Is David Ortiz the greatest DH ever?

Jim Rogash

We know he's great, but where on that scale is he sitting?

David Ortiz is pretty amazing.

It's easy to forget how utterly done he looked just a few years ago. In three short seasons from 2007 to 2009, Ortiz went from a near-league-leading 175 wRC+ -- a statistic that represents offensive production in one tidy number, as a percentage better or worse than a league average player -- to 124, then to an exactly average 100. Historically speaking, a player on the older side of 30 whose only value in his bat and who provides merely league-average offense over the course of a season is not long for the MLB world. At 33 and fading fast, Ortiz seemed on his way out.

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Destiny is a pretty slippery concept, though, and that's not what happened at all. In 2010, Ortiz bounced back, a bit, with a 134 wRC+ -- far off his peak, but still useful. In 2011, he was even better (154 wRC+), and while he's missed many more games thanks to an unfortunate Achilles injury, his 2012 and 2013 to date (entering Wednesday) have come very close to matching his peak production levels. In the equivalent of one full season (150 games and 643 plate appearances) across the past one and a half years, he's hit .318/.409/.613, with 39 home runs, a 170 OPS+ and about a 168 wRC+. After looking done at 33, Ortiz at 37 may be less durable and even slower than he was in his prime, but he's hitting almost as well as he ever has.

So, has Ortiz's resurgence made him the best designated hitter ever? High Heat Stats suggested as much on Twitter (or that he's very close) a few days ago, which is what got me thinking about it. Ortiz has clearly had a brilliant career, and in the relatively short history of guys who almost literally don't have to do anything but hit, no doubt he's among the best. But how close is he to the best?

In my mind, there's exactly one way to go about answering this question. Frank Thomas only spent about 56 percent of his time at DH (which in my mind makes him a first baseman who often played DH), Paul Molitor about 43 percent, and Harold Baines just wasn't as good as you may remember. To me, for the foreseeable future, "was he the best DH ever?" is the functional equivalent of a simpler question: "how does he compare to Edgar Martinez?" In contrast to Thomas and Molitor, Martinez had over 70 percent of his plate appearances -- and almost all of his greatest offensive seasons -- as a nearly-full-time DH -- and he set the standard.

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Edgar was great -- really, really great -- and should be in the Hall of Fame already. Dave Cameron wrote about exactly how great Edgar's bat was right here, so read that if you're not convinced; my purpose here is not to convince you that Edgar was great, but to look at how close Ortiz is to matching him.

We can skip to the end, use crib notes, and look right at WAR... and that doesn't make for a great start for Ortiz. Edgar's career wins above replacement total (averaging Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus) was about 66; Ortiz's is about 41. That's a pretty huge difference, and if Ortiz could keep up his crazily productive 2013 pace of about 4.5 full-season wins, he'd catch or pass Edgar around the end of the 2018 season, shortly before his 43rd birthday. This is... unlikely, at best. WAR is not Papi's friend.

There's noise in there, though, that I don't think we want to deal with. You may not believe this, but Martinez, both by the metrics and by his reputation at the time, was actually a solid third baseman; he was moved to DH to take pressure off his knees, not off of Mariner pitching. Ortiz, of course, has been a butcher of a first baseman whenever he's been pressed into duty throughout his career. That's roughly a 30-run or three-win swing in Edgar's favor, by either Baseball-Reference's or Fangraphs' reckoning, and that's on fielding ability alone; his simply spending more time in the field and at the more difficult position give Martinez another approximately 30 runs or three wins over Ortiz. I'd argue that those things are irrelevant here; where the question is who was the greatest designated hitter ever, we're really only concerned about their hitting. So that makes it closer than WAR would have it. But still: is it close?

Edgar (late-starting career and all) still has about 760 career plate appearances on Papi, and had a career 148 wRC+ (and 147 OPS+) to Ortiz's 138 (and 139). Considering their time spent as designated hitters only, Martinez hit .314/.428/.532 in 6,218 plate appearances, and Ortiz has hit .289/.385/.559 in 6,778.Baseball-Reference doesn't give overall OPS+ numbers for those splits, but the park-adjusted league OPS for Ortiz's career has been higher than it was for Martinez's -- 774 to 756 -- so we can fairly infer that Martinez's 960 OPS as a DH is even better than it looks vis-a-vis Ortiz's less OBP-heavy 944. Any way you slice it, Martinez was better than Ortiz has been, and not by a little. Fangraphs' WAR formula credits Martinez with 532 career batting runs, Ortiz with 371. It's a big gap, and it's not one a 37-year-old is likely to close.

I suppose one could make a peak value argument; Bill James has argued that a cluster of stellar seasons is more valuable than a longer stretch of good seasons adding up to the same total value. Here's a comparison of their seven best seasons, best to worst, by Fangraphs' batting runs (and including that season's wRC+):

Ortiz

Martinez

62.5 (175 wRC+)

70.5 (184 wRC+)

50.5 (157)

57.6 (165)

49.8 (157)

57.1 (166)

39.8 (147)

51.2 (159)

37.7 (154)

49.7 (161)

30.7 (169)

48.8 (154)

28.4 (145)

45.2 (168)

I expected that to be closer, honestly. Edgar wins at every step. His best and second best seasons are better than Ortiz's best and second best, his fourth-best is better than Ortiz's third-best, and his seventh-best is better than Ortiz's fourth-best. From 1995 through 2001, across 4,481 consecutive plate appearances, Martinez's wRC+ was 164; Ortiz's second-best single season wRC+ (in a season in which he qualified for the batting title) is 157. Ortiz's best performance over a similar number of plate appearances is a 148 wRC+ over 4,201 trips from 2002 through 2008.

There's just not a meaningful comparison to be made here; Ortiz has been great for quite a while, but Martinez was greater for longer, and he's your all-time greatest DH. You might be tempted to give Ortiz extra credit for postseason heroics, and I wouldn't blame you (though Edgar has some of that, too); I still don't think you're going to get there. Ortiz is in a battle for second place.

None of this is to disparage Ortiz at all. He's been phenomenal, and continues to be phenomenal, and he's one of the greatest hitters of his generation and one of the greatest designated hitters in history. But Edgar Martinez was even better, and for a surprisingly long time. I don't think anyone is overrating Ortiz; he's properly appreciated for being brilliant at what he does. We've just forgotten, or never quite understood, just how great Edgar Martinez was. He's still the standard at designated hitter, and will likely remain the standard through the end of Ortiz's career and for a very, very long time thereafter.

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