Big Papi and the Iron Horse—Best World Series Performers Ever?
In 2016, David Ortiz may end up with the best season anyone has ever had as a 40-year old. Papi is hitting .332 with 34 doubles, 22 home runs, and 72 RBIs. His .426 OBP and .682 slugging percentage means that he has an OPS of 1.107, which not only is the best in baseball, but is better than any other previous season in his Hall-of-Fame-bound career.
But we all also know that Papi specializes in late-inning heroics. Witness his 12th inning home run to win Game 4 of the 2004 American League championship series against the Yankees, followed by his mere single in the 14th inning to win Game 5. And after all was said and done—with Schilling’s bloody sock in Game 6 and later traitor (say Red Sox fans) Johnny Damon’s grand slam in Game 7—the Red Sox had overcome a 3-0 deficit for the first time in postseason baseball history and beat the Yankees in seven games, leading to a four-game sweep of the Cardinals for their first World Series triumph in 86 years.
Ortiz “86ed” the Cardinals again in the 2013 World Series; his phenomenal performance led the Red Sox to their third World Series title of the 21st century, this time in six games. Papi had a World Series for the ages and was a veritable one-man wrecking crew against St. Louis, batting .688 with a slugging percentage of 1.188 while the rest of the Sox hit only .169 with a .252 slugging percentage against the Cardinals.
There is no doubt that David Ortiz had one of the best offensive performances ever in a World Series. Here are my top ten, in chronological order:
The two 1960’s players, Richardson and Brock, are the only ones on my list to play for teams who lost the World Series. Richardson, in fact, is the only player from a losing team to win the World Series MVP. What was more amazing about Richardson’s performance is that he drove in only 26 runs in the 154-game regular season, then drove in 12 in a seven-game series. In that series, the Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27 while losing four out of seven games, as their wins were 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0.
Pepper Martin ran wild, as befits a man whose nickname was “The Wild Horse of the Osage,” leading an underdog Cardinals team to a seven-game win over a juggernaut Athletics team starring Hall-of-Famers Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove that had won the previous two World Series. Brock also ran wild in 1968, but the Tigers were able to overcome a 3-1 deficit and win in seven games when Curt Flood misjudged a fly ball in Game 7. Billy Martin had an uncharacteristic offensive explosion in the 1953 series to help the Yankees defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers for the fifth straight time in World Series competition dating back to 1941. The Dodgers would finally win one in 1955.
In the 1970’s, Johnny Bench led a great Reds team to a four-game sweep of the Yankees with his gaudy performance, leading his manager, Sparky Anderson, to say that no catcher should ever be spoken of in the same breath as Bench (and thereby dissing Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, who had hit .529 himself). The next year, Reggie Jackson had his famous, record-setting 5-homer explosion, including four in successive official at-bats (one at the end of Game 5, three at the beginning of Game 6). Billy Hatcher led the Reds to a surprising four-game sweep of the Mark McGwire/Jose Canseco Oakland A’s with the highest batting average ever recorded in a World Series.
But let’s look a bit closer at the first and last World Series performances in my list.
What differentiates Gehrig’s 1928 performance from Ortiz’s 2013 is that Gehrig had help from the greatest slugger of all time, Babe Ruth. No two players have dominated one series the way Ruth and Gehrig did in 1928—a combined seven home runs and 16 rbis in four games. But Gehrig’s 1.727 slugging percentage—in other words, averaging almost a double every time at bat—is the best of any World Series performance by far. And Gehrig was walked six times as well, so he got on base 12 times in four games.
Big Papi was also walked repeatedly—eight times in the six-game series with the Cardinals. So Papi reached base 19 times in six games, or slightly over three times per game, a bit better than Gehrig’s three per game. Ortiz had an on-base percentage of .760, a bit better than Gehrig’s .706 in 1928.
Gehrig was still overshadowed by Ruth who hit his three roundtrippers in one game—the closing Game 4 of the sweep of the Cardinals. It was Gehrig’s role to be overshadowed—the day that he hit four homers in one game in 1932, John McGraw stole the headlines by announcing his retirement after 30 seasons managing the New York Giants. And he never defeated Babe Ruth for the American League home run title, only managing to tie him in 1931, when he lost a home run when teammate Lyn Lary passed him on the bases. Otherwise, Gehrig would have defeated Ruth, 47 to 46 homers, rather than tying him for the league lead with 46.
Both Gehrig and Ortiz primarily play(ed) first base—of course, Papi has mostly DHed—and one can speculate that Gehrig may well have been a DH at times had it existed during his career, as he was not known for his defense.
Gehrig’s lifetime slugging percentage in World Series play was .731. Ortiz now has a career. 795 slugging percentage in World Series play. Prior to 2013, only Babe Ruth (.744) and Reggie Jackson (.755) had slugging percentages above Gehrig’s for World Series play, but both have now been surpassed by Ortiz (minimum of 50 career World Series at-bats).
At this moment, it looks like Ortiz could have a chance to add to his World Series exploits in 2016. With 525 career home runs to date, he sits in 19th place all-time. If Papi can continue to stay healthy and productive (not a given for any 40-year old, but he also has a very painful foot condition), he could surpass both Jimmie Foxx, with 534 career dingers, and Mickey Mantle, with 536, and end up in 17th place.
As a postseason performer, Papi will not match Lou Gehrig’s six World Series wins. But for dramatics, whether World Series, championship series, or regular season, Papi is unsurpassed.