The Best Designated Hitter of All-Time?

'David Ortiz' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license:

On Sunday afternoon, a couple of friends and I went to Baltimore to watch the Nationals play the Orioles at Camden Yards.  Despite it being a low scoring, it was pretty exciting game, nevertheless.  Any time you can watch young stars like Bryce Harper, Matt Wieters, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam Jones play, it’s going to be a fun game.

All of that said, the highlight of the day was not the game itself.  Instead, it was the conversations that ensued as we watched.  We covered a variety of topics that ranged from steroids to the Chicago Cubs, the Hall of Fame, baseball memorabilia, and finally the designated hitter.  Toward the end of the game, my friend Dave (a Cubs fan) asked a rather interesting question:  “Is David Ortiz is the greatest designated hitter in the history of baseball?”  He thought yes, and my friend Kevin (a Red Sox fan) wholeheartedly agreed.  I provided the dissenting opinion, firmly coming down on the side of Edgar Martinez.

Trying to sell Martinez over Ortiz as the best DH in history to a group of Red Sox fans (such as yourself) is a pretty hard sell.  We remember Ortiz’s years of dominance (2003-2007), which was followed by an unexpected three year resurgence of greatness (2010-2012).  We remember two October championship runs, all of the clutch hits, and the fear he struck into the hearts of pitchers.  Ortiz certainly has an interesting case, at the very least on a purely on the subjective level.

Martinez, on the other hand, nearly lacks that pedigree entirely.  The furthest his Mariners ever came to a deep playoff run came in 1995 and 2001 when they lost in the ALCS to the Indians and Yankees respectively.  The only clutch hit of note was “The Double” that forced a Game 5 in the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees.*  Furthermore, Martinez was rarely considered to be the best hitter on his own team–not that this was his fault.  These kinds of things happen when Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Ichiro Suzuki are your teammates at various points in your career.  Still, he was rarely considered to be a superstar, which hurts his case from a narrative standpoint.

To be fair, this was a pretty momentous hit in terms of Seattle baseball.  It not only served as a catalyst in a tremendous playoff series comeback, but it also helped save baseball in the Emerald City.  Prior to that moment, residents were against the idea of public funding for a new stadium.  After “The Double,” public sentiment drastically changed; thus leading the way to Safeco Field being built.

Let’s step away from the narrative for a second, and look at the two from a statistical angle.  How do they stack up in terms of their primary statistics?

Martinez – 2055 games, 8672 PAs, .312 batting average, 1219 runs, 514 doubles, 309 HRs, 1261 RBI

Ortiz – 1815 games, 7574 PAs, .284 batting average, 1111 runs, 479 doubles, 398 HRs, 1318 RBI

It’s important to keep in mind that Martinez played an additional 200 games and racked up an additional 1100 plate appearances.  This actually helps Ortiz’s case in terms of counting stats as he can keep adding to his totals.  Ortiz has a clear advantage in terms of home runs and RBI, and will likely pass Martinez in doubles and runs scored sometime during the 2013 season.  Martinez’s only edge is in his batting average.

Interestingly enough, advanced statistics don’t support the narrative that the superstar, Ortiz, was a better player than the (supposedly) complimentary player, Martinez.   Using a few metrics like weighted on-base average (wOBA), weighted runs created plus (wRC++), and Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), we can begin to see a very different picture.

Martinez – .405 wOBA, 148 wRC++, 69.9 fWAR

Ortiz – .390 wOBA, 136 wRC++, 38.0 fWAR

Let’s be clear.  Both players were elite hitters.  Still, despite Ortiz’s better counting stats, Martinez’s career offensive output was 12% better than Ortiz’s.  While that might not seem like much, 12% is pretty significant when you consider the large samples in which we’re dealing.  Just to put it in context, let’s look at each player’s ten best seasons in terms of wOBA (in which they qualified for the batting title):

Martinez – .468, .449, .434, .434, .426, .425, .424, .409, .381, .381

Ortiz – .448, .427, .418, .416, .408, .405, .400, .380, .372, .340

Clearly, Martinez bests Ortiz in this category.  In fact, it’s not even close.  Martinez’s worst season was still better than Ortiz’s threeworst seasons.  Additionally, he put together seven seasons with wOBAs over .420 versus two by Ortiz.  Those are some pretty jaw dropping statistics.

