Baseball has four magic numbers: 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, 3,000 hits, and 500 home runs. Historically, if you reach one or more of those numbers, you are a Hall of Famer.
The pitching magic numbers remain pretty magic. There is only one member of the 300-Win club not in the Hall of Fame: Roger Clemens, whose failure in the voting has never been about his statistics. Only two members of the 3,000-K club have not been enshrined: Clemens and Curt Schilling, and the main case against Schilling is that he is nowhere near the other club, retiring with “only” 216 wins. Schilling will eventually get in the Hall, and Clemens will too after a much longer wait.
The 500-HR club is different, though. Joining this club no longer guarantees enshrinement in Cooperstown. There are currently four eligible members of the 500-HR club who have not been elected: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Gary Sheffield. There are four others who are not yet eligible — Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jim Thome, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez — and only Griffey and Pujols among them are shoo-ins for election.
Obviously, with Clemens and most of the 500-HR guys, the elephant in the room is performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Sheffield, Rodriguez, and Ramirez are all either proven or strongly suspected PED users. But even before he tested positive, Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame case had its detractors. The same arguments will be made against Thome, who has never been linked to PEDs. Both Palmeiro and Thome were what their detractors call “compilers”: guys who played long enough to compile some impressive numbers but were never really dominant. Neither ever came very close to winning an MVP award. For all the home runs they hit, Thome only led the league in homers once and Palmeiro never did (Sheffield and Frank Thomas are the only other 500-HR club members to never lead the league). In addition, both Palmeiro and Thome played significant time as designated hitters: 15 percent of Palmeiro’s plate appearances, and 107 of his 569 homers, came as a DH; Thome had 33 percent of his plate appearances and 205 of his 612 homers as a DH.
All this talk of compiling and DHing brings us to the newest member of the 500-HR club: David Ortiz, who hit two home runs off of Matt Moore on Saturday to join the club. “Big Papi” has led the league in homers only once, and he has never won an MVP award. In addition, 87 percent of his career plate appearances have come as a DH. Oh yeah, and he also tested positive for PEDs in the 2003 testing that was supposed to remain anonymous.
Voters have never known what to do with PED users or designated hitters or “compilers.” Ortiz fits the bill on all three, but there seems to be a pretty strong sentiment that he is a Hall of Famer. I believe it was with that sentiment in mind that Peter Gammons tweeted this:
As we prepare for HOF voting, we should think David Ortiz, and what his future candidacy mean for Edgar Martinez. If one belongs in, both do
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) September 13, 2015
What Gammons technically implied was that the cases for Ortiz and Edgar Martinez are identical — “If one belongs in, both do” — but I think he was really making more of a one-way comparison: you can’t put Ortiz in the Hall and leave Edgar out. When you compare the cases for Martinez and Ortiz, there are only three categories in which Ortiz leads:
Ortiz has 500 career homers; Martinez retired with 309. That home run gap gives Papi an advantage in slugging percentage, .547 to .515.
Ortiz has a super-sized personality and has spent the entire good portion of his career on the Boston Red Sox, one of baseball’s most popular teams. Martinez was quiet and played his entire career with the Seattle Mariners, a double whammy of lousy teams and possibly the worst market in baseball in terms of national visibility.
Martinez’s Mariners made the postseason only four times in his 18-year career, and he played in only 34 postseason games. Ortiz started with good Minnesota Twins teams and then went to good Red Sox teams, so he has played in 82 career postseason games. And while Martinez performed slightly worse than normal in October — his .873 postseason OPS was 60 points below his career regular season number — Ortiz has stepped up his game in the postseason, putting up a .962 OPS compared to .925 in the regular season.
At least two of those areas matter — I am not sure that Ortiz’s (and Boston’s) popularity should work in his favor in the Hall of Fame voting, but power and postseason performance are certainly relevant. But in every other regard, Martinez was the superior player. Let’s look at some of those:
No, Martinez was not Ozzie Smith. He was not even Lonnie Smith. But Edgar had more than 22 percent of his career plate appearances as a third baseman, and he was actually an above-average defensive third baseman for a few years. Ortiz has played very little in the field, and when he has played, he has been a defensive liability.
Getting on Base
Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Derek Jeter, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, Carl Yastrzemski, Paul Molitor, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Nap Lajoie, Cal Ripken, George Brett, Paul Waner, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Craig Biggio, Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson, Rod Carew, Lou Brock, Rafael Palmeiro, Wade Boggs, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente. Those are the members of the 3,000-Hit club who had a lower career on-base percentage than Edgar Martinez. It would have been much quicker to go the other direction: the only players with 3,000 hits and a higher OBP than Martinez are Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins.
Ortiz’s career OBP of .378 is solid, but it pales in comparison to Martinez’s .418, which ranks 21st in baseball history. Put another way: they have gotten on base almost the exact same number of times (3,530 for Martinez, 3,519 for Ortiz), but Martinez had 726 fewer plate appearances.
You know that batting average isn’t nearly as important as OBP, and I know it, but not all the Hall of Fame voters know it. So Martinez’s 28-point advantage in batting average (.312 to .284) is more relevant than it maybe should be.
Wins Above Replacement
On Baseball Reference, Martinez leads Ortiz 68.3 to 50.0. On FanGraphs, it’s 65.5 to 45.9. Most of the quibbles with WAR have to do with the differences (and inherent weaknesses) in the assessment of defensive value, which means the quibbles are much less relevant in a discussion of two men who spent most of their careers not playing any defense.
Of course, as Rob Neyer pointed on last night, WAR does not include the postseason. Ortiz has played about half a season’s worth of postseason games. His best single-season B-Ref WAR number was 6.4, so if we cut that in half to 3.2 and give him a 10-percent bonus for stepping up his game, we can add about 3.5 to his total, but 53.5 is still significantly behind Martinez’s 68.3.
OPS and OPS+
Ortiz has a 32-point advantage in slugging percentage; Martinez has a 40-point advantage in on-base percentage. Add them up, and Martinez’s .933 OPS is eight points better than Ortiz’s .925. And because Martinez played in a worse offensive environment than Ortiz, the difference is even more pronounced in OPS+, where Martinez scores 147 compared to Ortiz’s 140.
Edgar Martinez could come out of retirement next year, play every day at age 53, strike out in half of his at-bats, and hit a weak grounder back to the pitcher in each of the other half, and he would still have a higher OBP, higher batting average, higher WAR, and fewer strikeouts than David Ortiz.
When you add it all up, the math is clear: the only way to conclude that Ortiz has been a better offensive player than Martinez is to declare that home runs are not just the most important thing, but significantly more important than everything else. Simply put, Martinez was a better hitter than Ortiz in every respect except home runs, and significantly better in most respects.
Considering that neither man played much defense, the offensive numbers are what we’re looking at. Ortiz has a postseason advantage and a popularity advantage, but neither is anywhere close to big enough (or important enough) to outweigh the fact that Martinez was a significantly better hitter than Ortiz.