mark McGwire (six) and Ted Williams (six) with more consecutive such seasons.
Look at Ortiz's consistency delivering extra-base hits. He has pounded out 85 extra-base hits or more for four consecutive years. Only Lou Gehrig (five seasons) ever had a longer such streak and only Sammy Sosa has matched Ortiz's run. Even if you forget about whether such seasons came consecutively or not, only four hitters ever had more 85-extra-base seasons than Ortiz already has: Gehrig (eight), Ruth (seven) and Greenberg and Stan Musial (five).
Finally, there's the completely unscientific test: give me your five best hitters in baseball. You don't have to crunch the numbers on this one. Just tell me the five guys who you think are the best in the business at squaring up a baseball. If you didn't have Ortiz on that short list in any of the past four seasons, I'd have to question what you've been eating for breakfast.
Sprinkle in a .317 postseason average for teams that are 8-3 in postseason series, two RBI championships, a home run title, five top five MVP finishes, two world championships, and Ortiz has the eye-catching accolades that impress voters.
So is he a lock Hall of Famer? Not yet, but he could be before he begins that next and last contract. Give Ortiz two to four more seasons that bear a decent resemblance to the past five, and I wouldn't care if he stuck around long enough to hit 500 home runs.
No pure DH has ever been enshrined at Cooperstown. (Paul Molitor did play almost half of his games at DH.) Harold Baines and Jose Canseco haven't come close to election. Martinez will be such an interesting, rare case study that the electorate likely will need several ballots to sort through it. If so, perhaps Ortiz will be the one giving a boost to Martinez's candidacy. After all, it may take just a few more seasons for a guy who doesn't play defense and who might not hit 500 homers to be regarded as a no-doubt Hall of Famer.