David Ortiz collected the 2,000th hit of his career Wednesday night, with a run-scoring double to centerfield. Meanwhile, Jason Giambi is sitting on 1,999 career hits, and while his playing time and production level with the Indians are both fairly low right now, he's still a good bet to collect another hit soon. Both players are among the best of their generation, and the happenstance of them both approaching the 2,000-hit milestone at the same time made me consider which of them has been the better player.
Ortiz is clearly the superior hitter now, with rate stats in 2013 that are better than his career figures, while Giambi has put up fairly weak numbers in limited playing time, and hasn't played anything close to a full season since 2009. Ortiz is five years younger than Giambi though, so it's to be expected that his production would be much stronger at this point. What I'm looking to determine, is which of them has been better over the course of their career.
Giambi spent most of his career as a first baseman, with a fair amount of DH work mixed in to (along with short stretches spent in LF and 3B). He was a pretty poor fielder though, so there's not really any reason to give him much extra credit for defense over Ortiz, who's been primarily a designated hitter, and hasn't played more than 10 games in the field since 2004. When we compare these two, we really only need concern ourselves with their offense. Also, they've both been below average base runners (no surprise). Giambi has been closer to average, so you may want to give him a small bit of extra credit there, but mostly we can just look at them as hitters.
Those are very similar numbers. Most of you are probably thinking though, that they lack context. Ortiz has played most of his career in Boston, hitting in Fenway, a strong park for hitters. Meanwhile, Giambi spent his best years with the Athletics, playing in Oakland's pitchers' park, before moving to Yankee Stadium, which favors hitters (he's spent time in Coors too, but wasn't a regular in his seasons with the Rockies). How do their numbers compare when adjustments for ballparks (among other things) are made?
Giambi: 140 OPS+, 141 wRC+
Ortiz: 139 OPS+, 138 wRC+
That's a very small difference, but the advantage goes to Giambi (and in an extra season's worth of PA).
When you look at the batting runs (a major component of WAR):
Giambi: 444 (Baseball-Reference), 459 (FanGraphs)
Ortiz: 355 (Baseball-Reference), 383 (FanGraphs)
Another factor working in Giambi's advantage is a comparison of the two players' best seasons. Not everyone feels the same way, but I'm of the mind that a player with an especially high peak deserves to be listed ahead of a player who was consistently good, without the same peak level of production. This chart from FanGraphs demonstrates that Giambi's best years were better than Ortiz's:
Looking at that, Giambi's three best seasons (2001, 2000, 2002) were all better than Ortiz's top season (2007). Giambi's 2001 season, when he put up a line of .342/.477/.660, good for an OPS+ of 199 and a wRC+ of 193, has a solid case as the best by any hitter not named Barry Bonds this century.
I side with Giambi on this, but I'd wager that most fans and media members would choose Ortiz (while Ortiz has never won an AL MVP Award (Giambi won in 2000),, he has finished in the top 5 five times, and been named an All-Star 9 times, compared to just 5 for Giambi... That seems to be evidence that he's been viewed as the better player). There are two major reasons for Ortiz's stronger reputation, neither of them all that legitimate:
1) Ortiz is the better player now, and many have a hard time getting past current production when comparing active players who've been in the league around the same amount of time. I suspect Giambi is going to receive little Hall of Fame support when his time on the ballot arrives, because he's going to be something like 13 years removed from his last great season (both Giambi and Ortiz have PED connections, which will also hurt their HOF support, but that's a whole other story).
2) Ortiz has gotten a ton of attention by playing in Boston, and for performing well in the playoffs. Ortiz has hit 12 postseason home runs, and played a pivotal role in both Red Sox World Series victories, as well as Boston's famous comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, which he was named MVP of. I don't think postseason success should be ignored when assessing players, but I also think you have to avoid getting carried away. After all, Ortiz's postseason amounts to only ~40% of a full season. More to the point of this comparison, Ortiz hasn't actually been much (if any) better than Giambi in the postseason (.283/.388/.520 for Ortiz, .290/.425/.486 for Giambi), it's just that he played on teams that happened to win more frequently.
Ortiz's numbers were down in 2008 and 2009, leading many to suspect his career was wrapping up. Instead, he's reeled off four strong seasons since then, and might have 2 or 3 All-Star seasons left in him still. If he does, he could very well pass Giambi in terms of overal production and value. If they both retired at the end of this season though, Giambi's the one who's had the better career.