In the Year of Goodbyes, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is going out like nobody we’ve ever seen before. Move over Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Ted Williams and any other slugger who left with plenty of gas still in the tank: Ortiz is the rare player who is willingly departing at the top of his game. He is the Sandy Koufax of hitters.
Ortiz, the Red Sox' 40-year-old DH, hit his 27th home run Monday in a 3–2 win over the Indians in Cleveland. He enters play on Tuesday ranking among the American League's top 10 in slugging (first, .621), OPS (first, 1.026), doubles (first, 37), extra-base hits (first, 65), RBIs (second, 92), batting average (fourth, .312), home runs (eighth, 27) and total bases (10th, 241). All of those marks already are near or exceed the totals of anybody in their last year before retirement—not including those forced out of the game by suspension, injury or collusion.
Around the majors, this year otherwise offered plenty of reminders as to how baseball careers typically end: cruelly. The casualties include:
• Carl Crawford, 35: The Dodgers released the veteran outfielder in June after he played just 30 games and hit .185.
• Prince Fielder, 32: The Rangers' DH was hitting .212 when he was forced to retire last week after a second neck surgery.
• Ryan Howard, 36: If Philadelphia does not pick up his $23 million club option for next year (he has a $10 million buyout), he could be done as well, as he's hitting just .196 with 17 home runs.
• Jonathan Papelbon, 35: The Nationals cut the six-time All-Star closer loose last Saturday with a 4.37 ERA; he is currently looking for another job.
• Alex Rodriguez, 41: The Yankees released him last Saturday after he hit .196 over 121 games covering more than a calendar year.
• Jimmy Rollins, 37: The White Sox released the former NL MVP in mid-June after 41 games in which he hit .221.
• Mark Teixeira, 36: On Aug. 5, the Yankees' first baseman announced he would retire at the end of this season—six months after he planned to play another five years—and enters Tuesday with a .199 average.
Each of those players is likely to be on the same December 2021 Hall of Fame ballot as Ortiz. Big Papi is likely to be the only one actually voted in.
With apologies to Angels star Mike Trout and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Ortiz is having the most amazing season in baseball this year, at least in historical context. He may be no “Chicken” Hawks—more later on the comically named first baseman and his place in farewell-season history—but Ortiz is to end-of-career hitting what Koufax was to pitching.
There is no disputing that Koufax posted the greatest walk year of any pitcher in history. His totals for wins (27), starts (41), innings (323) and strikeouts (317) in 1966 remain records for a pitcher in his last year. His ERA (1.73) is only slightly higher than the last year in the career of Ned Garvin (1.72), who pitched his final season in the majors in 1904, but then pitched three more years in the minors before dying from tuberculosis.
You can argue that an arthritic elbow forced Koufax to retire, but he actually decided before the 1966 season that it would be his last. Given the way he dominated, he could have continued, but did not want to risk debilitating, long-term injury.
So what hitter retired after having the best season? Popular legend (and a certain New Yorker essay) would favor Williams, who in 1960 hit .316/.451/.645 for the Red Sox. But Williams started only 87 of Boston's 154 games that year. (Remember, kiddies: no DH back then.)
Bonds? Well, he did league the league with a .480 on-base percentage, thanks largely to a league-high 132 walks. But he didn’t bat enough to qualify and had just 42 extra-base hits.
Let’s remove the players who were forced out, which includes each of the top five hitters according to most total bases in their last year. Joe Jackson (336), Happy Felsch (300) and Buck Weaver (264) were banned in 1920 because of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Kirby Puckett (277 in 1995) and Albert Belle (265 in 2000) were both forced to quit because of injuries.
While it’s true that Dave Kingman hit the most home runs of any player in his last season (35 in 1986), what’s forgotten is that he did not want to retire after that year. Instead, he couldn’t get a job because of how the owners colluded against the players. Kingman wound up signing a minor league deal with the Giants for 1987 and quit after 20 games in Triple A in which he hit .203. When owners paid their collusion damages, Kingman received the biggest award of any player.
Once we remove from consideration all of those players forced into retirement, the brilliance of Ortiz going out on his own terms becomes even more obvious. Here is how he ranks in various categories in final seasons among those who were not forced out.
|Mark McGwire, Cardinals||2001||29|
|Ted Williams, Red Sox||1960||29|
|Barry Bonds, Giants||2007||28|
|Jermaine Dye, White Sox||2009||27|
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||27|
McGwire, suffering from an achy right knee, chose to retire rather than sign a two-year, $30 million extension with St. Louis. Ortiz is likely to pass him soon.