What about era, though?  Martinez had the luxury of playing most of his career during the height of the so-called steroid era, whereas Ortiz primarily caught the end of it.  Certainly, there must be some statistical inflation, right?  Well, let’s take a look at wRC++, which is similar to OPS + in terms of adjusting for era, park, and league factors.  Here are each player’s top ten seasons in this category:

Martinez – 184, 169, 165, 165, 162, 158, 157, 155, 140, 136

Ortiz – 175, 162, 157, 157, 153, 147, 144, 133, 123, 99

Even if we were to adjust for multiple factors in hopes of normalizing wOBA, Martinez’s ten best seasons still come out on top.  To be fair though, the top five seasons are pretty closely aligned.  It’s really in the bottom three seasons for Ortiz where we really begin to see the differentiation between the two hitters.

Finally, let’s look at value.  For the purpose of this exercise, I’m using Fangraphs version of WAR (fWAR).  You can use Baseball-Reference‘s version (rWAR) or Baseball Prospectus’s WARP if you prefer, but the conclusion will ultimately come out the same.  Here’s the breakdown for each player.  (Again only seasons where the player qualified for the batting title will be included.)

Martinez – 7.5, 6.7, 6.4, 6.4, 6.2, 6.0, 5.8, 5.4, 5.4, 4.7

Ortiz – 6.3, 5.5, 5.2, 4.8 (2012 pace), 4.3, 4.2, 3.2, 2.6, 1.9. 0.3

Let me start out by saying, wow.  Martinez had one 7-win season, five 6-win seasons, and three 5-win seasons!  What makes this all the more impressive is that seven of the above listed seasons occurred when he was primarily a DH.*  Ortiz also has provided some incredibly strong seasons as well, producing three at the 5-win plus level; but he didn’t provide anywhere near the kind of value Martinez did.

* In fWAR, designated hitters are given a positional run value of -17.5 runs (or -1.75 wins) per 1458 innings. 

When you look beyond the narrative, the memories, and the counting stats, you start to see a very different picture of which designated hitter really was better.  Martinez was an elite hitter who happened to play on the wrong coast, and was “stuck” on a team full of major superstars.  As a result, his unbelievable career has been unfortunately minimized.  David Ortiz’s career has been great, and I look forward to seeing how he finishes out his career.  That said, his career pales in comparison to Edgar Martinez.

Categories: Boston Red Sox David Ortiz Edgar Martinez

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

9 Responses to “The Best Designated Hitter of All-Time?” Subscribe

  1. Tim June 29, 2012 at 4:35 PM #

    Do any of the stats you cite account for park effects? Martinez played a lot of games in the Kingdome which was considered a very good hitters' park, while Fenway tends to be neutral. I don't recall how many years Martinez played in Safeco which favors defense. I still agree with your conclusion that Martinez is the greatest DH, and it's a shame he isn't yet in the Hall of Fame, but I was wondering if park effects narrowed the differences between Martinez and Ortiz.

    • Kevin August 1, 2012 at 1:58 AM #

      Edgar hit .311/.423/.517 at home, .312/.412/.514 on the road

  2. colco June 29, 2012 at 7:09 PM #

    its woth noting though edgar wasnt a full time DH until 1995, while ortiz had all his prime years as a DH
    Here are their numbers after they became DHs (not their exact Dh totals because martinez played some 3rd even after and papi some first)

    Martinez: .1995-2004 .316/.430/.541/.971, HR 247, RBI 993, R 857, 2B 362 OPS+ 153
    Ortiz: 2003-2012 .290/.388/.573/.971, HR 341,RBI 1081, R 900, 2B 371, OPS+ 146

    martinez still comes out ahead, but not by a whole lot. They are very close in OPS+ and interestingly tied in OPS. The counting numbers still favor Ortiz and the ratios favor Martinez, but both of their numbers went up significantly after becoming a DH

  3. Kcole June 29, 2012 at 9:36 PM #

    I prefer thinking that David Ortiz is the Last true DH. Seeing as increased inter league play coupled with the increasing trend of platooning the DH position on American league teams means the Ortiz, when he retires, the position as it's traditionally been known will end too. Also I don't think Ortiz's career is over, he's looks and is playing in some of the best shape in his life.

