Anyone who’s ever tried to analyze baseball has had the occasions of coming away fairly humbled by the experience. I’ve been made to look stupid at least dozens of times, but one that really sticks out is a blog entry from May 2007, when I figured a mid-30s Raul Ibanez was about out of bat speed and power. From the date of that entry through the end of his career, Ibanez batted more than 4,000 times, drilling 166 home runs while posting a 112 wRC+ and making something like $50 million. Ibanez remained with the Mariners, left them, came back more than a half-decade later, and that year was the best hitter on the team. He was never toast until he was. It’s hard to look into the toaster.
Next season is going to be David Ortiz’s last. The official announcement is apparently coming Wednesday, but the word is out now, and it’s unlikely Ortiz is suddenly going to reverse course next November. So 2016 will bring another farewell tour for another franchise icon, and at every stop, people are going to share their memories. We all have our own, and if we’re being honest, we all have several. Among mine is that, time and time again, it’s been speculated that Ortiz was about at the end of the road. It’s a perfectly reasonable position to take with a player getting up there in years, but to Ortiz’s credit, there have been slumps, but he still hasn’t actually declined. He turns 40 tomorrow.
You might remember the talk earlier this past season. The Red Sox were slumping, and they were slumping in part because David Ortiz was slumping. When you have a slumping 39-year-old, you can’t not talk about the player’s age, and many suggested that, at the very least, Ortiz should be platooned. He was having a devil of a time against lefties, managing a paltry .274 OPS through June. It doesn’t seem like that should’ve been debatable, but second-half Ortiz was among the game’s most productive hitters, and against lefties from July on, his OPS soared to 1.069. He didn’t just hold his own; Ortiz was a menace, against everyone, producing like someone 10 years his junior.
While 2015 was the latest example, it was far from the first time Ortiz critics emerged from the woodwork. They were present for many slumps, and they were there when injuries ate into Ortiz’s 2008 and 2009. In 2010, he slugged .529; he’s beat that in four of five seasons since. In each of the last three years, Ortiz has reached 600 plate appearances, at 37, 38, and 39. We can’t know what 40 will bring, but at least there aren’t indications Ortiz will fall off a cliff.
Let’s examine Ortiz’s refusal to decline. First, just make note of his age. The following plot shows the number of players within given age groups who’ve reached 1,000 plate appearances, since 1900. It’s an arbitrary cutoff, but the right message gets across. They’re grouped by stretches of three years, and Ortiz has beat 1,000 in all of them easily.
Nothing you couldn’t have guessed: players don’t commonly stick around and play regularly. The 37-to-39 group totals less than 10% the 28-to-30 group, and while Ortiz is a DH, and while players today last a little longer than they used to, it’s impressive enough to see him still regularly in the lineup. By Ortiz’s age, many players are transitioning to coaching. They aren’t hitting 102 home runs.
As for performance, there’s this table. Shown are five successive spans of three-year windows, going back to 2001, when Ortiz was a Twin. You see Ortiz’s ages, and his wRC+ rank out of all the players who batted at least 1,000 times, the total of which is shown in the next column. The last column gives Ortiz’s percentile rank.
|Seasons||Ages||wRC+ Rank||No. of Players||Percentile|
|2001 to 2003||25 to 27||46||231||80%|
|2004 to 2006||28 to 30||6||243||98%|
|2007 to 2009||31 to 33||24||234||90%|
|2010 to 2012||34 to 36||5||230||98%|
|2013 to 2015||37 to 39||14||233||94%|
In the first window, as Ortiz was improving, his offense ranked in the top fifth. Since then, he hasn’t dropped out of the top tenth, ranking 14th overall the last few years after having ranked fifth the three years previous. He’s coming off one of the best offensive seasons ever posted by a 39-year-old, and it looked just like the season he had as a 38-year-old. Taking offensive environment into account, the seasons wouldn’t have looked out of place for a younger David Ortiz, especially given that Ortiz has become one of the most heavily shifted hitters in the game. So that’s been rough for his singles, but Ortiz hasn’t lost his power. For his career, about 19% of his fly balls have been homers. Last year, he came in at 20%. Impressively, his strikeout rate is also below his career average. So Ortiz hasn’t been selling out for anything. He’s just hit like himself, accepting the occasional shifted groundout.
Through 39, David Ortiz hasn’t changed very much. He’s protected much of his game from the usual consequences of age, and for that reason, we should expect that 40 will bring its own share of glorious moments. Of course, you can seldom really tell when a player is on the verge of collapse. Edgar Martinez held up through 40 before coming apart at 41. It’s a thin line between successful and unproductive, and age draws everyone closer, but Ortiz, at least, has worn his advancing age well. He’s gone above and beyond what would’ve been a reasonable expectation six or eight or ten years ago.
That’s a huge reason why Ortiz will have a legitimate Hall-of-Fame case. I don’t mean to get into that here; there are arguments for, and arguments against. Naturally, you need to take his playoff performances into account, because they make up so much of Ortiz’s story. That’s a conversation we’ll have, and it’ll be complicated, and it’ll contain a lot of references to Edgar. Maybe Ortiz belongs in the Hall. Maybe he doesn’t. But the argument in his favor is a hell of a lot stronger than we thought it would’ve been a decade back. David Ortiz hasn’t slowed down. Not many players of whom you could say the same thing.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.