(Most by a player forced out: Kingman, 35.)
|Sammy Sosa, Rangers||2007||92|
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||92|
|Ed Konetchy, Phillies||1921||82|
|Torii Hunter, Twins||2015||81|
Sosa didn’t actually announce his retirement until two years after his last game, but he did finish fairly well with Texas. Ortiz will pass him any day now.
(Most by a player forced out: Jackson, 121.)
|George Brett, Royals||1993||243|
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||241|
|Steve Evans, Brooklyn and Baltimore||2000||237|
Brett, a lifetime .305 hitter, batted .266 in 1993. He announced his plan to retire with one week left in the season. “I wasn’t that happy when we won, and I wasn’t that sad when we lost,” he explained. Asked what he would miss the most about playing, Brett quipped, “The paychecks.” Ortiz will pass him any day now.
Evans played for the Brooklyn Tip Tops and the Baltimore Terrapins in the Federal League, which was then considered a major league, in 1915, the last of its two-year existence and his last season in the bigs. He had 91 total bases in 1913 for the Cardinals. Will Clark had 233 total bases for the Orioles and Cardinals in 2000.
(Most by a player forced out: Jackson, 336.)
Extra Base Hits
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||65|
|Paul O'Neill, Yankees||2001||55|
|Will Clark, Orioles and Cardinals||2000||53|
Ortiz already has 55% more extra base hits than did an outgoing Bonds—with six weeks left in the season.
(Most by a player forced out: Jackson, 74.)
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||37|
|Jack Burns, Browns and Tigers||1936||37|
|Ray Durham, Giants and Brewers||2008||35|
|Norm McMillan, Cubs||1929||35|
Bonds had 14 doubles in his last year. Burns, nicknamed “Slug,” hit .281 and scored 96 runs in 1936 with the Browns and Tigers, who acquired him early that season to replace an injured Hank Greenberg. Burns was 28 years old. Greenberg returned in 1937, leaving Burns to spend another six seasons in the minors without ever making it back to the big leagues.
(Most by a player forced out: Jackson, 42.)
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||.621|
|Will Clark, Orioles and Cardinals||2000||.546|
|Buzz Arlett, Phillies||1931||.538|
Ortiz almost certainly has this one locked away.
(Highest by a player forced out: Jackson, .589.)
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||1.026|
|Will Clark, Orioles and Cardinals||2000||.964|
|Hank Greenberg, Pirates||1947||.885|
And this one.
(Highest by a player forced out: Jackson, 1.033.)
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||164|
|Will Clark, Orioles and Cardinals||2000||145|
|Mickey Mantle, Yankees||1968||143|
And this one.
(Highest by a player forced out: Jackson, 172.)
By the end of this season, Ortiz will likely have the most home runs, most RBIs, most total bases, most extra-base hits and most doubles and the highest slugging percentage, highest OPS and highest adjusted OPS of any player in his walk year who wasn’t forced out of the game.
Alas, Ortiz still has some work to do to post the best batting average of any qualified last season.
Batting Average (qualified)
|Chicken Hawks, Phillies||1925||.322|
|Bill Keister, Phillies||1903||.320|
|Sam Dungan, Senators||1901||.320|
|Will Clark, Orioles and Cardinals||2000||.319|
|Buzz Arlett, Phillies||1931||.313|
|Tex Vache, Red Sox||1925||.313|
|Johnny Hodapp, Red Sox||1933||.312|
|David Ortiz, Red Sox||2016||.312|
(Highest by a player forced out: Jackson, .382. It's worth noting that both Arlett and Vache were in their only major league seasons.)
Was there actually a player named Chicken Hawks? Yes, though he was born Nelson Louis Hawks, in San Francisco, in 1896. In the glory days of nicknames, when beat writers relied on narratives and writing skills more than quotes, Hawks—a first baseman and outfielder with a weak arm—played on the pennant-winning 1921 Yankees with Babe Ruth, Home Run Baker, Braggo Roth, Ping Bodie, Chick Fewster and Rip Collins.
Chicken spent the next three years in the minors but made it back to the majors with the 1925 Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he posted that .322 average. Phillies owner William P. Baker then sold his contract to the independent Newark Bears, where he hit .297 in 1926. Benched the next year, Chicken requested a trade. The Bears shipped him to Denver, but Chicken said he wouldn’t report there. So Newark traded him to the Reading Keystones, the Cubs’ Double A team, which had lost 32 consecutive games. Chicken never did make it back to the majors: He became a ship’s clerk for the Pacific Maritime Association and died in 1973 from respiratory failure caused by emphysema.