By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Very few of today's baseball players can be said to be the greatest ever at their positions.
If Roger Clemens decides to pitch again this year -- and one guesses there are about 4 million reasons (per month) why he will -- one will be able to at least make the argument that we are witnessing the greatest starting pitcher in history.
Had Alex Rodriguez stayed at shortstop, instead of selling out and moving to third base in order to have an easy path to the playoffs, we might be calling him the greatest shortstop ever.
Mariano Rivera, whose credentials as the greatest relief pitcher in history are pretty much unassailable, probably is the only sure thing in the game today.
But there is another, easily overlooked candidate -- because his position has been in existence for only 33 years and to this day is utilized in only half of all big league games.
David Ortiz, we suspect, will be known someday as the greatest designated hitter ever, if he does not hold that title already. In a few more years, in fact, the evidence may be overwhelming.
Among players with 500 or more games as a DH, Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox slugger, has the highest slugging percentage (.560 through Thursday) as a DH, and only Edgar Martinez (.959), who retired two years ago, has a higher on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) than Ortiz (.930) at the position.
(However, a caveat: Cleveland's Travis Hafner, who had just 352 games as a DH under his belt through Thursday, has numbers -- .593 slugging and .999 OPS -- that crush everyone else in the argument.)
By early in the 2008 season, Ortiz, who had 158 homers as a DH through Friday , should surpass Martinez's DH record of 243. Only a handful of additional players -- such as Harold Baines, Don Baylor and perhaps Frank Thomas -- are even in the argument of the greatest designated hitters in history.
It is useful to discuss Ortiz with respect to history's other great designated hitters because, as a rule, the position gets little or no respect in bigger-picture baseball arguments. This was underscored last season when Ortiz lost out to New York's Rodriguez for the American League MVP award despite having comparable statistics.
Still, it was the best MVP finish for a full-time DH in history. (Martinez's best finish was third place in 1995. Baylor won an MVP in 1979, but he played the majority of his games in the outfield.)
Asked last week if he was penalized in the voting last year because he was a DH, Ortiz said: "Of course. Put it this way: Whoever wins the MVP, it's because of his offense. So what does a DH do? Offense. So why are you going to try to tell me the DH doesn't deserve the MVP?"
The first test case for a DH's claim to Hall of Fame status comes later this year, when Baines -- the career leader in games (1,643), at-bats (5,806) and hits (1,688) by a DH -- appears for the first time on the Cooperstown ballot.
However, things do not look promising for Baines. In addition to the built-in bias against designated hitters, he will share the ballot with mortal locks Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, plus steroid-era test case Mark McGwire.
Martinez, who will first appear on the ballot in 2009, has a far better chance of getting into Cooperstown.
Martinez "was the one who started everything for the DH," Ortiz said. "Why shouldn't he count as a player? The DH is the most difficult job in the whole game. It's the toughest thing to do. So why don't you want to give credit?"
If the Hall of Fame should be reserved for the very best players of their eras at their individual positions, Martinez absolutely should gain election in 2009. And in sometime around, say, 2017, so should Ortiz.
Special correspondent Andrew Levine contributed to this report.