Many of the conceptual arguments around the Baseball Hall of Fame aren’t really about baseball. Debates about players who used steroids are about justice or punishment or cheating. Debates about the character clause are about the separation between the sport and the people who play it. Debates about the size of the hall are about ideals of honor and fame and how exclusive they should be. Debates about what makes a player’s case most convincing—new numbers, old numbers, awards, the eye test—are about the specific legitimacy of those individual metrics. But the debate about whether designated hitters deserve a spot in the hall is maybe the ultimate conceptual baseball argument, because it’s a debate about what it means to be a baseball player.
Edgar Martínez was listed on 70.4 percent of ballots this year, just 20 votes away from reaching the required 75 percent mark and notably up from the 58.6 percent he received last year. (Very notably up from the 27 percent he received back in 2015.) Next year is his final year on the ballot; he’ll almost certainly make it in. It’s silly that he’s still waiting.
You can argue that Martínez is baseball’s greatest DH, and you can’t argue that he isn’t among the few very best. The league has given his name to the annual award for best designated hitter. There’s no reasonable way to claim that Martínez does not deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because he wasn’t good enough at his job. Any coherent argument against Martínez has to depend on the idea that DHs do not belong, period—that an entire swath of players, in a role formally established by the league four and a half decades ago, can never do enough to be included in the hall.
To claim that this makes sense because DHs don’t play enough is to necessarily claim that closers, with their few dozen innings a year, don’t belong in the hall either. To claim that this makes sense because the mere idea of defense is too important is to claim that a poor defender who actively hurt his team in the field is inherently more valuable than any equivalent player who helped his team by not having the chance to doing so. The argument, no matter where exactly it starts, almost always ends with the idea that a designated hitter is automatically an incomplete player. Interrogate that notion too closely and you might end up concluding that American League pitchers are equally undeserving, because they don’t hit.
There are interesting, nuanced discussions to be had about the ideal use of the DH. But the role has been what it is for 45 years—and it’s far more likely to expand than it is to go away—and deliberately excluding a whole class of players based on an increasingly out-of-touch idea of what constitutes a complete player in the first place is getting very, very old.