David Ortiz and the Greatest Age-40 Season Ever

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.

David Ortiz
Year Slash Line wRC+
2014 .263/.355/.517 134
2015 .273/.360/.553 138
2016 (Steamer) .272 /.358/.493 123
2016 (Fans) .270/.362/.508 126

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.

David Ortiz
Year Slash Line wRC+
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:

Best Age-40 Seasons By wRC+
Name Year wRC+
Willie Mays 1971 157
Carlton Fisk 1988 150
Edgar Martinez 2003 142
Dave Winfield 1992 140
Ty Cobb 1927 138
Moises Alou 2007 137

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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Blez007
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Member
3 months 22 days ago

The usual props to Barry Bonds from me for his 146 and 157 wRC+ age 41 and age 42 seasons.

He’s only missing from this list as his age 40 season was by chance the year of his knee surgery; although he did manage a 162 wRC+ in 50 PA’s when he returned in September.

I can remember vividly his first AB back that year. I remember wondering to myself as I watched the game if he could possibly be the same player as before after a year off and no spring training. It took all of one AB to get the answer. An opposite field rocket off the wall the other way. Pitcher was Adam Eaton I think.

Great scenes.

MikeS
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MikeS
3 months 22 days ago

Bonds turned 40 in the middle of the 2004 season, so I guess that counts as his age 39 season. That year he put up 11.9 WAR, or 0.5 WAR more than Ortiz did in his age 36, 37, 38, and 39 year old seasons combined.

wildcard09
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Member
3 months 21 days ago

That could be meaningful if WAR didn’t criminally undersell the DH. It gives more value to a terrible OF, which just seems wrong.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC
3 months 21 days ago

Late career Ken Griffey Jr. would like a word with you. I get the point when you’re talking about a guy that is DHing because there is no place to put him in the field, but Ortiz simply cannot play the field competently right now, and when he could he was a below average first baseman.

alang3131982
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Member
3 months 22 days ago

how Ortiz gonna do it without the illegal greeines/PEDs?!?

Anon
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Anon
3 months 22 days ago

While Mays, Edgar, Winfield and Cobb were more or less everyday players in their age 40 season, Fisk (298 PA) and Alou (360 PA) were part-timers in their 40 yo seasons. Raise it to 500 PA and the next 2 are Rickey Henderson and Darrell Evans.

Since 1920, there have only been 21 age 40 seasons where a guy managed 500 PA. What’s interesting is 16 of them have come since 1986 when Reggie did it. Before that it was only Cobb in the 20’s, Sam Rice and Rabbit Maranville in the 30’s, Luke Appling in the 40’s and Mays in the 70’s.

Paul22
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Paul22
3 months 22 days ago

Aaron did it at age 41, Yastrzemski at 42, Pete Rose 44, Stan Musial at 41, Honus wagner 40/41. Just to name a few I randomly checked. Have to adjust for the 154 game schedule too. Just looking at age 40 is a bit too limiting

MDL
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MDL
3 months 21 days ago
Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio
3 months 22 days ago

I was about to write…

“Sorry, but Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski all had 500 plate appearance seasons in their 40’s before 1986. Rose even had 720 as a 41 year old in 1982.”

But you meant age 40 season and only age 40 season. Ah, got it. Still, here’s some more cool information.

Brian23
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Brian23
3 months 21 days ago

Rose didn’t get to 500 plate appearances in his age 40 season because of the strike, but it is pretty remarkable that he started every game of his age 40 and 41 seasons.

Only glove, no love
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Only glove, no love
3 months 22 days ago

I was sure musial would have been on that list but it was his age 41 season where he rang up a 140wRC+… and then the end came…

3fbrown
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3fbrown
3 months 22 days ago

So if Ortiz reaches these rather optimistic projections for his age 40 season, he will be only moderately worse than Edgar Martinez was at the same age. Which would be fitting…

MLB_Nate
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MLB_Nate
3 months 22 days ago

My 2 cents: 1. Edgar for HOF. I’m sad this may never happen. 2. Quote: “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.” *mind blown*

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
3 months 21 days ago

Agreed. If you look at Willie Mays career based on WAR he should have won 10 MVP’s instead of just two. Mike Trout has a long way to go to be the best player ever, currently Mays in my view.

