David Ortiz, who hit his 500th career home run on Saturday, has been baseball’s best designated hitter while with the Boston Red Sox.
Needing two home runs to reach 500 for his career Saturday night, David Ortiz got them in the first five innings of the Red Sox’s 10–4 win over the Rays. In doing so, he became the 27th man to reach that milestone in the major leagues, the first to do so since Albert Pujols hit his 500th home run in April of last season. He’s the second member of the 500 home run club to hit the majority of his homers as a designated hitter, joining Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.
Starting at DH and batting fourth in the Red Sox’s lineup Saturday night, Ortiz hit his home runs to right field off Rays starter Matt Moore. The first was a three-run shot in the top of the first that opened the game’s scoring. The milestone home run came leading off the fifth and swelled Boston’s lead to 8–0. It was followed by a brief on-field celebration with his teammates, including the members of the Red Sox’s bullpen, who rushed to the dugout to congratulate just the fourth player to reach 500 home runs in a Boston uniform following Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Ortiz’s former teammate Manny Ramirez.
As a designated hitter whose prime seasons came at the tail end of the juiced era and who has spent the vast majority of his career with a hitter-friendly home ballpark, Ortiz’s Hall of Fame candidacy is a complicated one even before one considers his reported failed performance-enhancing drug test during the supposedly anonymous survey testing in 2003 or his superlative postseason performances. Yet, as much as the 500 home run milestone has been diminished by baseball’s steroid era, reaching that mark nonetheless stands to strengthen Ortiz’s candidacy.
Indeed, beyond the significance of the number itself, it is a testament not just to Ortiz’s talent and hard work, but his resilience that he reached this milestone. Ortiz was originally signed out of his native Dominican Republic by the Mariners just after his 17th birthday in November 1992. After Seattle traded him to the Twins four years later as the player to be named for third baseman Dave Hollins (a deadline addition that did not help the Mariners reach the postseason in 1996), Ortiz struggled to establish himself in Minnesota. Butting heads with management over his weight, his poor play in the field, and slowed by pair of wrist injuries and knee surgery, Ortiz failed to fulfill his considerable potential in Minnesota, never qualifying for a batting title as a Twin and not reaching 20 home runs in a season until his age-26 season, when he hit that number exactly.
Eligible for salary arbitration for the first time after the 2002 season, Ortiz was released by the Twins just ahead of December's non-tender date and signed with the Red Sox as a 27-year-old DH with just 58 career home runs and a middling .266/.348/.461 (108 OPS+) line in six major league seasons. He opened the 2003 season as a bench player for Boston, bouncing between DH and first base and pinch-hitting duty, getting off to a slow start at the plate and entering June with just two home runs on the season. In early July, however, he hit five home runs over a three-game stretch, four of them in two games against the rival Yankees, and from that point through the end of the season hit .283/.358/.664 with 27 home runs.
The David Ortiz we know now had arrived, but by 2009, the 33-year-old Ortiz looked to be on his way out of the league. After a down season bifurcated by another wrist injury in 2008, Ortiz didn’t hit his first home run of the 2009 season until May 20, failed to make the All-Star team for the first time since ’03, and finished with a weak .238/.332/.462 line that was good for an OPS+ just two points above league average. A big-bodied late-bloomer with no secondary skills beyond what he could do in the batter’s box, Ortiz appeared to be on his way out of baseball. He had 317 home runs after that season.
All he has done in the six seasons since then is hit .289/.381/.551 (roughly a 150 OPS+) with another 183 home runs. Ortiz looked finished again early this year, opening his age-39 season by hitting .219/.297/.372 with six home runs through June 9. He then went deep in three of his next four games and has hit .314/.404/.686 with 28 home runs since.
In his 13 seasons with the Red Sox, Ortiz has hit .289/.385/.566 (roughly a 147 OPS+) while averaging 34 homers and 107 RBIs per year. Only Pujols has hit more than Ortiz’s 442 home runs over those 13 seasons. In that time, Ortiz has obliterated most of the cumulative career records for designated hitters compiling 442 home runs as a DH to second-place Thomas’s 269, 2,006 hits to Harold Baines’s 1,690, and 503 doubles, 3,869 total bases, 1,082 RBIs, 1,167 runs scored, and 1,082 walks, all far surpassing Edgar Martinez’s second-place totals. He has, of course, also played more games and come to the plate more time as a DH than any other player in major league history, besting runner-up Baines in those categories.
The argument can still be made that Martinez, a .314/.428/.532 hitter at the position, not Ortiz, a .287/.381/.553 hitter as a DH, remains the best designated hitter of all time, but I believe the Hall of Fame has room for both of them. Some may be inclined to take more of a hardline stance against Ortiz either because of his alleged drug use, which Ortiz has vehemently denied, or his sub-par JAWS rating, but even they cannot deny Ortiz has been an iconic player over the last 13 seasons and one of baseball’s strongest personalities. Ortiz didn’t need to get to 500 home runs to cement his place in baseball history, his 17 postseason home runs took care of that, but it’s an accomplishment worth celebrating nonetheless.