We’ll start with a man made of straw. You might think that David Ortiz’s stated intention to retire at the end of the upcoming season would mean he’d be limping to the end, a shell of his former self, a one trick pony without a trick, but that, Dr. Strawman, is decidedly not the case. A few months ago the venerable yet vulnerable (stab him and does he not bleed?) Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece titled David Ortiz Has Refused to Decline. At the time Ortiz was flat out refusing to decline, and since the piece was written in November and no games have been played between then and now, the thesis statement still holds true.
The 39-year-old version of Ortiz from the 2015 campaign was almost a carbon copy of his age-38 season. WAR hates him because he’s a DH (that’s a topic for another time) but by wRC+, Ortiz was roughly as good (or better) at the plate last season as Buster Posey, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, and Yoenis Cespedes. Depending on the stat you use, Ortiz was somewhere within the top-20 hitters in baseball. Did I mention he was 39?
Now that Ortiz has announced his retirement, we are set once again for a year-long farewell party, not unlike the one Derek Jeter received. And in fact, that will be an interesting comparison to make considering Jeter’s accomplishments will make him a guaranteed first ballot Hall of Famer while there is some debate about whether Ortiz ever gets in at all. But I digress. Considering the success of Ortiz’s age-38 and age-39 seasons, I wonder if we might be in line to witness one of the best age-40 seasons of all time.
The really short answer is no. The short answer is, probably not. But the multi-paragraph answer is more like “Maaaaaaaayyyyybbbeeeee?” — which is why one finds multiple paragraphs remaining in this piece. This is the internet, after all, and we have the space (if not the patience) for nuance. Also, trust me, this is the more interesting and worthwhile answer.
Let’s start with projections. Ortiz is, as I believe I’ve mentioned, 40 years old, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find that both the Steamer projection and the fans projection have Ortiz falling off a bit from what he did last season.
|2016 (Steamer)||.272 /.358/.493||123|
As you can see, Steamer sees a similar slash line, but with a significant drop in slugging and a drop in games played (from 146 last year to 124). Makes total sense. Ortiz will be 40 after all! The Fans (you did this!) see a middle ground between Ortiz’s 2015 and Steamer — fewer games played than last season but more than Steamer (136 to be specific) — and a drop in slugging but not quite as steep as Steamer. You get the idea. Now, for fun, let’s throw another line in there.
|2015 (Second Half)||.325 /.401/.701||185|
That’s the second half of Ortiz’s 2015 season and good gosh was he good! He did not do that all season long, but had he done that all season long he’d have moved from somewhere on the outskirts of the top-20 hitters in baseball to the top two. Yes, even had Ortiz hit .325/.401/.701 for a full season he wouldn’t have been as good as Bryce Harper. Still, that’s an incredible line. You won’t catch me predicting he will hit like that for a full season as a 40-year-old (Ortiz is 40? Where does the time go??), but it’s worth noting that, as recently as the last three months of 2015, Ortiz still had the capacity to be one of the very best hitters in baseball for a significant stretch of the season. Keep that in mind.
To see if Ortiz has any shot at the best-hitting age-40 season of all time, we have to see who the current record holders are. First of all, let’s note that, by our metrics, no 40-year-old has ever reached 6.0 WAR mark — and Ortiz surely won’t either unless he starts playing first base regularly, which won’t happen. So cross that marker off your list. For the record, the most WAR by a 40-year-old is 5.9 from Willie Mays in 1971. It was the 15th-best season of Mays’ career.
Because Ortiz doesn’t play defense, he’s unlikely to post the best overall season ever, so let’s switch over to a purely offensive stat: wRC+. This is ideal, as it controls for park factors and the general run environment. This way, we can compare hitter quality across eras without getting bogged down in silly things like defense and base running. So, who has the highest wRC+ of any 40-year-old in baseball history? Willie Mays! From 1971! Those of you with your Kindergarten diplomas may be sensing what Ms. Krabappel likes to call “a pattern.”
The lineup of greatest age-40 seasons of all time by wRC+ (minimum 250 plate appearances) looks like this:
And there we have it. A 138 wRC+. Five spots from the top. If David Ortiz can replicate the season he had just last year, which was a replication of the season he had the year prior to that, he’ll be in the discussion. Granted there is a large difference between a wRC+ of 157 and a wRC+ of 138, but recall that Ortiz, just last season, recorded a three-month period during which he was significantly better than Mays’ category-leading 1971 season.
It remains unlikely that Oritz will match his production from last season, let alone Mays’ ’71, but it’s not impossible. Steamer projects Ortiz for a wRC+ of 123, a number which, it stands to reason, Ortiz would have about a 50% chance of reaching. Given the context of the last two seasons and the player’s age, it follows then that Ortiz should have about a 25-30% chance to equal his 138 wRC+ from last season. There’s a smaller chance still that he could improve upon that significantly but, again, not impossible. If I had to make a rough guess, I’d put that chance somewhere in the area of 5% that Ortiz bests Mays wRC+ of 157 and becomes the greatest 40-year-old hitter the game has ever seen. Though maybe that’s too high. Maybe it should be 1% or 2%. Ortiz posted a 170 wRC+ just four seasons ago in 2012, though he did it in only 90 games, and four seasons is a very long time to a player in his late 30s.
To see how far off I was on those rough guesses, I contacted Steamer’s boss, Jared Cross. After some gory math including long words with multiple syllables, Cross concluded that Ortiz has “roughly a 22% of a 138 wRC+ or better and an 5% chance of a 157 wRC+ or better.” I am a genius.
Though this is America (although I don’t know where you’re reading this so maybe it isn’t!), this is not an all-or-nothing type of thing. There is no shame, only honor, in posting a top-five age-40 season, which Ortiz would reach if he posts another 2015 season in 2016. And, let’s be truthful, it’s doubtful Ortiz has ever heard of wRC+. He probably doesn’t care (likely not the exact words he’d use, but this is a family website) where he finishes on this list. Still, the fact that there is any sort of shot to top the list at all is impressive and a point perhaps worth following as this season unfolds. Beyond that, it speaks to the greatness of David Ortiz, and speaking of points worth remembering, that is one, even if there wasn’t much chance we’d forget.
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