Big Papi, Not Going Gently

David Ortiz, the Buddha-like designated-hitter of the Boston Red Sox known as “Big Papi”, turned 40 last November. Shortly thereafter he announced that this season, his twentieth in the big leagues, would be his last. Ordinarily, when a star ballplayer reaches this stage their decision to retire is greeted by fans with a mixture of relief, admiration and a desire to look back misty-eyed over the satisfying achievements of a long and storied career. We think, “Whew, I’m glad he knows it’s time and is going out on his own terms with some dignity while he can still get it done, instead of looking bad trying to milk one last pathetic season out of his decrepit body.” Or something like that.

Well, think again folks: Ortiz has turned all this on its head by having, even by his own lofty standards and at such an advanced baseball age, an astonishing season. He is not giving us a swan song, but more of a swan opera. He’s currently leading all of baseball in four important hitting categories: doubles, with 26; RBI, with 55; slugging percentage, an amazing .728; and an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of 1.153. For good measure, he is also among the leaders in home runs (16, tied for sixth), batting average (.340, fourth) and on-base-percentage (.425, third.) Surprisingly, in spite of reaching base so often and playing on such a prodigious hitting team, he’s scored just 28 runs, but the reasons for this are fairly obvious. He was never fast and is even slower now, so quite regularly after reaching base in the late innings of games Ortiz is pinch-run for, quite often after hitting a double. This has robbed him of scoring runs; a player with his numbers and more normal speed would have scored about 50 runs by now.

Still, Papi’s numbers show an across-the-board dominance unheard of for a 40-year-old. So let’s look at them, starting with the least surprising ones: the homers and RBI. Ortiz has always hit home runs and driven in gobs of runs – the two go together, and as a DH who generally hits third or clean-up, that’s what he’s paid to do. Ortiz hit 30 or more home runs and drove in at least 100 runs in each of the past three seasons. His 16 home runs and 55 RBI so far project out to about 40 and 125 for the season, totals no 40-year-old has ever reached. This is impressive to say the least, but is still in keeping with his normal career pattern.

The rest of his numbers thus far are off the charts for Ortiz in his late career. The 26 doubles are astonishing at this stage; in the last three full seasons, he hit 38, 27, and 37, respectively. He has always hit a ton of two-baggers – 610 so far in his career, with a season high of 52 in 2006. With 26 at the 60-game point this year, he could easily hit 50 or more. mlb.com’s website has him projected to hit 48 doubles, which seems conservative, perhaps accounting for a cooling-off period or a small injury. Even so, 48 doubles would look good on the resumé of a top major-league hitter in his prime, but are rarefied territory for a 40-year old.

OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) is the “really big number which tells everything about a hitter”. It combines a measurement of how often a hitter reaches base with how hard he hits the ball, expressing the total as a percentage. It can seem bewildering, but is actually quite simple once you know the norms. A very good OPS begins at .800, combining, say, an OBP of .350 and a slugging percentage of .450, or thereabouts. Players having a strong MVP season will typically have an OPS in the mid-.900s. For example, Josh Donaldson’s OPS last year was .939 and he won the MVP quite handily. Big Papi’s career OPS is .930, which is superb. Only the very best hitters – guys like Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig – have managed a career OPS of over 1.000. Very few even manage an OPS over 1.000 in a single season, but Ortiz did it in three straight years, 2005-2007. His OPS of 1.153 so far is staggering for a 40-year old, even in a partial season. Though his OBP of .425 is terrific, it’s his ridiculous slugging percentage of .728 which puts his OPS this year over the top. It’s truly remarkable for a player his age.

But, given his slowness, big swing and how hard he’s been hitting the ball, perhaps the most amazing number of all is his .340 batting average this season. Papi’s career batting average is .285, and he has hit over .300 six times in his career, with a high of .332 in 2007. It’s one thing for a 40-year-old to hit home runs, drive in a lot of runs and draw walks; these are an older player’s skills and diminish much more slowly than speed-based ones. But hitting well over .300 at this point, with 26 doubles thrown in, well….. that’s entirely different. At least part of maintaining a high batting average with a lot of doubles is speed – the ability to leg out hits and take the extra base on line drives. Ortiz never had any speed to begin with and is now slower than molasses in January, so he’s hitting .340 with all those doubles strictly on merit. It’s quite phenomenal.

