As the Red Sox get ready to begin contract negotiations with David Ortiz, they can relax comfortable in the knowledge that money will not be an issue in the negotiations. All Ortiz really wants is respect. That should make things pretty simple, right?
Jokes aside, “respect” probably translates to money plus multiple years, say, two. Ortiz is going to turn 37 next month, so he probably is not planning on playing too much longer. Ortiz was not very happy about not being offered multiple years last off-season, so he probably is not going to readily settle for just one this time around.
After a down year in 2009, Ortiz began to bounce back in 2010, and was even better in 2011 and the first part of 2012 (in the 90 games in which he appeared prior to his season ending due to injury). It is the 2011 and 2012 seasons that are of particular interest here, not only because these excellent performances are the most recent and relevant data with respect to his true talent, but because of the unusual way Ortiz went about doing it. This adds to the already complicated matter of figuring out how good a hitter Ortiz can be expected to be over the next couple of seasons given his age, and thus, how much the Red Sox (or other potential suitors) should be willing to invest in him.
There are many reasons the Red Sox’ decision making regarding Ortiz is on the complicated side of things, most of which I will do little more than mention in passing (this list is not meant to be exhaustive). On the positive side of the ledger, Ortiz has obviously hit quite well over the last three seasons, well enough to justify having him as a full-time designated hitter during that time. The Red Sox do not have any obvious candidates for the designated hitter slot for 2013, so it is not as if Ortiz would be blocking anyone. It is also worth mentioning (although I make no claims about being able to measure its financial impact), that Ortiz still seems to be pretty popular with the fan base, and would be a link back to the good ol’ days.
However, any remaining sentimentality and good vibes only count for so much. The Red Sox are entering something like a rebuilding phase, and even if they can afford to keep Ortiz around at a good price, the question of whether that money and the playing time opportunity cost might be better used elsewhere cannot simply be shunted aside. Moreover Age is an issue, especially in the case of a big guy like Ortiz (although he has looked more trim lately), as are injuries — only playing 90 games in 2012 is a bit troubling for a soon-to-be 37 year-old.
Without ignoring the importance of those issues, I want to focus on how Ortiz has aged. In particular, I want to focus on his strikeouts. While for most of his career Ortiz struck out in a greater proportion of his plate appearances than league average, his strikeout rate was never terribly high, especially relative to the stereotypical big, slow slugger who drew lots of walks. While Ortiz may have looked like a hitter with old player skills, the numbers (particularly his batting average and strikeouts), he never quite fit the part.
Given what we know about general player aging (see this basic example), after about the mid-20s, strikeouts generally increase for most players. Of course, it is not linear for every player — every player ages differently, and there will be plenty of random variation in there as well. But is is generally something we can expect. A few years back, Ortiz seemed to be a victim of this. In 2009, he had a 21.4 percent strikeout rate, the highest of his career since his early seasons with the Twins. Even in 2010, when he hit for an excellent .270/.370/.529 (134 wRC+), his strikeout rate kept going up — this time to 23.9 percent.
It was not just his return to .400+ wOBA seasons in 2011 and 2012 that was surprising, it was how Ortiz did it. If his strikeout rate had simply gone down, it would not be totally shocking — regression to the mean and so forth. However, Ortiz actually but up the lowest strikeout rates of his career in his age 35 and 36 seasons, without sacrificing walks or power (his .293 ISO in his foreshortened 2012 was his highest since 2006). This makes things a bit more difficult when evaluating Ortiz: it would be one thing if he was just a low-average, high-walk, high-power, high-K slugger. Then one would just evaluate him on a particular career trajectory. But this is pretty odd — somehow, Ortiz just started making contact more often.
I am not going to have a “conclusion” on how to evaluate Ortiz or how he did it. Instead, I want to look and see just how unusual players like Ortiz are in modern baseball. Since league strikeout rates change, for this comparison I did a simplistic norming of strikeouts per plate appearance to league average: player’s strikeout rate divided by league average for that season. In 2011, Ortiz struck out in about .76 of his plate appearances compared to the league average hitter. In 2012, that number was about .71. That is the number we will be using in our comparisons. This is not intended to be anything like a deep or complete analysis, but a reflection on how unusual Ortiz’ old age seasons have been.
We will start with a broad population and narrow it down. Since 1955, there have been about 6700 player seasons of at least 500 plate appearances. (Despite Ortiz getting fewer than 500 plate appearances in 2010, I want to use 500 as my minimum to weed out part-timers and platoon players from the population, since Ortiz is not one of them yet.) Of those, only 475 have been by players 35 or older (as Ortiz was in 2011 when we first saw the big drop in his strikeout rate). Of those players, 346 managed to have strikeout rates better than average relative to league average (1 being average, below one being better than average).
[This may strike you as strange -- aren't strikeout rates supposed to go up as players age? Yes, but keep in mind that we are not comparing these players to their previous performance in the prior years, just to league average. There are other factors that could be mentioned, but that is the most important thing, and I do not want to muddy the waters too much more.]
