MVPs Do More Than Homer, No Matter What Ortiz Thinks
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It’s been a rough summer for Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, so forgive him if he’s a bit confused. His team has fallen apart and won’t be in the postseason for the first time since 2002. Ortiz himself will be taking October off for the first time since 2001. Worse, he was forced to watch from a hospital bed while his team went into freefall.
Ortiz’s disorientation has caused him to misunderstand how baseball works. Ortiz thinks he should still be voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player because of his home runs and RBI. “They’re talking about [Derek] Jeter a lot, right?” he asked after Sunday’s game. “He’s done a great job, he’s having a great season, but Jeter is not a 40-homer hitter or an RBI guy. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve done for your ball club, the bottom line is, the guy who hits 40 home runs and knocks in 100, that’s the guy you know helped your team win games.”
It’s a bit more complicated than that. As players from Dave Kingman to Dante Bichette have shown, you can hit a lot of home runs and drive in a lot of runners without being valuable, let alone the most valuable player in the league. The sine qua non of offense, the thing that generates scoring more than anything else, is reaching base. You don’t have to be one of those pocket protector sabermetric types to figure this out; it’s just common sense.The more times a player gets on base, the more chances his team has to score. Plus, the more often a player reaches base the fewer outs he makes, which means his team gets to send more batters to the plate.
Home runs and extra-base hits are nice, because they make up the second part of offense, moving runners around the bases. The problem with home runs as a skill distinct from getting on base is that they don’t happen often enough. A fulltime player will come to the plate 650 or 700 times a season, but so far the upper limit for home runs is 73, and of course the typical player will hit far fewer than that. Even the best power hitters might send only 40 or 50 balls over the wall in those 700 plate appearances.The record for total extra-base hits in a season is just 119. But as players like Barry Bonds and Ted Williams have shown, the upper limit for getting on base is much higher. The record for reaching base is 379 times (the single-season records for extra-base hits and times reaching base still belong to Babe Ruth having withstood recent assaults by Bonds).
Runs batted in are credited to one player, but are really a team stat. With the exception of the solo home run, it takes the same number of people to create an RBI that it does a baby, two — one player to get on base and another to drive him in. Sometimes it takes more than two — a runner to get on base, another to push him into scoring position, and a third to drive him home (our baby-making analogy breaks down at this point unless you wish to include alternative lifestyles). In many sports — basketball, hockey, soccer — the player who helped put his team in position to score is credited with an “assist.” In baseball, the credit for a run scoring is given to just one player, leading to misapprehensions on the part of Ortiz and others.
Quite often, a player’s RBI total is not just an expression of how well he’s hit with runners on base, but where he bats in the lineup and how often the players in front of him reached base. Alex Rodriguez has 105 RBI, normally a good total, yet, Rodriguez has seen more runners than any hitter in baseball, 513 of them. He’s driven in just 14.4% of them, an average figure. Ortiz has seen the third-highest number of baserunners, 474, and driven in 16.6% of them, a good but not extraordinary percentage.
Jeter, who Ortiz derides as “not… an RBI guy,” has had only 439 runners on base in front of him, the 15th-highest total in the game. Despite 34 fewer home runs than Ortiz, Jeter has driven in a slightly higher percentage of his runners,17.7%.Ortiz has driven in 9% of his runners on first (that’s those home runs talking), but just 20% of his runners on second and 34% of his runners on third (that’s those strikeouts talking). Jeter has driven in only 5% of his runners on first (that’s the lack of power) but has plated 22% of runners on second and 46% of runners on third (that’s those singles and doubles talking).
Ortiz is not a one-dimensional hitter. No Kingman, he hits for a good average and will take a walk. He’s going to slug over .600 for the third consecutive year, which few players have done. He was a key figure in keeping a severely flawed Red Sox team in the race. His argument for MVP begins there, not with dismissing the accomplishments of players who have a broader skill set than he does.
Ortiz’s status as a designated hitter is no obstacle to his MVP suit assuming that his bat towers above the league to such a degree that it shadows his inability to contribute on the bases or in the field, or that he has missed time, or that his team is out of contention.
It doesn’t. There are players having better years with the bat, especially when judged in the context of their positions.
Ortiz will probably lead the AL in home runs and RBI, yet that in itself does not fully describe his case just as Jeter’s relatively low standing in those categories does not fully describe his. To pretend otherwise requires a perverse understanding of the mechanics of baseball, such as that espoused by Ortiz.
Mr. Goldman writes the Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com and is the author of “Forging Genius,” a biography of Casey Stengel.