It’s a rare treat to walk through the gates of a ballpark, take your seat, and watch a player who is the best there ever was at his position.
For Red Sox fans, though, it’s a common occurrence with designated hitter David Ortiz.
Big Papi has the most career games, hits, home runs, and RBIs for a DH. He’s also the leader in slugging percentage, at-bats, runs, doubles, extra-base hits, walks, and total bases at the position.
As a DH, Ortiz has hit .288 with a .939 OPS in 1,753 games. He is a seven-time winner of the Edgar Martinez Outstanding DH Award, two more times than Martinez. Maybe it should be the David Ortiz Award at this point.
In 2014, the American League average for a DH was a .249 batting average with a .744 OPS. Ortiz hit .269 as a DH with an .890 OPS, 34 home runs, and 99 RBIs. The 14 other American League teams received an average of 22.7 home runs and 81.6 RBIs from their designated hitters.
“It’s a unique advantage that we have in David,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said last season after Ortiz set the all-time record for most games as a DH. “He’s been in the middle of the batting order for a long time now.”
Outside of Ortiz, the only DHs with more than 450 plate appearances last season were Victor Martinez (Tigers), Billy Butler (Royals), Chris Carter (Astros), and Adam Dunn (White Sox and Athletics). With Dunn retiring, those ranks will shrink a little.
Most teams spread the load, using a rotating cast of players. The Yankees, for instance, started Carlos Beltran as their DH for 76 games but also went with Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, and Brian McCann for a combined 54 games.
The Red Sox don’t have that concern. Ortiz was the DH for 131 of a possible 152 games last season and was second on the team with 602 plate appearances overall.
Now 39, Ortiz is entering the final guaranteed season of his contract. The Red Sox hold $10 million options for 2016 and 2017. The options become guaranteed if Ortiz passes a physical and makes at least 425 plate appearances the previous season. He could earn as much as $16 million by making 600 plate appearances.
In baseball terms, Ortiz is a bargain given his contributions. Victor Martinez signed a new contract with the Tigers in November that guaranteed him an average of $17 million over four years.
Ortiz laughed last month when asked how long he planned to play.
“Everybody asks me that and I don’t know. As long as I feel good, I want to play,” he said. “But it’s harder to get ready for the season than it used to be. At some point, that will be it.”
Ortiz has plenty of goals remaining. He is 34 home runs shy of 500 in his career and 44 away from tying Carl Yastrzemski for second place in Red Sox history.
Ortiz also is cognizant of potentially becoming the first player in the Hall of Fame who was primarily a DH. Edgar Martinez has been unable to break through in the voting but Ortiz, by the time he is on the ballot, will have a compelling case given his career accomplishments and postseason heroics.
Reports of a positive test for a still-unknown performance-enhancing drug in 2003 could be considered ancient history by the time Ortiz is considered by voters six or seven years from now and views on the so-called Steroid Era change.
The immediate goal is to again help the Red Sox emerge from last place. Ortiz was encouraged by the team signing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, two players he already considered friends.
“I like the moves we’ve made,” he said. “We’re going to score more runs. We need to get this thing right again.”
In a predominantly righthanded-hitting lineup, the lefthanded-hitting Ortiz will be as important as ever. Barring injury, his only days off will come when he needs rest and Farrell typically plans that out in advance, giving Ortiz a day off before a scheduled day off for the team.
When Ortiz does sit out, Mike Napoli is a good candidate to replace him, mainly because the Sox have backup first basemen such as Allen Craig and Daniel Nava available.
Triple A outfielder Bryce Brentz, who has 83 home runs in five minor league seasons, could fill in if needed. Brentz, 26, made his major league debut last season and was 8 for 26 (.308) in nine games.
Once Ortiz retires, Sandoval could shift to DH. Ramirez could fit there, too. Like other teams, the Red Sox likely will mix and match.
It’s a scenario the Sox hope to delay for several more years. In Ortiz, they have a legendary DH who continues to produce, and replacing him will be almost impossible.