Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2013

No DH Bigger Than Big Papi

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the NASCAR races in New Hampshire this weekend. Sunday’s post may be delayed.

With the Red Sox in the midst of a lengthy West Coast road trip leading into the All-Star break, it was late Wednesday night in New England when David Ortiz came to the plate to lead off the 2nd inning against Seattle. Thus only Boston’s most fervent fans back home were tuned into NESN when the fifth pitch from Mariners’ starter Aaron Harang got too much of home plate. Ortiz turned on the tasty offering and drilled the ball into the gap in left-centerfield. By the time Raul Ibanez ran the ball down Big Papi was well on his way to second. The stand-up double was the 1,689th by Ortiz while serving as a designated hitter, pushing him past Harold Baines to the top of the list of most hits by a DH.

At age 37 Ortiz is still going strong, compiling a .331/.412/.636 slash line through Wednesday. All three statistics are above his career numbers. That he would eventually become the most prolific designated hitter since the position was created four decades ago has seemed inevitable for some time now. It’s also quite appropriate, since Ortiz already holds the records for most runs scored, doubles, homers, extra base hits, and RBIs by a DH. He’s likely to remain the record-holder for the foreseeable future as well. The closest active player on the list is the Yankees’ Travis Hafner in ninth place, more than 650 hits behind Big Papi, and AL teams are increasingly reluctant to use a roster spot on a player whose only role is to step into the batter’s box.

Ortiz’s career is proof that not every player develops, or for that matter declines, at the same pace. He was signed at age 18 by the Mariners, but in three years never played above Single-A in Seattle’s farm system. They were happy to include him as “the player to be named later” that completed an earlier trade with Minnesota before the 1997 season. He finally made his major league debut with the Twins in September of that year. But in six seasons with Minnesota he bounced back and forth between various minor league stops and the big club, battling a series of injuries and inconsistency at the plate. So just as with Seattle, the Twins in turn didn’t mind seeing him depart as a free agent after the 2002 campaign.

Then with little in the past to portend the future, Ortiz displayed new prowess at the plate once he arrived at Fenway Park. He slugged 31 home runs in 2003, and increased that number each of the following three seasons, finally leading the league with 54 round trippers in 2006. In the 2004 postseason he batted .400 with five home runs and nineteen RBIs as the Red Sox ended 86 years of disappointment. Three years later his postseason batting average was .370 as Boston claimed another championship.

All this has made him a huge fan favorite, both figuratively and literally, at Fenway, even as he has become the longest-tenured member of the team. There were those who assumed he was in decline in 2009, when his average dipped to .238. But two seasons later he was back to hitting over .300. Again last season, when an Achilles injury put him on the shelf in mid-July, there were plenty of pundits who wondered aloud whether the end was either at hand or surely just around the corner. Instead he’s playing almost every day, and in the first three games of the series with the Mariners went 8-for-10 with three doubles and two home runs. Next Tuesday night he’ll be at Citi Field along with the rest of the American League All-Stars, for his ninth appearance at the Midsummer Classic.

After he set the mark for most hits by a DH, teammate Jared Saltalamacchia said ”There is nothing that guy does that amazes me. He goes out there every day and is so consistent that you almost expect it. You kind of feel bad whenever he goes 0 for 4 and you’re like, `Come on man, are you kidding me?”’ Opposing manager Eric Wedge agreed, saying ”I’ve seen too much of him over the years. He is about as professional a hitter as you can be. Still has the bat speed, still has the power, commands the strike zone as good as anybody in the game.” The Seattle fans recognized the moment as well, giving Ortiz a prolonged ovation as he stood on second base. The big slugger responded by tipping his batting helmet twice and patting his chest in the universal sign of affection.

All things considered, it hasn’t been a bad career for a guy whose first two teams were happy to let go. It’s a career that, five years after it ends, is sure to revive the old debate about whether a designated hitter deserves a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Paul Molitor, elected in 2004 in his first year of eligibility, is thought by some to be the only DH with a place on the wall in Cooperstown. But Molitor was a position player for a majority of the games he played during his 21-year career. That’s decidedly not the case with Ortiz, whose occasional appearances at first base have dwindled dramatically in recent years. Whether or not he makes it to the Hall, it seems clear that in the near term Ortiz will keep on hitting, to the delight of the fans at Fenway. In the longer term it’s all but impossible to imagine him not still smiling, with or without a spot in Cooperstown. And in Seattle and Minneapolis, they are left to ask the age-old question, what were we thinking?

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Responses

  1. Up in Seattle, however (should Ortiz make it into the HOF), they will also be wondering, if Ortiz, why not Edgar Martinez?
    Congrats to Big Papi, a fun and awesome player.
    Nice post,
    Bill

    • An excellent point, and well they should. The fact that through his first four years Martinez has flatlined at 36%, less than half what he needs for election to the Hall, illustrates the mountain that a DH must climb; which is just idiotic. The position has been part of the game for 40 years. Are there HOF voters who will pass on Mariano Rivera when the time comes because his job was to only pitch one inning per game? Probably some. Cooperstown really needs to shake up its electorate.

      Thanks as always for your support.
      Mike


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