Crunching Some Jersey Numbers

All things considered, life is good in Red Sox land right now. Sure, it seems like every other day a player finds themselves on the disabled list with a weird injury, and Dustin Pedroia was spitting up blood after getting hit by a pitch a few nights ago, and David Price’s elbow could explode at any moment, and 2016 Cy Young award-winner Rick Porcello has been anything but, and there is no depth to cover any further injury to the rotation, and third base has mostly been manned by a revolving set of traffic cones, and the offense has had trouble hitting home runs, and Robby Scott walked three guys and then gave up a grand slam. Yet, despite all of that worry and misery, the Red Sox sit atop the division standing, have the fourth-best run differential in the American League (eighth-best in baseball), and are considered a strong bet to make the playoffs. And on top of all of that good on-field news, tomorrow night the organization gets to do something it does best: honor a Red Sox legend, as David Ortiz’s number 34 will be retired and posted on the façade above the right field grandstand.

Ortiz’s 34 will be the tenth number retired by the organization; tied with the Braves, Dodgers, Reds, and White Sox for the third-most numbers retired. The Yankees lead the way with 22 retired numbers. Ortiz’s number retirement will be the soonest the organization has retired a number following the player’s career. We haven’t even gone one full season without Big Papi taking hacks in his red socks, and not a day goes by without mention of how much the offense misses him. I don’t mean to insinuate that the team should wait some pre-determined (and mostly arbitrary) period of time following the player’s time in the game, I just think the quick turnaround for Ortiz is interesting. In any case, the honor Ortiz is set to receive led me down a rabbit hole of uniform number exploration (thanks Baseball Reference!), and got me thinking about other numbers the Red Sox organization could (or should) retire.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the distribution of numbers worn by Red Sox players follows pretty closely with that of the league. The high-teens through the thirties are most popular, and few players wear anything above 50, and most above 65 are one-offs for call-ups and eventually get changed or recycled. Number 28 has been worn by 56 different Red Sox players, which is the most. Oddly enough, should 28 ever get posted up next to Yaz, Teddy and the other fellas in right field, Doug Mirabelli is the player who probably has the strongest claim to it being his honor; he was mostly a personal catcher, but I suppose the team did commandeer local police to help get him to the ballpark that one time, so he must have been special. The next most worn numbers are 15 and 19, each of which have been worn by 54 players, although for 15 it seems like a decent bet that total will stop increasing given the current owner’s place in team lore. More on that in a bit. There are a bunch of numbers that have yet to be worn by a Red Sox player: 0, 69 (leading a whole bunch of people on Twitter to exclaim ‘not-nice’; but don’t worry, some have worn it), 74, 75, 79, 80, 86-90, 92, 93, and 95-99.

Of all these uniform numbers worn by Red Sox players are there any that have (at least) an (moderately) interesting case for retirement? I think there are a couple that have a real shot, and a few that are fun to discuss. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all (or necessarily any) of the numbers discussed below should get retired, just that there is a discussion to be had for some of them and if they did get retired these are the players who should draw the honor. There are a few numbers where there is an obvious choice, one where there is a tossup between two players, a few intriguing “What ifs”, and of course some ambitious projections from the current team.

The Clear-Cut Options

5, 15, 20, 23, 33, and 49. Who comes to mind as you pass through that list? Was it Nomar Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Luis Tiant, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield? If not, then we disagree. For me, these guys are the clear options for their numbers. Nomar was the face of the franchise during the initial years of the recent two-decades-long run of success and is arguably the best shortstop the team has ever had. As I mentioned above, I think there is a chance that number 15 ends with Dustin Pedroia. He has spent his entire career with the organization, during which he has won a Rookie-of-the-Year and MVP award, two World Series Championships, always been in the discussion as one of the five-best second baseman in the game, and, if his career ended tomorrow, already has a fringy Hall of Fame case. Of the six numbers listed in this section, 15 is likely the only one with any real chance of being retired.

