As I write this, there are six regular season games left in David Ortiz’s career. He’s been a Red Sox since 2003, and if he plays in all six remaining games, he’ll finish with 2,408 games played for the franchise. He’s been a part of three World Series-winning teams, a number we hope he’s not done adding to quite yet. He has meant a lot to both the franchise and the city of Boston. Ortiz has had an extraordinary, amazing, and wonderful career, and he is in no way the best Red Sox player of all time.
Recently on BP Boston’s own Red Seat Podcast, the discussion turned to to where Ortiz fits in all time in the Red Sox organization. Given where we are in Ortiz’s career, it’s a worthwhile and interesting topic (listen to the podcast here), and I wanted to chime in. Ortiz has been an amazing player, but the highest single season OPS+ of his career is 173. That’s incredibly good, but Ted Williams averaged an OPS+ of 190. Averaged! Williams had seven seasons with an OPS+ over 200. That means he was literally twice as good as the average player in seven seasons of his career. Ortiz has been having perhaps the best final season of any player, hitting .321/.406/.632. That’s an OPS 65 percent above league average. Williams, in his final season, at age-41, hit .316/.451/.645. That’s an OPS 90 percent above league average. Can you fathom that? I can’t.
And that might be the problem. After watching David Ortiz over the last 14 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone better than him, let alone substantially better. But Williams was, and when you look at it, there’s really no argument against him. Look at career WAR (we can’t use WARP because it only goes back to 1950). Ortiz is at 55.5, a number that, let’s admit, is partially dragged down by the DH penalty. Williams though, in his career, put up 123.1. If you add 20 extra WAR to Ortiz’s number, which you can’t do, but if you did, it still wouldn’t be close to Williams’. Williams was that good, and it’s difficult, I think, for us to imagine a player being that good unless we saw him do it with our own eyes. We’ve seen Ortiz work his magic but most of us never saw Williams.
After watching David Ortiz over the last 14 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone better than him, let alone substantially better.
“Okay, Matt,” you say. “Fine. Use WAR to make your point. But what about all the things Ortiz has done that WAR doesn’t capture? The off-the-field things, like his speech after the Marathon Bombings, his rallying of the team in the 2013 ALCS, and all his clutch post-season hits?” You’re absolutely right. Those are all very important and WAR does not, by itself, take the measure of a player’s career. Ortiz’s post-season glory will be, I think, his ultimate ticket into the Hall of Fame, and there aren’t many (any?) players who can match that part of his resume. Certainly Williams can’t. And Ortiz’s powerful speech that helped, as much as it could, heal the city after those horrific and monstrous events, is a true credit to the man, and yet another in a long list of reasons why we love David Ortiz.
But we’re talking about the greatest player in Red Sox history. Those things move the needle, for sure, but Williams was so much better than Ortiz on the field that you’d have to put your hand on the scale and then pretty much sit on the scale to get Ortiz even close. And that’s before we consider what Williams did off the field. Williams helped start the Jimmy Fund, which has raised more than $750 million to fight pediatric cancer since its founding in 1948. Williams frequently visited sick children in the hospital and is personally responsible for helping raise millions of dollars to help fight the disease. Williams is also a war hero (he’s a WAR hero also, but we’ve already discussed that). In fact, he was a war hero twice. He missed the 1943, ‘44, and ‘45 seasons to serve in World War II as a fighter pilot. Then, he missed most of the 1952 and ‘53 seasons to serve again, this time in the Korean War. It’s not hard to imagine that, had Williams played those five seasons instead of serving his country, he’d have hit another 150 home runs or more. What is hard to imagine is a player voluntarily giving up his age-24, 25, 26, and most of his age-33, and 34 seasons when his country needed him.
And really this comparison is an almost impossible one for Ortiz, because Williams isn’t just the greatest Red Sox of all time, he’s the greatest hitter of all time. After Williams though, the list doesn’t get much easier. Roger Clemens is demonstrably one of the five greatest pitchers of all time. Pedro Martinez is probably the greatest pitcher ever over a six- or seven-season peak. Again, Ortiz is great, but I don’t see how he bests either. It’s like running a race where before you start you know you can’t finish any higher than fourth. That’s an unfair standard to hold Ortiz to, but that’s how it goes when you put on a Red Sox uniform.
About the only argument for Ortiz is what he did in the postseason and the teams he was a part of. And that’s really the rub. He was a part of those championship teams, but he was not the team all by himself. His performances in the postseason will stand the test of time but he doesn’t win in 2004 without Manny, without Foulke, without Derek Lowe, and on and on. The Red Sox don’t win without him either, but he can’t get full credit. That’s not how team sports work. The same is true of 2007 and 2013, too.
There are few feelings in my life I hold closer than the joy of beating the Yankees in 2004 and winning the World Series immediately after. I made damn sure I was at the parade that year and it was amazing. I stood in the cold rain with the rest of Red Sox nation and saw Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Mark Bellhorn (LOVE Mark Bellhorn), Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, Johnny Damon, and Theo Epstein, the Boston boy who grew up to put the team together, float through the city and down the river on duckboats and into history. That team, man. That team! So much amazing about that team, but perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Boston had never before put together a team remotely that good since the Red Sox dominated the sport back in the 1900s and 1910s. The other greats in Red Sox history never had a chance to play on a team of that caliber and when looking back through the annals of the franchise it’s not fair to hold that against them.
David Ortiz has been a great player, and hopefully he will remain so for at least another month and a week. He deserves all the adulation and the ceremonies he’s receiving, but he’s not the greatest Red Sox of all time. That’s no insult. Making the list at all is impressive.
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