The biggest blunder in Minnesota sports history? David Ortiz

If you repeat this video four times, you’ll have a good idea what former Minnesota Twin David Ortiz has done to the current Minnesota Twins this week.

Two homers last night. Two more the night before.

That’s numbers 439, 440, 441, and 442 for his career, which will end at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

If the Minnesota Twins’ releasing David Ortiz on Dec. 16, 2002 isn’t the biggest blunder in the history of Minnesota sports, what is?

Over the years, the apologists for former manager Tom Kelly have faded as each Ortiz blast — usually when it matters most — sailed into the Fenway (or as the case may be, Target Field) night.

In 2001, the Sporting News reported on the kind of hitter the Twins were trying to get Ortiz to become:

A year ago, the Twins tried to get DH David Ortiz to shorten his stroke and punch balls up the middle and to the opposite field. The results were decent: a .282 batting average, 10 homers and 63 RBIs in 415 at-bats.

This season, the club would like to see Ortiz take advantage of the power potential in his 6-4, 230-pound frame. He has made several adjustments, including lowering his hand position in his stance and shortening his leg kick. After 16 games, he was batting .365 and leading the team in homers with four. If Ortiz stays focused, he has the opportunity to have a breakout year offensively.

Ortiz hurt his knee in 2002 and had a bad year. He hit only 20 HR and had an OPS (on-base and slugging percentage) of .839. So general manager Terry Ryan released him so the team wouldn’t have to pay him $2 million, money they could use to keep Torii Hunter (the Twins let him sign somewhere else in 2008), and to keep shortstop Jose Morban on the roster.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Ortiz, of course, signed with the Red Sox and has won three World Series titles. Morban hasn’t won any for the Twins. He was cut before the season, a season in which Terry Ryan was named Major League Baseball’s executive of the year.

The apologists — if there are any left — will say there’s no way the Twins could’ve predicted Ortiz would become the hitter he’s become. They’re wrong.

Anybody who plugged Ortiz’ numbers with the Twins into statistics guru Bill James’ formula for predicting a player’s future would’ve come up with this (for explanation of BROCK5, see this post on Joe Mauer). Everything after 2002 is a projection.

You know who probably did plug those numbers into Bill James’ formula? Bill James. He was hired fulltime by the Red Sox one month before the Twins released Ortiz.

Ortiz, of course, has exceeded his projection. But even his projection is nothing to sneeze at.

Through 2011, it showed Ortiz would hit about 239 home runs after his time in Minnesota.

For the record, that’s 10 more home runs over nine years than Justin Morneau has hit in his entire 13-year career. It’s 122 more than Joe Mauer has hit over his 11-year stay, and neither of those two is a chump. The projection showed Ortiz would hit only about 10 fewer homers for his career, than Torii Hunter has hit in his.

Even if Ortiz had only hit to his projection, he would still sit at #126 for all-time homeruns in the history of baseball. His projected number of doubles would tie a guy named Joe DiMaggio.

If he hits another blast against the Twins today, he’ll move past Dave Kingman into 39th place on the list, and is on a pace to move past hitters like Dave Winfield, Willie Stargell, Stan Musial, and — by next year — Lou Gehrig. Only one other player has put up the kind of numbers Ortiz has after leaving a team. Babe Ruth.

Related: Twins publicly criticize Aaron Hicks’ lack of preparation (HardballTalk).

  • Gary F

    He was a struggling and failing ball player when the Twins let him go.

    Sure, now it seems like a bad deal. But many ball players get their act together after being released.

    It’s too bad, he could have hit a lot of homers over that baggie in right field for us instead of them.

    • Did you even read the post? He was “struggling and failing?” If he’d continued “struggling and failing,” as the piece says, he’d still be among the best power hitters who ever played the game. He’d have hit more homers than the two All Stars the Twins have had since.

      The year Justin Morneau hit 31 homeruns, his OPS was STILL less than Ortiz’ in the year he was cut because he was struggling and failing.

      Also, he was only 26. Bill James has written extensively on age and career and 26 is too young to give up, especially when you look at the projection above.

      • Jeff Klein

        It’s not like this has stopped either. At a time when most teams have an entire stats department, the Twins have one guy. Think about the leverage on that — guys you can pay $70k a year helping you make decisions about guys you pay $20M a year. They save you one win, they’ve paid their salary five times over.

        Oh well. At least the field we bought them is pretty.

        Edit: his .839 OPS the year before they let him walk for $2M is higher than all but three in the Twins’ last four seasons: Joe Mauer ($21M) twice and Josh Willingham ($7M) once.

      • Gary F

        No, just repeating what the Twins have told us for years.

        Hershel Walker was the biggest. This is a very close second.

  • David

    Ortiz causes me to wince everytime I see him.

  • BReynolds33

    Trading for Herschel Walker and trusting Norm Green are likely bigger blunders, but Ortiz was certainly a big one. I would argue that hiring the idiots who tired to change a power hitter into a piranha style hitter would also be on the list.

  • Dave

    Yeah, but Ortiz would have missed out on years of fawning attention from the Eastcoast Sports Programming Network. There wouldn’t be 800 video clips of him pointing to the sky.

    But seriously, even if the Twins had seen these numbers, do you think they would have kept Ortiz? No. They’re not looking to be a powerhouse team. They aren’t looking to win the World Series. They got their new stadium and they’ll get their all-star game (with no one from the Twins voted to the team, of course). Their skipper is a very nice man who excels at pacing in the dugout and spitting sunflower seeds.

    As Gardy might say, “You tip your cap to Ortiz.”