Paul22
Member
Paul22
3 months 22 days ago

Arod had a pretty good age 39/40 season and ESPN wrote an article peculating PED’s may have been involved.

I won’t go there with Ortiz, but I will say that his defiance of the age related decline curve is extremely rare. He hit more HR last year than he has since 2006, and his 152 OPS+ from age 35-39 was better than his age 27-34 years where he put up a 144 OPS+.

How to explain this? One thing I have noticed is that for most of Ortiz career he has been playing for a contract or incentives. His only long term deal was a 4 year extension that covered the 2007-2010 season with an option for 2011. His power numbers (HR;s anyways) declined almost immediately although he had a great year in 2007. His 3 worst seasons with the Red Sox in terms of OPS+ came in the last 3 years of the extension, although the 2 seasons in the middle were his worst by far and had folks talking about replacing him and retirement. In 2010 he bounced back, presumably because 2011 was an option year and he wanted another extension, which he did not get at that time.

2011-2015 and he took off with shorter and incentive laden deals.

Last year he did have a tough first half though. He complained before the season started in a Players Tribune article that collectors went to his home in the DR during the offseason. He sounded offended and like that was the first time ever, and maybe it was.

So now, after a great 2015, he decides to retire, leaving another 10-20 million on the table since he looks like he has 1-2 years left in him. Maybe he just does not need the money. Why he decided to retire now is anyones guess.

However, based on his history Red Sox fans should expect a huge drop off in performance. He won’t be playing for a contract or incentives. He is likely to be distracted like Derek Jeter and focused more on his ceremonies and post-retirement plans . And if PED’s were part of the reason for his success, and I am not saying they were, you can bet he will not risk his legacy by chancing a positive test (although I suspect Manfred would thrown any such results in the trash). It could be ugly.

Regardless of how the season turns out, he has been a great hitter. Slam Dunk HOF’er IMO. I eschew the DH argument, its one of MLB’s official positions (AL) and the team decided to use him there in the best interest of the team (many hitters dont hit well as a DH). If he was in the NL he plays 1B like Adam Dunn did. Like Jeter at SS, Ortiz was never going to be a defensive asset at 1B, but the same position adjustment is given no matter you are a statue or a GG’er.

MikeS
Member
MikeS
3 months 21 days ago

If he is a “slam dunk,” it us only because he played in Boston on a successful team. His numbers are similar or inferior to many guys who are not getting a lot of consideration like Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff and Jeff Bagwell.

wildcard09
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Member
3 months 21 days ago

And I think most people, especially readers of this site, will tell you those 3 should be in the HOF already too. Can’t control the fact that the BBWAA doesn’t vote in players who deserve it.

Shane
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Member
Shane
3 months 21 days ago

I think tearing a tendon in his wrist had more to do with the down years than not playing for a contract.

Paul-SF
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Paul-SF
3 months 21 days ago

Yeah, this is nonsense. Ortiz had a wrist injury that basically knocked out his power for the better part of two years. That explains basically all of the variation in his numbers, as well as why his 35-39 offense is better than his 27-34 offense. Let’s break it down this way:
Ages 27-31, 156 OPS+.
Age 32: missed 50 games with the wrist injury, 124 OPS+.
Age 33: OPS’ed .569 through June 5, OPS’ed .917 afterward (total OPS+ of 102).
Ages 34-39, 149 OPS+.

It seems pretty clear that Ortiz has been an incredibly consistent hitter his entire career, except for the season or so in which his wrist wouldn’t allow him to swing a bat with authority.

