Often, star athletes can’t quit while they’re ahead. Brett Favre’s age-41 season saw him throw 11 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. Derek Jeter’s farewell tour, though ended with some theatrics, was incredibly disappointing (.617 OPS, 75 wRC+).
We see it time and time again: athletes believe they can go on forever, ultimately playing until they resort to a shell of their former self.
However, Red Sox Nation’s most beloved star of the 21st century did the unthinkable back in 2016 as he went out with a bang.
David Ortiz, the man they call “Big Papi,” announced in the offseason before 2016 that the following season would be his last. No ifs, ands, or buts were going to stand in the way of the longtime designated hitter’s pending retirement. The only thing that was left to be found out was simple: how would the then-40-year-old slugger depart from the game?
Before we get into 2016, it’s important to take note of how Ortiz’s numbers looked in the year leading up to it.
Though his final numbers might not indicate it, Ortiz was showing significant signs of decline during the 2015 season. In 332 first-half plate appearances, Ortiz slashed an abysmal .231/.326/.435 with a wRC+ sitting at roughly league average (101). He also only had 15 home runs and a weighted on-base average of .323.
The Red Sox were far from stellar, sitting at just 41-45, but were only five games back of the New York Yankees for the division lead. To make a comeback, they’d need to put their best foot forward and, for much of that first half, their best foot appeared to be sans the Santo Domingo native.
There were even discussions mulling around that maybe the team should move on from No. 34 in the offseason, replacing him with Hanley Ramirez, whose experiment in left field was going rather poorly (-14 defensive runs saved in fewer than 750 innings in left field).
The writing was on the wall; all Ortiz had to do was continue to show signs of struggle.
However, as if the clock had been turned back, Ortiz reverted back to his old self. In 279 second-half plate appearances, he slashed .325/.401/.701 with a wRC+ that placed fourth in all of baseball (187). That tear extended into September, when the Red Sox’ designated hitter started hitting everything a mile, including his 500th career home run in a game on Sept. 12.
So maybe he can still hack it? If he can overcome that first half, he can play forever.
Not so fast.
It’s already been mentioned that Ortiz announced 2016 would be his farewell tour, but that was also before any games had been played.
The 2016 season brought a lot of expectations to the Red Sox: David Price was in Year 1 of a seven-year contract. Hanley Ramirez was going to be playing the second new position of his four-year deal. Pablo Sandoval came into camp mercifully out of shape and lost the starting third base position to Travis Shaw.
But none of the questions surrounding them truly mattered. All eyes were fixated on David Ortiz as he was about to suit up for his final Opening Day.
Ortiz was 2-for-5 with a home run and two runs batted in, paving the way for a Red Sox victory. The rest was history after that.
The 40-year-old opened 2016 like a man on a mission, slashing .321/.418/.654 with a wOBA of .441 and a wRC+ of 178. Surely it was just a hot month, no way he could continue that into Ma––
Oh, but he did.
Ortiz’s May made April look like a slump. In 111 plate appearances, Ortiz slashed .347/.414/.765 with a wRC+ of 200. Those were absolute video game numbers coming out of a 40-year-old who, a year prior to that point, was showing signs of significant decline.
The Red Sox’ designated hitter “slowed down” to finish the season, slashing .307/.396/.580 with a wRC+ of 152 from June 1 onward. Overall, he ended the season with a .315/.401/.620 slash line (1.021 OPS, best in a full season since 2007), a .419 wOBA (best since ’07), 163 wRC+ (best since ’07), and 5.2 rWAR (most since he had 6.4 in 2007).
He also hit 38 home runs, on top of leading the league in doubles (48), runs batted in (127), slugging percentage (.620), and OPS (1.021).
Translation: Ortiz put together his best season since 2007 (age-31) at the age of 40. It isn’t to say that he was ever bad in those years, only posting a wRC+ below 124 once (2009, 100), it only emphasizes how great he was in 2016.
The Red Sox got swept out of the playoffs in 2016, losing in three games to the Cleveland Indians. Ortiz was essentially a non-factor, as you could tell it was hurting him to move most of the time due to his nagging heel injury since he tore his Achilles in 2012. But he did give one last curtain call to the Fenway faithful after Travis Shaw flew out lazily to right field.
It didn’t end with eternal glory, as the Red Sox failed to win the World Series, but Ortiz’s final season was the perfect cliffhanger. Nobody just finishes in the top six in MVP voting and then retires. Heck, nobody finishes in the top six in MVP voting at the age of 40, either. David Ortiz was a special case, not resorting to a shell of his former self before making the obvious decision to call it quits.
He went out with a bang, reminding baseball fans around the world just how special of a hitter No. 34 was.