Skeptics will say, well yeah, but it’s early yet, and this is true. Sort of. It’s actually not all that early, the season has reached the 60-game mark, with about 100 to go. There’s still a lot of baseball left, but Papi’s achievements so far have taken place in a fairly large sample size. For those who expect him to slow down some (which he may, plus there’s always the risk of injury), here’s the real kicker: Ortiz is ordinarily a notoriously slow starter, especially in recent years. Normally, he doesn’t really get it going till mid-June, his time is from July on, so think about that. If he follows his normal seasonal pattern, he may actually heat up, not an appetizing thought for pitchers. Plus, he’s in the middle of the most prolific-hitting team in baseball, so it’s not as though he can be pitched around, not with hitters like Hanley Ramirez, Travis Shaw and Jackie Bradley Jr. batting behind him. And with on-base machines like Mookie Betts, a rejuvenated Dustin Pedroia, and Xander Bogaerts hitting ahead of him, Ortiz is in the catbird seat: he has plenty of RBI opportunities and, if pitchers choose to walk him, then his batting average and OBP will just continue to climb. Either way, he wins.

There’s even been talk in the baseball media of Ortiz winning the MVP award, which is both premature and, though well-meant, a tad far-fetched. Needless to say, no retiring or 40-year-old player has ever come close to winning an MVP and the fact that Ortiz is even in the conversation is remarkable enough. I suppose if he keeps it up and the voters are in a sentimental mood he could win it, which would be a sensational cap to his career. It’s not likely for a number of reasons though. Firstly, there’s a lot of competition from other players, including several of his teammates who may cancel him out. Then there’s the fact that he’s a DH, which automatically disqualifies him in the eyes of many voters. Don Baylor, with the Angels in 1979, is the only player to win an MVP as a DH, but it was during a year when very few players put up big numbers, plus the Angels won their division. Let me put it this way, if the writers didn’t vote Ortiz the MVP in 2005, when he hit 47 homers and drove in 148 runs – or 2006, when he hit 54 bombs and drove in 137 – then they’re not likely to give him one this year. It would be a lovely way for him to go out, but knowing Ortiz he couldn’t care less about the MVP. I’m sure he’s thinking a better way to go out would be to win another championship and maybe cop the World Series MVP, that’s much more up his alley. And, who knows? The Red Sox have the hitting, bullpen, speed and defense to get there, if they can straighten out their starting pitching. Let’s see…. “If the Red Sox can straighten out their starting pitching”…..how many times have we heard that before?

Patterns and Projections

Impressive as these numbers are for such an old player, they actually represent a crescendo in a pattern of resurgence that began for Ortiz in 2013, when he was 37. In 2012, age appeared to be catching up with the slugger, he seemed heavy and slow with the bat, hitting just 23 homers and driving in only 60 runs. There were whispers that he was nearing the end. But a newer, trimmer Ortiz emerged in 2013; he shed about thirty pounds and everyone was talking about how svelte he looked. It made a difference, he hit over 30 home runs and drove in over 100 in each of the past three years. So, in the context of his own late career, perhaps the season Ortiz is having shouldn’t surprise us so much. But it does, because it’s so rare; very few have managed such a late career push and then sustained it for four years. There’s no getting around it, David Ortiz is one of the best and most productive old players ever.

In their coverage of his stats, mlb.com’s website has a “Fantasy” projection, no doubt aided by computers galore, of what Big Papi’s season will look like when it’s over. Here are the key numbers:

A .304 batting average with 35 home runs, 48 doubles, 84 runs scored and 116 RBI, 75 walks and 96 strikeouts. An OBP of .393, a slugging percentage of .607, and an OPS of 1.000.

Regardless of how accurate such projections are, three things are clear about Ortiz and his stellar season so far:

– He’s having his best overall season since his prime in 2003-2007.

– He’s definitely having the best season by a retiring player ever and may end up having the best-ever season by a 40-year-old.

– He’s anything but washed up. In fact, I’ve heard whispers that the Red Sox will offer him a large contract to play next year because he’s still a huge draw and is too productive to retire. Whether Ortiz decides to accept this or not is up to him, but I rather hope he sticks to his guns and goes out on his terms. Not than I’m in any hurry to see the end of him, far from it.

Ortiz and The Baseball Hall of Fame. Whenever he does retire, the next thing on the baseball horizon for Ortiz will be The Hall of Fame and whether he will be inducted. While his numbers definitely qualify him, two things cloud his case: his somewhat complicated and distant link to PED use, and the fact that he’s the first player qualified for the HOF to have been a full-time DH.

The steroids issue in his case is problematical: crystal clear guilt to some, but not to all. In 2009 he was one of four players whose failure to pass confidential, “no-fault” drug tests way back in 2003 – well before baseball had a drug policy – was made public. This exposure violated established privacy agreements and was strategically selective, as nearly 100 other players who failed the same tests remained anonymous. Ortiz dealt with this public humiliation head on by apologizing and admitting he made a mistake by being careless about over-the-counter stuff many players were taking at the time. He expressed regret about this and unlike some others, he never lied to Congress or any other fact-finding body. In the years since, he hasn’t failed a drug test, but then again, as skeptics will say, neither did Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez.

