Monday, September 14, 2015

Papi Powers 500th

Ortiz follows through on the 500th moon shot of his career (
They say baseball is a young man's game, and with a few notable exceptions, they are right. David Ortiz is one such exception.

Two months shy of his 40th birthday, Ortiz is still one of the best hitters in baseball. He's posted huge numbers for a lackluster Red Sox team, batting .275/.361/.556 with 34 home runs, 31 doubles and 95 RBI. It's another typically excellent season for Ortiz, who continues to defy his age as he reaches a point where most of his contemporaries have retired. Only four players who appeared in a game in 1997 are still playing today, and David Ortiz is one of them. He's aged like fine wine, amassing more home runs during his 30s than all but eight players in big league history.

This season--his 19th--has been a microcosm of his entire career. He started slow, casting doubts about his performance, only to turn it around and finish with a bang. A lot of people gave up on him, but as always he proved them wrong.

The Red Sox first gave him the chance to prove people wrong 13 years ago after the Twins released him. Although he'd swatted 20 home runs and slugged .500 in 2002, it was the height of the steroid era and teams weren't exactly clamoring for his services. If they had been, then Ortiz wouldn't have signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal to join Boston--a team that couldn't guarantee him regular playing time due to its logjam of corner infielders and DH-types.

At the time, nobody could have known that Theo Epstein, in his eighth week on the job as Boston's wunderkind GM, had just acquired one of the most prodigious power hitters in major league history--not to mention one of the best bargains ever. Not even in Epstein's wildest dreams did he foresee Ortiz being part of three championship teams (and counting), breaking Jimmie Foxx's single season home run record for a Red Sox, or setting a new franchise record for most 30-homer seasons.

There's also no way he could have envisioned Ortiz eventually joining the 500 home run club. When Ortiz signed with the Red Sox, he had just 58 home runs to his name--fewer than any other member of the 500 club had at the same age (by which point several had already hit that many or more in a single season), making 500 all but unattainable. To get there, he'd have to average 34 long balls per year until his 40th birthday--a near-impossible task for someone who had never topped 20 home runs in a season.

Ortiz needed a ridiculous run to reach the milestone--a monster peak in his late 20s/early 30s followed by a decade of sustained excellence. Had he tailed off in his 30s, like most players do, he would have fallen way short. Time and the odds were against him.

So when Ortiz started slipping in his mid-30s, averaging 27 home runs per year from age 32-36 after blasting 42 per year from 27-31, 500 looked out of reach. When the 2013 season began, the then-37 year-old still had 99 to go and injuries were becoming a problem, as he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury while rounding the bases on a home run in 2012 and opened 2013 on the disabled list. While his bat was still potent, his body was breaking down, and it seemed like only a matter of time before his vicious swing followed suit.

But Ortiz wasn't close to done. He responded with his seventh 30-homer, 100 RBI season in 2013, followed by his eighth in 2014. That put him within range--one big season shy of 500.
Ortiz gets a congratulatory hug from longtime teammate Dustin Pedroia (WCVB)
Still, it seemed unlikely Ortiz would surpass 500 this year, let alone with three weeks remaining in the season. Ortiz opened the year 34 homers shy of the milestone, a number he'd reached just once in the previous seven seasons. And while he'd finished 2014 with 35, the likelihood of him repeating that number again in his age-39 season was low.

Any hope of him getting to 500 appeared dashed two months into the season, with Ortiz mired in one of the worst slumps of his career. He'd managed just six long balls a third of the way through the year, putting him in serious danger of finishing a season under 20 for the first time since 2001. It looked like we'd have to wait until next year for number 500.

But as spring turned to summer, Ortiz rediscovered his power stroke. He crushed seven home runs in June and seven more in July. He socked nine in August, bringing him to within five of 500. With a decent month of September, he'd get there before fall arrived.

Ortiz remained dialed in through the first two weeks of the month, allowing him to reach the milestone with plenty of time to spare. He began this weekend's series in Tampa Bay sitting on 498. After slugging no. 499 his first time up Saturday, he wasted no time in drilling his 500th. Leading off the top of the fifth with Boston ahead 7-0, he belted a long home run into the right field bleachers off Matt Moore--a lefty who would have given Ortiz fits five years ago or even five months ago. But when Ortiz is locked in, he rakes everybody.

While the 500 home run club isn't as exclusive as it used to be thanks to the steroid era, Ortiz's bomb was still special for a number of reasons. He joined former teammate Manny Ramirez in becoming one of four players to hit their 500th homer as a member of the Red Sox--the most of any franchise (pretty surprising, actually, considering Fenway Park is one of the tougher parks to homer in). Interestingly, the other two to do so--Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx--were also one-time teammates, with Foxx crushing his 500th during the Kid's rookie season.

That Ortiz reached the big number with a multi-homer game was also exceptionally rare: Albert Pujols is the only other one to do it. Fittingly enough, Pujols is also the only player with more home runs since Ortiz joined the Red Sox.

Lastly, Ortiz is only the fourth player with 500 homers and three World Series rings, but the first to have never won any of those rings with the Yankees. The others--Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson--won multiple championships in pinstripes.

With 500 in the books, the only question is how much higher can Ortiz climb? There's still plenty of time to pass Eddie Murray (504), by season's end, but he'll have to wait until next year before he can start really rising up the ranks. Another 30-homer season would put him in Mantle/Foxx territory, not to mention trigger his team option for 2017. If Papi has another 50 homers in his bat, that would put him above Mike Schmidt but behind Manny and Pujols, just outside the top-15. Should he struggle next year and decide to call it quits, he could still make his way into the top-20 if he belts #522 to pass Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, and Teddy Ballgame.

But no matter where he winds up, Ortiz has had a remarkable run. The once-nixed Twin has secured a place among baseball's elite, alongside names nobody was comparing him to 13 years ago. The Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers of the world have conditioned us to expect greatness from day one, but not every star is one from the start. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it requires patience. And sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance.

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