  • Ortiz was non-tendered at the arbitration deadline; Morban was acquired in the Rule 5 draft in December. They happened to be the same day, but Ortiz wasn’t non-tendered to get Morban on the roster. He was non-tendered because they thought he would be overpaid in arbitration.

    • A Rule V draftee has to stay on the roster. The Twins couldn’t have drafted him without clearing a roster spot. Was it the primary reason? Of course, not. Money was.

      Ortiz got $1.2 million from the Red Sox. $300,000 more than the Twins were paying him.

      But at least they freed up some money for Mientkiewicz.

      A year later, he got $4.5 million and won a World Series for Boston. He was 28 by then, the same age Joe Mauer was when he was making $23 million. The same age Morneau was when he was making $11.6 million.

      This year, Ortiz is playing for $15 million.

      • A Rule 5 draftee has to stay on the roster, but, until Opening Day, he just needs a spot on the 40-man roster. To say the Twins cut Ortiz for Morban is disingenous.
        The decision was bad enough at the time, but there’s no need to pretend it was even worse.

        • Oh, no question it would be disingenuous if I said the Morban was the lone consideration in the situation (as Reusse seemed to today., but of course it wasn’t. But it was a consideration and it was part of the moves the Twins made that day. I doubt the Twins said to themselves “hey, we don’t need Ortiz but we can use Morban ” (which would be stupid since they played different positions), but they certainly said “we can grab Morban with the roster spot opened up by cutting Ortiz.”

      • Another random question about Ortiz…
        I am not the slightest bit bothered by PED usage in baseball and would love to see Bonds, et al. in the HOF, but how did Ortiz manage to skate by on his positive test so easily? It’s like it never happened yet people like Melky Cabrera get new accustations hurled at him daily.

        • kevinfromminneapolis

          Ortiz has continued to produce after the crackdown, so he’s either cheating even better or just that good. I’ll opt for just that good.

          • It appears I’m going to leave this world without ever knowing what it’s like for my baseball team to win a World Series. At this point, I’d have no problem if they all were on PEDs. Whatever it takes.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            I cheer when a Twins minor leaguer gets hit with a PED suspension. Finally we’re playing with the big boys.

          • David

            unfortunately, they keep getting popped for a “drug of abuse” violations

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Huge mistake, no doubt. But it’s disingenous of Ortiz or anyone else to think he’d have reached this amazing level of performance as a pure pull power hitter. Every time he beats a ball to left center I like to ask the TV, “Like a little ***** again huh Big Papi?”

    • Again, I have to say, did you read the post? Yes, it might be disingenuous to say he wouldn’t have reached the point he reached, but it’s not all disingenuous to point out the projection that he would have reached a considerable level of talent, the likes of which the Twins haven’t seen/

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        That’s why it’s a huge mistake. The problem I have is when people say look at those stupid Twins who tried to make Ortiz a slap hitter. The Twins are stupid for letting his attitude and money be the factors in releasing him, not for wanting to turn him into a better hitter was my point.

        • I see. It’s funny — not really — because you’ve probably noticed the anti-Joe Mauer debate that’s underway on Twitter, one of the big complaints being that he doesn’t have a personality.

          Ortiz’ problem is that he does, I guess.

          • kevinfromminneapolis

            It’s stretching the bounds of my memory, but I think the Twins had issues with the way Ortiz responded to their philosophy and other things. Fans I think embraced him. I remember sitting behind first during one of his early at bats thinking if he got out ahead of a pitch I would die from a baseball.

            Mauer’s problem is two fold. He had the unfortunate timing of having a mysterious injury (foolishly presented to the public by the medical and PR team) in the first year they went from a contender to an embarrassment. People therefore associate Mauer’s health and performance with the team’s ineptitude, rightly or wrongly. He also doesn’t hit for power, which people expect him to and, frankly, someone of his build and strength should. His banal public demeanor fans the flames.

  • Giznonymous

    He looks like a test case for PEDs. Dramatic power increase, out performing expectations even as he ages, leaving injury problems behind, head shaped like a sack of flour.

  • Rixware

    I agree, Bob. Certainly the biggest blunder in (at least) Twins history. But here are two things I always try to remember, if only to calm myself down and keep from shouting at the TV during games like we’ve seen this week:

    1. The Twins forced Ortiz to use the “Twins way” of hitting (which you alluded to). Shortly after arriving in Boston he told the media about how different the hitting styles were between the two teams, and that he suddenly felt free to swing like he knew how to swing. So, if he stayed with the Twins, he might have reached the projections (which would have been good, to be sure) — or maybe not — but it’s unlikely that he would have ever become the “Big Papi” we know without playing hard against what his coaches were trying to get him to do (which around these parts tends to get you traded or released).

    2. Some players need a big stage. Even if he hit here the way he has hit in Boston, does he become “Big Papi”? Or is he just (to the baseball media) some aberration out in “Minny”? Big egos need feeding, and he could never have gotten that on the small Minneapolis stage. For somebody like Ortiz (versus, say, humble Joe Mauer) it becomes a virtuous circle where more attention feeds better results, which in turn feeds more attention. Would anyone here have come up with the nickname “Big Papi”? And would the media have come up with it if he were just the brightest star on a good, but not great, team?

    Sadly, we’ll never know, and the whole Ortiz story seems like a microcosm of the problems of Twins Way.

  • Scott

    Performance enhancing drugs have a way of beating projection systems. Funny how that works.

    • Yes, RonDL White’s career really exceeded the prospect hype once he got those PEDs going.

  • Doug Duwenhoegger

    Two words… Herschel Walker.