David Ortiz and the Quest for 500 Home Runs

Episode three in the Forecaster series. As of this reposting, this one’s almost four weeks and exactly for Big Papi dingers old. By the time you’re reading it, it’s probably older. So it goes.

On June 27, 1977, Willie McCovey hit his 487th career home run, a solo shot off Jack Billingham of the Cincinnati Reds. Four innings later, McCovey victimized Billingham again, his second solo clout in a 14-9 win, and number 488 for his career. It was a lost season for the Giants, as McCovey was past his prime at 39 and surrounded by mediocrity.

On August 7, 2015, David Ortiz hit his 487th career home run, a two-run shot off Daniel Norris of the Detroit Tigers. The next day, Ortiz victimized Alfredo Simon for number 488, his third blast in four games, in a loss to the Tigers. It was a lost season for the Red Sox, as Ortiz was past his prime at 39 and surrounded by mediocrity.

McCovey finished his Hall of Fame career with 521 home runs and 2,211 hits. McCovey’s nickname, Stretch, seems to have applied more to the lefty’s 6’4” height than his ability at first base, where modern fielding metrics show he was well below-average. He was no threat on the basepaths either, stealing just 26 bases in his career. All he did well was hit, but in that pursuit, he was an all-time great, even raising his game in October, adding three home runs in just two postseason series.

Ortiz’s nickname, Big Papi, is an obvious reference to the lefty’s size. He’s been listed at 6’3” and 230 pounds since he really weighed 230 pounds. His fielding, though, is so suspect that the Red Sox rarely let him wear a glove, and he’s never done much damage with his legs, stealing just 15 bases in his career. All he does well is hit, but in that pursuit, he is an all-time great, his 488 home runs scattered among 2,251 career hits. And in October, he may be the all-time greatest, adding 17 home runs and several lifetimes’ worth of dramatic flourishes.

Whether Ortiz will reach the 500-homer plateau is less a question of math and more a question of belief. He turns 40 this November, and will likely be somewhere north of 490 when the 2016 season starts. Do you believe he can stay injury-free and add to his total at an age when most players are golfing, fishing, or coaching their kids’ Little League teams? Do the Red Sox believe giving Ortiz regular playing time at age 40 is a responsible resource allocation, with Hanley Ramirez’s performance demanding that he assume designated hitter duty? Does Ortiz believe another year of baseball is in his best interest?

In light of Papi’s recent power surge, the answer to all of these questions is probably yes. In fact, pending a physical, the Red Sox are contractually obligated to pick up his option in 2016, and will give to pick up his 2017 option if they play him regularly in ‘16. With something like 450 plate appearances next season and 200 in 2017, one can envision Ortiz finishing right around 521 homers. That would match not only McCovey, but also Frank Thomas- another 6’5” behemoth- and Ted Williams- another lefty who did a little damage at Fenway Park.

Five hundred home runs were once a guaranteed Hall of Fame ticket. Setting aside those with the most prominent asterisks next to their names, every eligible player with 500 career roundtrippers has a bust in Cooperstown. Value metrics suggest that Papi falls short of most, if not all, of those sluggers, since he hit most of his longballs in a hitters’ era and did so without adding any fielding or baserunning value. That said, Ortiz is a postseason legend without equal. If we include the postseason, Papi’s 500th home run was the first of two he hit against the Tigers on July 26th, and now he’s only 19 short of McCovey’s 524.

Whether or not Ortiz ever makes the Hall of Fame, it looks more and more likely that he will hit 500 home runs, and there is little reason to believe he might reach that milestone in any uniform other than Boston’s. From relatively inconsequential drives against unsuspecting rookies with no pennant race in sight to extra-inning walk-off jobs in October, Big Papi has hit a homer for every occasion. It’s no stretch to say he’s an all-time great.

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