This week, while the major leagues are off for the All-Star break, Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci will be taking a look at the 10 biggest stories to date for the 2016 season and forecasting whether what we’ve seen so far is likely to continue. On Wednesday, he examined the return of the home run. On Thursday, he broke down eight other topics, including the second-half forecasts for the Cubs, Mets and Yankees. Today he looks at the historic farewell season of David Ortiz and finds out why the Red Sox slugger still plans to retire.
David Ortiz is having the greatest season exit season ever (except for the 1920 campaigns of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Happy Felsch, who were thrown out of the game that year, in their primes, for their roles in the previous year’s Black Sox scandal). Ortiz could break the records in a final season for home runs (he has 22; the record is 35 by Dave Kingman in 1986), doubles (34; the record, not including Felsch’s 40, is 39 by Kirby Puckett in 1995; the Twins legend retired the next year because of diminished eyesight); OPS (1.107; the record, not including Jackson’s 1.033, is .964 by then-Cardinal Will Clark in 2000); and extra-base hits (52; the non-Black Sox record is 62 by Puckett).
If you think that is cause for Ortiz to keep playing, think again. The reason he is having such a great year, he said, is because he knows it’s his last year.
“Because I don’t care,” he said. “My mind is free. There is no doubt in my mind that I can hit for the next couple of years at this highest level.”
Ortiz’s feet and ankles ache. More than that, however, the grind of the game is beating him down. The schedule to accommodate television, particularly for a team with high ratings like the Red Sox, has grown more difficult over his two decades. “Every getaway game should be a day game,” he said.
What we are witnessing, then, is the final act of one of the smartest hitters of his generation, a man who has kept himself strong enough (with the help of the DH position) to exploit his incredible hitting intellect. Here’s one general testament to the wisdom of Ortiz as a hitter, followed by a few specific examples: The battle between pitcher and hitter is a count-dependent struggle. The more strikes a pitcher gets on a batter, the more the advantage swings to the pitcher. For instance, the average major league hitter slugs just .278 in all two-strike counts. But Ortiz, in what is a compromised position for just about all hitters, is slugging .603 with two strikes. Just how amazing is that? According to baseball-reference.com, only two hitters ever slugged greater in two-strike counts—and they were guys in the prime of their youth, not 40-year-olds with bad feet going out the door.
In the first-half of this season, Ortiz has provided several examples of his genius. On July 3, he led off the fourth inning against Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker, who threw him a 3-and-0 splitter. Ortiz took it for a strike and eventually drew a walk, but he filed that important information away for his next at-bat. In the fifth, he came up with two out and two on in a scoreless game. He sat on a first-pitch splitter. Shoemaker threw a first-pitch splitter. Ortiz hammered it for a ground rule double that scored the first run of a seven-run inning that knocked Shoemaker out of the game. Boston won, 10-5.
One week later, before playing the Rays in Boston in the last game before the All-Star break, Ortiz told his teammates, “I haven’t hit a ball off the [Green] Monster for a while. They’ve been pitching me away. I’m going to hit one that way.”
In the bottom of the first, facing Tampa Bay righthander Jake Odorizzi, Ortiz hit a ball over the Monster on his first swing of the game. His teammates were stunned at the home run. How could he make the game look that easy?
“It’s not that easy,” he said. “But I pay attention. One thing I know: You can’t hit trying to cover both sides of the plate. When you know how they pitch you, then you do damage.”
It also helps for him to know how a team is playing him. It makes little sense for teams to shift so heavily on Ortiz, particularly with men on base. That’s especially true at Fenway Park, where the Monster invites a leftfield approach anyway, but it’s also true on the road. Against the White Sox in Chicago on May 4, Ortiz batted against southpaw Zach Duke with two out and Boston leading 3-2. The White Sox’ defenders abandoned the left side of the infield.
“I just took a breaking ball away and hit a groundball to shortstop,” Ortiz said “It should have been a double play. It was an RBI knock.”
Before coming to Boston for the 2003 season, Ortiz had been a dead pull hitter for the Twins. From 1997 to 2002 he hit only 17 doubles and one home run to the opposite field. With Boston from 2003 to ’16, he has hit 124 doubles and 37 homers the other way. Ortiz has hit .310 at Fenway and .268 elsewhere. He has hit .334 on balls in play at Fenway Park and .275 elsewhere. Consider that just the latest evidence that while Ortiz was lucky to have found Boston after being released by Minnesota, the Red Sox were lucky to have found Ortiz too.
Forecast: Expect Big Papi to complete baseball’s greatest walkoff season (done on a hitter’s own terms). Give a nod to a previous Red Sox icon, Ted Williams, who didn’t have the benefit of the DH in 1960 when he bid Hub fans adieu by posting a 1.096 OPS. Williams took only 310 at-bats in his final season; Ortiz already has 292.