But Papi’s career numbers didn’t have the very sudden spikes or freak-show optics associated with notoriously suspected steroid cheaters such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, or Rafael Palmeiro. His career highs for home runs in a season are 54 and 47, not 65 or 70. True, his numbers surged in 2003, but that was the first year he played full-time in Fenway Park, always renowned for its friendliness to power-hitters. And his physique didn’t change dramatically like these others – he was always huge. His surge in production after age 37 came after he got smaller, not bigger. He was a late-bloomer, but otherwise his career pattern shows normal growth, with appropriate peaks and valleys. I see little concrete evidence that he has been an inveterate drug cheater, but the tarnish of the 2009 exposé will be enough for some voters to leave him off their ballots, at least for a time. Ortiz won’t be eligible until 2021 at the earliest; I have no idea how much HOF voters’ attitudes re drug-cheating will soften in time or fade from memory, if at all.

But beyond the PED issue, some voters have already taken the position that Ortiz is not Hall of Fame-worthy because, as a full-time DH, he’s only been “half a player”. This is another argument entirely, and quite absurd for a number of reasons. For instance, has anyone suggested that star relief pitchers who have racked up big save totals are not as valuable as starting pitchers because they’ve thrown a fraction as many innings? No, of course not, because that’s ridiculous. The DH rule was adopted by the American League in 1973, 25 years before Ortiz’s career began. It’s doubtful anyone at the time foresaw players occupying the slot full-time or for a whole career, it was thought to be more of a rotating position. The fact that Ortiz made the position his own and put up the best numbers by a DH ever can hardly be held against him. Besides, if the DH position didn’t exist, a hitter of Ortiz’s obvious prowess would surely have found his way into the lineup as a lumbering, range-limited, power-hitting first baseman. There have been scores of them in the game – think Mo Vaughan, Prince Fielder, Willie Stargell and legions of others – but very few of them have hit nearly as well as David Ortiz. He played some first base for the Sox when he had to in National League parks during inter-league or post-season games and, while not exactly Keith Hernandez, Papi didn’t embarrass himself either, he got the job done.

If he gets into the HOF it will be due to his prodigious numbers, but clearly David Ortiz has achieved a special standing in the game that goes well beyond statistics. He’s respected and much-loved by fans and baseball players at large. He’s highly regarded as both a great leader and teammate on the Sox and few will ever forget his famous on-mic rallying cry of “this is our fucking town” after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, a gutsy frankness which helped galvanize the city to recovery. He’s been one of the great post-season performers of his generation, or any other. His record of coming through with the key hit in a clutch situation of a must-win game began with his extra-inning RBI heroics in Games Four and Five of the 2004 ALCS, with the Sox down 0-3 to the Yankees. It was Ortiz who set the Red Sox on their way to becoming the only team to win a seven-game series after being down 0-3, reversing the “curse of The Bambino” and winning their first World Series since 1918.

And such extraordinary October performances have continued, forever altering the course of a franchise. For example, his eighth-inning game-tying grand slam in Game Two of the 2013 ALCS against Detroit, which had me literally falling out of my chair in disbelief and spearheaded a 6-5 comeback victory by the Sox. Or his two home runs in the surprise 2013 World Series victory, which garnered him MVP honours. If great clutch-hitters exist – and that is highly debatable – then surely Ortiz is the best one I’ve ever seen. He can say something which no other Red Sox player in living memory can – that he was the driving force behind three championships. With such exploits, David Ortiz has gathered about him the stuff of legend and glory. If The Baseball Hall of Fame cannot find a place inside its hallowed corridors for such a player, then perhaps it’s time for it to close its doors permanently, maybe Cooperstown has lost its relevance as an institution.

“Do not go gentle into that good night”. Dylan Thomas was not just blowing smoke when he wrote his famous poem, and Big Papi’s great late season is not just a baseball story. It’s the story of a man near the end willing himself to go out with guns blazing, to have one last treasured season in the sun. In a world of endless new digital toys invented for the young, it’s inspiring to see an oldie perform at such a level, and I’ll take such inspiration from any source I can. I’m pushing 60 this summer and I find myself saying, “Go get ’em Papi, you big, beautiful bastard – rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 

© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Big Papi, Not Going Gently

  1. HOF-yes BUT edgar Martinez not in -yet played more games in the field (3b) than Ortiz —great stuff —ron woods

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