  4. sam June 29, 2012 at 11:35 PM #

    Ditto on the park affect.

    Is there a way to factor in all the hits that Papi has had taken away via the shift? I never watched Martinez play (or can't remember), but did teams as drastically account for him as opponents do against Papi?

    Also, it deserves to be said that sometimes individual moments really do matter; Ortiz's timely hitting puts him in a class unto himself.

  5. DezoPenguin June 30, 2012 at 9:47 AM #

    The shift actually plays in Martinez's favor: that he hit the ball to all fields instead of being so predictable that opponents could negate some of his ability merely by a significant defensive adjustment. And yes, the advanced statistics cited do take into account the park effect (Chip's discussion of wRC+++ in the article even says so).

    To me, the most significant point in the entire article is hiding in Chip's asterisked point about fWAR, where it's noted that a DH is penalized -1.75 wins merely by being a DH for 1458 innings. This strikes me as absurd. By their very definition, ALL DHs are "replacement level" fielders for their position. Yes, no DH ever helped his team win a game with a staggering defensive play or by steadily covering more ground in the field to take away hits. On the other hand, no DH ever lost his team a game through his poor defense. It's obvious, yes, that a good fielder helps his team win and should be credited for that ability. But statheads and traditional voters (for largely different reasons, it appears–the former because they seem to dislike the hole in the metrics, the latter because they have sepia-toned memories to the "good old days" when "real baseball" was played in the AL) penalize DHs simply for the fact that they ARE DHs. By the very definition of "wins above replacement," a DH shouldn't have wins taken away because their position doesn't require that they play the field (do AL pitchers get penalized because they don't bat in fWAR?).

    This point is why the true issue here isn't whether Martinez or Ortiz was or is the better player–the stats can be argued back and forth, the intangibles can be discussed until they were blue in the face. The point is that Martinez, one of the best hitters in the modern era, is not a member of the Hall of Fame solely because he played DH. It's possible that Ortiz, by racking more HRs before he retires and by virtue of his iconic playoff moments, might manage to overcome that prejudice, and I certainly hope that he does. But by low-rating the DH generally, the culture of baseball is not only punishing some of the best hitters of the era, but is also causing many teams to pass up a chance to improve their offense, because they don't look for a Martinez or an Ortiz, but instead hand the DH spot over to an accumulation of utility players and backups in order to squeeze an extra relief pitcher or utility infielder onto the roster (mind you, I'm perfectly happy if the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays continue tossing guys with a .750 OPS out there instead of cultivating an Ortiz, Billy Butler, or Edwin Encarnacion!).

  6. Joof June 30, 2012 at 7:17 PM #

    Starting in 1990, when Edgar became an everyday player, the Kingdome's multiyear park factor (100 is average, higher is better for batters) according to baseball reference were between 98-101 from 1990-1999, so almost exactly neutral. (100, 100, 100, 101, 101, 101, 99, 98, 98) Then, in the years he played at SafeCo, (1999-2004), the park factors ranged from 94-97. (94, 94, 97, 95, 97), so a suppressive environment. I left out 1999 in both lists because the Mariners played several home games on the road that year since SafeCo opened that year halfway through the season, and I'm not sure how baseball reference handled that.

    Meanwhile, Fenway over the past 10 years rates from 104-107, which ranks it as a park leaning towards hitting. (105,106, 104, 105, 106, 107, 105, 106, 105, 105)

    So it looks like any park adjustments will further give Edgar an edge.

  7. Doug B July 2, 2012 at 11:17 AM #

    Edgar and it's not even close. He has about a 64-37 lead in wins above replacement and a significant OPS+ lead.

    Though Frank Thomas is really the best. He played most of his games as a DH. Paul Molitor may be in the discussion. Ortiz is probably in the top 10 but not the top 5.

  8. Benjamin Raucher July 4, 2012 at 5:31 PM #

    I agree that Ortiz is clearly not the best but great nonetheless