On Monday night, David Ortiz hit two home runs in the Red Sox’s 14-1 win over the Blue Jays. They were the 452nd and 453rd of his career, moving him into 36th place on the all-time home run list, passing Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski.
While moving one notch higher on the list of the greatest home run hitters in Major League Baseball history is a notable accomplishment, the fact that he passed Yaz is a bit more significant in Boston. Next to Ted Williams, Yastrzemski has arguably been the best player in franchise history. But this recent accomplishment raises a question: has Ortiz passed him on this list, too?
At first glance, it’s a bit hard to fathom. Yaz is an all-time great. Number 8 and number 9 have always been iconic in New England, and they always will be. They just happened to be the all-time faces of the franchise.
But, over the last decade, David Ortiz has joined the conversation. Nearly immediately after heading to Boston from Minnesota prior to the 2003 season, Ortiz became a feared slugger, and he has remained a staple in the heart of the Red Sox order. He has been the face of the franchise of the 21st century.
And Ortiz has put up numbers few in Red Sox history have. He ranks eighth in games played, seventh in hits, third in home runs, fifth in RBI, fifth in walks, fourth in slugging percentage, and fourth in OPS. He’s inching increasingly closer to Yaz territory. The Hall of Famer ranks in the top two of all of those categories, except in slugging percentage and OPS.
Ortiz will never catch Yaz because he will simply run out of time. Yastrzemski spent 23 years in Boston and played in 3,308 games. He joined the Red Sox in 1961 at age 21. Ortiz was 27 before he made his way to Massachusetts.
But, based on averages, their numbers were actually very similar in many ways. Both players have .285 career batting averages. Yaz averaged 167 hits per year, Ortiz 166. Yaz walked 90 times a year. Ortiz has been given 89 per season.
Among the biggest differences were the power numbers. Though Ortiz just leapfrogged Yastrzemski in career home runs, he still trails him by 56 for those hit strictly in a Red Sox uniform. Even still, Ortiz’s production in that area is more prolific because he did it in a shorter amount of time.
In his 23 years, Yastrzemski topped out at 44 homers during his Triple Crown season of 1967. He only eclipsed 30 two other times. Ortiz, meanwhile, set a career high of 54 in 2006, and had 30 or more home runs seven times. He has averaged 36 per season in his 18 year career. That’s 14 more than Yaz.
It’s obviously a bit unfair to compare these numbers directly with each other because of the entirely different eras in which they played. Each led the American League in home runs one time. Comparatively, Yaz may have actually been better than the rest of the league than Ortiz. Though Ortiz owns a career OPS nearly 100 points higher that Yastrzemski, he was rarely the best in the A.L. He led the league in OBP once in 2007. Yaz, meanwhile, was a 12-time league-leader in OBP, slugging, and OPS.
It doesn’t help Ortiz’s cause any that he is a designated hitter. There are plenty who believe a player’s value takes a hit when he spends half of his career on the bench. For a player like Ortiz, that argument gets mitigated a bit because he has been such a potent hitter. However, the disparity grows when factoring in Yaz’s defense.
He was one of the best ever to patrol left field in Fenway Park. Very few could play the Green Monster like he did and he had a great arm to go along with it. His defensive prowess made him a seven-time Gold Glove Award winner. That’s not something Ortiz has ever, or will ever, get near.
But Ortiz has found ways to make up for that by having some of the biggest hits in franchise history. Among the highlights were his heroics in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS. The latter is arguably the biggest home run in Red Sox history, right up there with Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk in 1975.
His playoff performances have earned him an ALCS MVP Award and World Series MVP Award, which are two pieces of hardware Yaz never earned. In 82 career playoff games, Ortiz has hit .295/.409/.553 with 17 home runs and 60 RBIs. in 14 World Series games, he’s hit .455/.576/.795 with three homers and 14 RBIs.
Yastrzemski, though, was also able to come through in the playoffs, but in far fewer opportunities. He made the postseason just twice. In 17 games, he hit .369/.447/.600 with four home runs and 11 RBIs. It’s hard to hold his limited number of appearances against him, even though he played with several talent-filled teams in the 1970’s.
But Ortiz was able to help his teams into the playoffs more often, and he did what Yaz could only dream: deliver rings. Ortiz was a huge part of the 2004 team that got Boston its first World Series in 86 years. Since then, he’s helped get two more. That alone makes him a Red Sox legend.
Is that enough, though, to move him ahead of one of the all-time greats in the discussion of best Red Sox ever? Probably not. Yastrzemski was able to do so much for so long that it partially compensates for the fact that he couldn’t help get a World Series trophy to Boston. But for Ortiz to really surpass him in this argument, he would still need several more years of production, which just won’t happen. But when ranking all-time Red Sox, he’s very well solidified for himself a spot in the top three.