David Ortiz has spent the better part of the past 20 years etching his name into Red Sox lore. When Big Papi retires, as he said he would following this season, he’ll be remembered as a larger-than-life personality in a sport clearly uncomfortable with the I’ll-do-what-I-want antics of Bryce Harper and the demonstrative efforts of the younger generation. He’ll be a never-forgotten icon, identified as the man who helped Boston win its first World Series in 86 years — then helped it win two more over the subsequent decade.
Considering that Ortiz, 40, is still finding overwhelming success at the plate — and helping John Farrell’s outfit sit atop the division while he does it — the question should be raised: Why is he retiring and what would happen if he reconsidered?
Ortiz is hitting .320 in 148 plate appearances this season, which, even though he is tied for 98th in the league in at-bats, is still a feat for a player with a career batting average of .285. According to Fangraphs’ ZiPS projection model, Ortiz could finish the regular season with a .273 average with a .362 OBP and .914 SLG. And he’s never made hard contact on a higher percentage of pitches than he has this season.
As FiveThirtyEight noted in April, older hitters can handle high-velocity pitching, despite theories floated to the contrary. Ortiz is proving their findings: He has seen 601 pitches of 90-plus mph at the plate and is peppering most of them; he’s one of 21 players in MLB to have hit six balls with an exit velocity exceeding 110 mph and four were fastballs. And he’s showing no signs of haplessly chasing balls outside of the zone, demonstrated by his 27.7 percent O-Swing score, his lowest in three years.
The Dominican Republic product is already considered one of the greatest designated hitters in the history of the sport, having amassed a dizzying number of hits (2,344), home runs (513), runs batted in (1,674) and accolades (nine all-star appearances, six Silver Slugger Awards and a World Series MVP). He’s ascending team and league all-time leader boards seemingly by the day.
Here’s what Ortiz stands to achieve, should he consider returning for at least another season: Tie or surpass Tony Phillips in career walks (1,319) for 40th all-time, collect his 2,500th hit, cross the plate for his 1,500th run, smack his 1,800th RBI, jettison his 550th home run, and join a group of 55 players who participated in more than 2,500 games.
Ortiz has nothing left to prove to anybody. His name is heading to Cooperstown whether he retires at the end of the season or not. Boston looks to be a formidable team for years to come, though, and should he decide to stay along for the ride, Farrell would be glad to have his bat in his arsenal.