Mike NMN
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Mike NMN
3 months 21 days ago

Ortiz’s HOF case is not going to be an easy one, because a) he’s a DH, and b) there are the PEDS hanging over him. It’s to his good fortune that the vote will not take place until six years from now, when, I believe, MLB will have figured out a way to rationalize the PED era. The DH aspect (and his associated lower WAR numbers) will have to be overlooked. He’s at 50.4 BWAR now and maybe he add 3 more. Edgar ended at 68.3, and it would be a great injustice, in my opinion to elevate Ortiz and leave Edgar alone. One thing Ortiz cannot do, obviously , is fail a test, but I think he’s smart enough not to take a risk this season.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio
3 months 21 days ago

Fred McGriff:

10174 PA, 2490 h, 493 hr, .284/.377/.509 OPS+ 134

Ortiz:

9465 PA, 2303 h, 503 hr, .284/.378/.547 OPS+ 139

And McGriff is languishing toward the bottom of the HOF ballot.

So, Ortiz is probably a slightly better hitter, and he is an iconic player for an iconic team, and he was instrumental for 3 WS titles. But, he has the PED stain, he’s a DH, and he played in a more offensive time than McGriff, who also suffered from the strike.

I could see it going either way, with this 2016 season being crucial.

Mike NMN
Member
Mike NMN
3 months 21 days ago

McGriff is very comparable–he also had a very fine post-season career. But he was a quiet player who just performed at a high level, and didn’t have the publicity Ortiz has received. I can see leaving McGriff, Ortiz, and Edgar out–but I can’t see elevating Ortiz over the other two, on the numbers (and without taking into account the PEDs thing.) Yet, I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Owen S
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Owen S
3 months 21 days ago

Mays’ age 40 wRC+:157

Mays’ career wRC+:154

Now that’s peculiar.

Rick Lancellotti
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Rick Lancellotti
3 months 21 days ago

must be the dank atlantic city greenies

wildcard09
Member
Member
3 months 21 days ago

PEDs clearly. Roast him boys!

Owen S
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Owen S
3 months 21 days ago

More fun facts about Mays’ age 40 season:

Age 40 BB%: 20.9%
Highest walk rate before age 40: 14.0% (age 39)

Age 40 BABIP: .339
# of seasons with higher BABIP: 1 (Age 27)

Age 40 Steals: 23
Last time Mays had stolen 23+:1960 (Age 29)

Age 40 OBP: .425
# of times Mays had .425+ OBP: 0

Ben Hall
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Member
Ben Hall
3 months 21 days ago

Worth noting that ZiPS has a significantly higher power projection for Ortiz. No wRC+ until they’re all done and its incorporated onto the player pages, but it’s got .264/.350/.523, which I would assume would be closer to 130 wRC+, given a 30 point slugging increase compared to a 8 point OBP decrease.

Also, Ted Williams, at age 41, had a 184 wRC+. Granted, only 390 plate appearances, but…

alexisvenezuela
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alexisvenezuela
3 months 21 days ago

“Though this is America (although I don’t know where you’re reading this so maybe it isn’t!)”. I read you in Venezuela, dear Matthew!!! We have communism and we have famine, but we still do good reading!!

dcsmyth1
Member
dcsmyth1
3 months 21 days ago

Part of the reason Ortiz seems to be defying Father Time is that he is smart and able to make adjustments. Over the past 3 seasons, only 11.6% of his K were of the looking variety. In the 3 seasons before that, the number was 21.6%, almost twice as high (the MLB avg is typically 27% or so). That’s one of the main ways he is compensating for a bat that is slowing down.

tfierst
Member
tfierst
3 months 21 days ago

Just looked at Ortiz’s defensive numbers and cannot unsee that. He’s played 142 innings defensively last 3 years and been worth -45 runs? Wow.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC
3 months 21 days ago

That’s his overall defensive value, compared to league average. It is just because of the positional adjustment for the DH.

tfierst
Member
tfierst
3 months 21 days ago

Ahh, got it. Thx!

tz
Member
tz
3 months 21 days ago

Here’s a completely different way to have an awesome age 40 season:

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=1007750&position=2B

Davey Lopes in 1985 only had a 129 wRC+, but managed to go 47 for 51 on SB attempts in just 99 games. Now that’s something Big Papi doesn’t stand a chance of matching ;)

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