Ever since he’s joined the Red Sox, David Ortiz has been an elite designated hitter. Even in the bad years. It might seem like a slight to the slugger that he has reportedly decided to accept arbitration with the Red Sox, but it’s just the result of market realities. Arbitration might actually fit both sides.
Given the following two graphs, it may seem like a stretch to label Ortiz elite throughout his time in Boston. After all, he hit .264/.369/.507 with 23 home runs in 491 plate appearances in 2008, and followed that with a .238/.332/.462 and 28 season. Those seasons paled in comparison to his .287/.413/.636 peak in 2006. You can see that his value, as measured by wOBA, has risen and fallen with his power, as measured by ISO:
If your worst year includes a .224 ISO and a 11.8% walk rate, you’re doing something right. Still squarely in the “Good” every year. He’s helped the Red Sox DH ‘position’ to a 139 wRC+ since 2003, tops in the league and well beyond second place and the Yankees at 120. In fact, the DH position has played to a .263/.345/.451 average (A.L. only) since Papi first slapped his hands together as a Red Sock.
Well, there was Ortiz’ 2008 season where he had a .340 wOBA and the league averaged a .342. So he hasn’t been elite every year. And the graph obviously shows some decline — he’s 36 now, and it’s understandable. The list of DHs that were good for multiple years after they turned 36 begins and ends with Edgar Martinez, who was a very different player. But there, on the list, are Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Ellis Burks and even Chili Davis. The designated hitter has helped many bad-bodied sluggers extend their careers, why not Ortiz?
Why not. It’s not as if the Red Sox are letting Ortiz go. It’s just that the fact of his age, and his position, that has led the team to hesitate offering any more than the rumored two years and $18 million.
The dollar valuation on our site attempts to adjust for DHs by removing much of their replacement value in the positional adjustment. In other words, it’s not worth much to DH at a replacement level, since you aren’t adding any fielding value. Along with Ortiz’s poor base running, and age-related decline, he’s only been worth about nine wins in the last four years — worth an average of $9.7 million a year. Old DHs don’t usually get multi-year deals for a reason.
The last fact that made arbitration a palatable decision for Ortiz is that the process won’t take much of this into account. Fielding? Baserunning? Replacement level? Arbitration will focus, more likely, on his gaudy batting average, home runs and RBI totals. The average DH last year hit .270 with 21 home runs, Ortiz’s representation will point out, and my client hit .307 with 29 home runs. The expectation around the industry is that Ortiz is in line for a $14-15 million salary if the two sides indeed go to arbitration.
The threat of that number should put some giddyap in the Red Sox negotiations. There’s still time for the two sides to make a deal, and if the team can add a little to their current offer, they could get a second year for not much more than the one-year award might be. If they don’t make a deal, it will be because the Red Sox value their ability to avoid the risk of the second year more than they value the short-term money. Arbitration could still be a good fit for both parties.