David Ortiz and the Fountain of Youth

by Andrew Mooney

This post can also be seen on Boston.com here.

Over the past ten seasons, the Boston Red Sox have had quite a few heroes. Some, like Damon or Pedro, may seem as if they played closer to 20 seasons ago, and a new cast of stars, perhaps led by Will Middlebrooks, might one day take their place in Fenway lore. But the 2012 season has given us ample opportunity to appreciate the one constant and the biggest hero of these past ten years, the apparently ageless David Ortiz.

After taking two out of three from the Blue Jays, the Red Sox currently stand two games above .500, which, while not a remarkable achievement in itself, feels awfully satisfying given that the Sox were sitting at 13-19 just over three weeks ago. And much of the credit for keeping the Sox afloat during their early season struggles must go to Ortiz, who carried the offense through April and May.

At 36, Ortiz is on pace for his best season since 2007, in which he finished fourth in the MVP voting. His .987 OPS is third in the American League, and he’s in the top ten in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging with a .315/.391/.596 line.

The most incredible thing about his early season run is that it has come exactly three years after his career was pronounced dead, or at best barely breathing, after a nightmare start to the 2009 season. Even after turning his season around with a late summer surge, Red Sox management was spooked; since then, they have kept Ortiz on a series of one-year leashes, every time half expecting a season full of sad shakes of the head and postgame ponderings on the meaning of mortality. His 2010 season was a pleasant surprise, but apparently not enough to sway anyone that a multi-year deal was a prudent investment for fear of the inevitable age regression lurking the following spring.

But a funny thing happened—every year since ’09, Ortiz got better. Over this span, he’s hit for more power and for a better average, his strikeout rates are down, and he’s squaring up the ball, hitting more line drives. His last four seasons resemble a player just entering his peak years, not a guy who has logged 7,500 plate appearances in his major league career (images courtesy of TruMedia Networks).

ortiz09slg.pngortiz10slg.pngortiz11slug.pngortiz12slug.png

Plotted below is the MLB-average OPS since 1901 for players aged 33 to 36, along with the corresponding production from Ortiz. The average is actually skewed up by the fact that only the best and most durable players can maintain a regular spot in the lineup at this age. The sample of hitters still playing into their mid-30s falls from 619 at 33 years old to 244 at 36. Still, it appears no one told this to Ortiz, who has instead improved like a man 10 years his junior over the last few years.

ortizops.png

Of course, in the long run, Father Time is still batting 1.000, and no one knows how much longer Ortiz can string this Benjamin Button act out. One thing is for certain: management is going to have a very interesting decision ahead of them this winter. If he keeps up this level of production, there’s no way they can justify giving him a pay cut, but it’s almost as difficult to stomach shelling out 15 million for a 37-year-old slugger in a (mostly) post-steroids baseball landscape. There’s no obvious answer; as the last few years have shown, there really aren’t many good comparables by which we can judge Ortiz. He’s a one of a kind player, and Ben Cherington’s guess as to when he’ll finally lose it is as good as anyone’s.

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