The other guys, like Nomar, were all really good and special parts of the Red Sox teams for which they played, but unlikely to get the honor. Kevin Youkilis was the bald-scowling face of the on-base percentage movement that came about in the early-to-mid-2000s – “Greek God of Walks” remains one of the dumber nicknames we have seen, but is representative of how he was perceived. He played excellent defense at both corner infield spots, was the subject of an incredible moment in broadcasting, did not get along with Bobby Valentine, and married Tom Brady’s sister. All around good guy, that Youk. I was not around to have watched much of Luis Tiant, but his twirling deliveries, importance to the Cuban baseball community, and performances in the 1975 World Series all stand out to me. Finally you have The Captain, Jason Varitek, who spent 13 seasons in Boston, guided the pitching staffs through two Championship seasons, and, in a moment that will never be forgotten, cleaned a few crumbs off of Alex Rodriguez’s face. Wakefield was also a part of two championship teams and did it all in his 19 seasons in Boston. He started, he relieved, he was even the closer for a while, which seems ludicrous when compared with today’s world of the blow-you-away fastball monsters who end games. A thing I truly respected about Wake was that he ate innings when he (or others) was getting rocked, which often kept the team in the next day’s game. Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS is a good example. Without Wake taking one for the team in Game 3, those extra inning affairs in Games 4 and 5 might go differently.

The Tossup

24. Number 24 is perhaps the most interesting situation of any number. Like 15 above, I think it should have an actual chance at retirement. The difficulty is that there are two players who have a serious claim on this number: Dwight Evans and Manny Ramirez. Both are Hall of Fame worthy players, although Evans has already been passed over for enshrinement, and Manny will likely miss out due to his indulgence in “home run hitting pills”. Evans played in Boston for 19 seasons, made three All-Star teams, offered excellent defense in right field, and was consistently above-average with the bat. Manny only played in Boston for eight years, but made the All-Star team every year, was an offensive force on two Championship teams, and offered high-comedy on defense in left field. Manny was David Ortiz’s partner in mashing opposing pitching, so it would be neat to see their numbers posted on the wall together forever, but in the end, if 24 gets posted in right field, it is probably to honor Evans. Ideally, David Price will turn things around, pitch like we know he can for the next six years, and make the discussion of number 24 even more complex.

The What Ifs

21 and 29. What if Roger Clemens stayed in Boston after the 1996 season and never signed in Toronto or eventually with the Yankees? Clemens is arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher to ever play. Were it not for his indulgence in “home run preventing pills”, he would already be enshrined in Cooperstown. Perhaps that, and the going to New York thing, is what is holding-up the powers-that-make-these-decisions from posting 21 on the facade. Nobody has worn 21 since he left in 1996, so the number has been functionally retired for a while. Maybe it is time to explicitly honor the man. What if Adrian Beltre was not a one-and-done in Boston? As you may have heard, third base has been an unmitigated disaster since he left. Nobody else who wore 29 for the Red Sox really stands out – Keith Foulke? So had Beltre stayed and kept crushing bombs over the monster from one knee, performing as he has in Texas, continuing his clear path to Cooperstown, perhaps we would think of him when thinking of 29. Ugh. Life with Beltre at third for the last seven years is an alternate timeline I wish we could explore.

The Current Group

2, 16, 41, and 50. Xander Bogaerts has only Jacoby Ellsbury (and maybe Jerry Remy) to surpass to ensure he is the primary 2 in our hearts. I irrationally love Andrew Benintendi, so sure let’s consider retiring 16 in his honor after he has only played 66 games in the uniform. While we are acting crazy, how about Chris Sale and number 41? There are not many stand out 41s in Red Sox history. If he can strikeout 10 batters per start for the Red Sox for the next three years and beyond, then why not him? In three-plus seasons, Mookie Betts already has more career wins above replacement player (17.5) than any other player who wore number 50 for the Red Sox other than Jamie Moyer (58.6), who only wore it for one year in 1996. Mookie is on a strong path to making 50 his and having it posted alongside David Ortiz’s 34.

Regardless of my trip down uniform number memory lane, tomorrow night will be about David Ortiz and his number 34. He was a force in the middle of the Red Sox lineup for 14 years. He contributed 52.5 wins above replacement, basically all with his bat. In his Red Sox career he posted a .290/.386/.570 (.956 OPS), mashed 483 home runs, and helped the team win three rings. I subscribe to the idea that players are not clutch, but can have clutch moments. Well, Ortiz had enough moments to push me to believe that he is, in fact, clutch. Seriously, there were so many incredible moments. He hit .688/.760/1.188 in the 2013 World Series. That is just silly. He was so much fun to watch. It will be fun to celebrate him once more tomorrow night.

Photo by Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

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