But Ortiz has been way better than average lately, so let’s look at players who were way below average at 35 or older. Ortiz was at .76 of league average in 2011, and .71 in 2012. Let’s (somewhat arbitrarily) restrict our population to players 35 or older with seasons where their strikeout per plate appearance rate was .8 of league average or better (lower). That leaves us with 210 players.
We probably do not want the hackers. Hitters who get low strikeouts simply because they would rather ground out to second rather than take a walk are not the best comparison to David Ortiz. Against, using player strikeouts divided by that league average rate for the season in question, how many of those player seasons with low strikeout rates also had above-average walk rate? About 118. That does not even seem like the best comparison to Ortiz, as his walk rate has not simply been above average. In 2011 and 2012, Ortiz’ seasonal walk rate has been between about 1.6 and 1.8 of league average. So let’s further restrict out sample to players with a walk rate at least 1.5 of league average. That leaves us with 35 player seasons.
That is not many player seasons, but we still have players in there who really are not much help in getting comparable hitters to David Ortiz. In 1979 Pete Rose, who was 38. walked 95 times and only struck out 32 times. Amazing. He also only hit 4 home runs in 730 plate appearances and had an ISO of .099. Pretty sure that is not a great comparison for David Ortiz. So let’s norm isolated power, too. (Not having park adjustments is something of a problem here, and it is with the other components as well; I do not think it makes this useless, but I do acknowledge the issue. ISO itself is only a crude summary measure, but it is a good, quick and dirty stand in for what I am trying to get at here in an admittedly superficial manner.). Let’s not pretend Ortiz’ isolated power has just been above-average, either. The last couple of season seasons, it has been between 1.7 and 1.95. Let’s set our minimum at an ISO of 1.5 of league average.
Just to recall what our population is before this final reckoning: hitter seasons since 1955 where the player is at least 35 years old, receives at least 500 plates appearances, has a strikeout rate of .8 of league average or lower, a walk rate at least 1.5 league average or higher, and an isolated power 1.5 that of league average. We end up with 14 seasons that meet the requirements, out of 475 of players 35 or older who got at least 500 plate appearances, and that includes Ortiz’ 2011.
Not many players get 500 or more chances at the plate in their mid-30s, and very, very few (13 other than Ortiz) have ever done so with the combination of contact, power, and walk rate that Ortiz has down the last couple of years. Some players have done it more than once. Here is the list of players and the seasons in which they met our criteria:
[Some people will no doubt want to discuss PEDs in some of these cases. Even if I wanted to do so, I do not have the space or knowledge to get into that here.]
How many of these players are really good comparisons for David Ortiz? By 2002 Barry Bonds had slowed down considerably, although he still swiped 9 bases. Of more relevance, while Ortiz has always had pretty good plate discipline, it can’t compare to Bonds, career-wise. The only seasons Bonds had a K rate worse than average were his 1985 rookie year and 2001, when he was just barely worse than average. Get this, the only season of Bonds’ career after his rookie in which he failed to walk more than he struck out was 1989, when he had 93 of each. Bonds had almost four times as many walks in his career as strikeouts (although that number is problematic given all the intentional and intentional unintentional walks). Bonds is a pretty unhelpful comparison for anyone.
Brian Downing was a catcher-turned-outfielder-turned-DH in 1988. He was never the power hitter that Ortiz has been, but he, too, had more career walks than strikeouts. Whatever one makes of Chipper Jones abilities in the field, he was another player who had a career-long high-walk, low-strikeout approach. Jones’ former teammate Gary Sheffield (remember that?) also has more career walks than strikeouts, and Sheffield also was pretty speedy when he was younger.
Hank Aaron… well, you know about Hank Aaron. I knew he was not simply a plodding slugger, but I did not realize until doing this research how much more he started stealing bases in his seventh year in the big leagues (1960). And, again, he had more career walks than strikeouts.
I do not think that anyone has ever considered comparing David Ortiz and Lou Whitaker, as Whitaker was a second baseman. He also was always a low strikeout guy and, wait for it… had more walks than strikeouts for his career. So did Rafael Palmeiro, although just barely.
Then there is Ted Williams, who is about as useful as a comparison as Barry Bonds for these purposes.
None of this is meant to denigrate David Ortiz. In one way, it makes his achievement seem that much more impressive: all of the players who previously had the combination of contact, patience, and power he has recently displayed are Hall of Famers or should-be Hall of Famers, are close to it, except for Downing (who had a remarkable career). What stands out to me, however, is that while Ortiz plate discipline always has been good, all of these players are on another level, pretty much always averaging more walks that strikeouts from early on. Ortiz had done it prior to 2012 — in his heyday of 2006 and 2007. However, Palmiero is the only player really close to Ortiz in that respect.
The point is not to say that Ortiz is better or worse than any of these other players. The issue is simply how unusual it is for a player to revamp his plate approach and skills at this late stage. None of those other players did it — they were simply doing pretty much what they had had always done with respect to walks and strikeouts. That was easy enough to show. What that means for his future is far more difficult, and that is the task the Red Sox (and any othe team interested in Ortiz) have in front of them as they try to decide how much Ortiz will be worth.