On January 22, 2003, the Red Sox signed David Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million contract. At the time, the deal hardly triggered any attention at all, even among the most obsessed baseball fans in Boston. Our Transaction Analysis on the move dedicated half a sentence to noticing it.
The Red Sox were Ortiz’s third different organization, and having turned 27 that offseason he was well past the point of being considered a noteworthy prospect. Ortiz had shown some intriguing power up to that point in his career and even slugged .500 over 125 games for the Twins in 2002. Still, he hadn’t made enough of an impression to stick around, and Minnesota released him that offseason after six years with the team. Few could imagine him serving as more than a bench bat in Boston.
That he became so much more is the reason why, over 13 years later, the news that Ortiz will retire after the 2016 campaign sparked dismay among Red Sox fans and immediate debate regarding what his ultimately legacy will be. But any arguments over whether a designated hitter belongs in the Hall of Fame should take a back seat for the time being, for Ortiz’s career, regardless of whether he ends up in Cooperstown, is one worth marveling at.
For the first half of that 2003 season, Ortiz was battling for playing time with Jeremy Giambi and Kevin Millar. After Giambi suffered a shoulder injury, a regular spot opened up for Ortiz, and he’s been Boston’s starting DH ever since. Ortiz batted .288/.369/.592 with 31 home runs in 128 games that year, the type of sterling numbers he’s produced nearly every summer for over a decade.
Back in 2003, the Red Sox didn’t just sign a hitter who improved their lineup; they signed one of the more prolific sluggers of his generation. In an era of immense success in Boston, the club’s good fortune in signing Ortiz is as responsible for the franchise’s three World Series titles as the front office Theo Epstein put in place or the deep pockets of John Henry.
Of course, what is so remarkable about Ortiz is how long he’s excelled against big league pitching. Over the past 13 years, Ortiz has averaged 34 home runs per season with a .288/.385/.566 line during that time span. The fact he has sustained such tremendous numbers while approaching his 40th birthday only adds to how impressive his career has been. In 2015, Ortiz became just the third hitter since 1901, after Barry Bonds and Steve Finley, to belt more than 35 home runs in his age-39 season, according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool. He also became just the third hitter during that span to slug over .550 in his age-39 season after Bonds and Ted Williams.
Ortiz won’t retire as the greatest hitter in Red Sox history (that honor belongs to Williams), but few players have been more important to a franchise and its success. His postseason heroics have long been celebrated, and indeed, Ortiz’s flair for the October dramatic has only bolstered his larger-than-life persona (and any argument for his induction into the Hall of Fame).
Through 82 career playoff games, Ortiz has hit .295/.409/.553 with 17 home runs, numbers that are just a smidge better than his career averages. During Boston’s storied run to the World Series in 2004, Ortiz was the author of three walk-off hits, including two during the club’s comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. He hit three homers during the 2007 postseason and followed that up with five long balls in 2013, when the Red Sox won their third World Series title this century.
His grand slam during Game Two of that 2013 ALCS gave Boston new life against a Tigers team that was threatening to run away with the series. Ortiz then feasted upon a formidable Cardinals rotation in the Fall Classic, batting .688/.760/1.188 with two homers over 25 plate appearances before being named the series’ MVP.
Yet even beyond all this, what became so noteworthy about Ortiz is the belief he engendered among Red Sox fans. His performances in October took an immensely good hitter and turned him into something else entirely in the eyes of those who watched Ortiz on a regular basis. He became, ultimately, the type of player that fans could pin their irrational hopes onto and, more often than not, be rewarded for doing so.
At the end of the day, we watch sports to be amazed, to see athletes transcend the otherwise customary world in which we inhabit. And Ortiz, round belly and all, did so with aplomb and with such consistency that his feats with the bat have become an integral part of every summer in Boston. For many New Englanders, nothing feels so fixed and everlasting as Ortiz launching a ball high and deep into the night sky at Fenway Park. Nothing feels so proper and secure.
His retirement after next season will afford fans one more year to watch Ortiz and, if his 2015 performance is any indication, a few more home runs to marvel at. For a player who signed with Boston for just $1.5 million all those years ago, the real marvel is that we’re still talking about and praising Ortiz at all.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now