Big Papi vs. Father Time

I have to start with a confession: I love David Ortiz. I’ve had him on my fantasy team in my most important league in three of the last four years. I like his stats, of course, but I also like the way he claps his hands when he’s preparing to hit, the way he sets up in the box, the way he rambles around the bases after launching one into the outfield. I like the big smile on his face when things are going well. There may not be such a thing as a clutch hitter, but I like to think that when it comes to the mythical clutch hitter, Big Papi is the clutchiest of them all. In short, Big Papi es mi hombre.

Unfortunately, David Ortiz will be 39 years old in 2015. In Major League Baseball, 39-year-olds generally do not hit well. They generally don’t field well, either, but that doesn’t matter to me and Big Papi. We’re all ‘bout that bat, ‘bout that bat, no fielding…

Last year, there were two 39-year-old position players in MLB—John McDonald (.171/.256/.197, 38 wRC+) and Jose Molina (.178/.230/.187, 23 wRC+). There were three 40-year-old positions players in MLB—Bobby Abreu (.248/.342/.338, 100 wRC+), Ichiro! (.284/.324/.340, 86 wRC+), and Derek Jeter (.256/.304/.313, 73 wRC+). There were zero 41-year-old positions players, one 42-year-old—Jason Giambi (.133/.257/.267, 48 wRC+), and one 43-year-old—Raul Ibanez (.167/.264/.285, 61 wRC+). Overall, in 2014, players aged 39 and up combined to hit .220/.280/.281, for a wRC+ of 60. They were just terrible at hitting, is what I’m saying.

Of course, just because those chumps were terrible at hitting at an advanced age doesn’t mean my boy Big Papi will be terrible at hitting at an advanced age. He’s already at an advanced age and he has been pretty darn good over the last few years, unlike the Jose Molinas and John McDonalds of the world.

David Ortiz hit .263/.355/.517 last year, good for a .369 wOBA and 135 wRC+. He was worth 2.4 WAR. The previous year, he had 3.8 WAR, so last year was a somewhat significant drop-off (63% of his previous year’s total WAR). That .369 wOBA was the lowest for Ortiz since 2009 and second lowest since 2003. In other words, in 2014 David Ortiz had the second-lowest wOBA in the 12 years he’s played with the Red Sox.

So what does that mean for 2015? Can Big Papi hold off Father Time once again or will he fall off a cliff at 39 years old?

To get to the bottom of this all-important question, I decided to start with the Similarity Scores list for David Ortiz that can be found at Baseball-Reference.com, along with his #1 ZiPS comp.

Baseball-Reference.com’s most similar batters to David Ortiz through age 38:

Frank Thomas

Fred McGriff

Paul Konerko

Willie McCovery

Willie Stargell

Jason Giambi

Todd Helton

Jim Thome

Reggie Jackson

Gary Sheffield

 

ZiPS top comp: Rafael Palmeiro

Paul Konerko has retired, so he’s no good to us. We’ll use the other players in a not-overly-mathematical attempt to determine how David Ortiz might do in 2015.

First, here are David Ortiz’ relevant statistics from last year, when he was 38 years old:

YEAR PLAYER PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2014 David Ortiz 602 59 35 104 .263 .355 .517 .254 .369 135 2.4

 

And here are his 10 comparable players in their age 38 seasons:

YEAR PLAYER PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2006 Frank Thomas 559 77 39 114 .270 .381 .545 .275 .392 139 2.5
2002 Fred McGriff 595 67 30 103 .273 .353 .505 .232 .366 125 2.5
1976 Willie McCovey 251 20 7 36 .204 .283 .336 .132 .279 76 0.2
1978 Willie Stargell 450 60 28 97 .295 .382 .567 .272 .415 161 3.6
2009 Jason Giambi 359 43 13 51 .201 .343 .382 .181 .328 98 -0.1
2012 Todd Helton 283 31 7 37 .238 .343 .400 .162 .327 88 0.0
2009 Jim Thome 434 55 23 77 .249 .366 .481 .232 .368 119 0.8
1984 Reggie Jackson 584 67 25 81 .223 .300 .406 .183 .315 95 0.0
2007 Gary Sheffield 593 107 25 75 .265 .378 .462 .197 .368 123 2.8
2003 Rafael Palmeiro 654 92 38 112 .260 .359 .508 .248 .369 119 2.5
  AVERAGE 476 62 24 78 .252 .353 .471 .219     1.5

 

Four of these players were coming off much worse seasons than Ortiz just had, so perhaps they are not great comps, but we’ll keep them in the mix for now.

Here are these same 10 players in their age 39 seasons:

YEAR PLAYER PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2007 Frank Thomas 624 63 26 95 .277 .377 .480 .203 .373 127 1.9
2003 Fred McGriff 329 32 13 40 .249 .322 .428 .179 .324 98 0.4
1977 Willie McCovey 548 54 28 86 .280 .367 .500 .220 .372 129 2.1
1979 Willie Stargell 480 60 32 82 .281 .352 .552 .271 .385 137 2.7
2010 Jason Giambi 222 17 6 35 .244 .378 .398 .154 .343 97 0.0
2013 Todd Helton 442 41 15 61 .249 .314 .423 .174 .322 87 -0.9
2010 Jim Thome 340 48 25 59 .283 .412 .627 .344 .439 177 3.1
1985 Reggie Jackson 541 64 27 85 .252 .360 .487 .235 .368 129 1.5
2008 Gary Sheffield 482 52 19 57 .225 .326 .400 .175 .322 92 0.0
2004 Rafael Palmeiro 651 68 23 88 .258 .359 .436 .178 .340 105 0.3
  AVERAGE 466 50 21 69 .261 .356 .473 .212     1.1

 

As a group, these players had better triple-slash numbers in their age 39 seasons, but with an average of 10 fewer plate appearances and less production in runs, home runs, and RBI, along with a drop in WAR from an average of 1.5 to 1.1.

That’s not too bad, though. They didn’t fall off a cliff, like one might expect from a 39-year-old player. Taking what these players did from age 38 to 39 and applying it to Ortiz’ stats from last year, you would get a line in the vicinity of this for David Ortiz in 2015: 589 PA, 48 R, 32 HR, 91 RBI, .272/.359/.519.

(Note: David Ortiz scored a ridiculously low number of runs last year—just 59 despite getting on base over 200 times. It would be unlikely that he would score at such a low rate two years in a row, especially with the Red Sox’ improved line up).

Okay, let’s go back to those comparable players and whittle down the sample size to ridiculous levels. Let’s use only those players who had between 1.5 and 3 WAR in their age 38 season. Say goodbye to 1976 Willie McCovey (0.2 WAR), 1978 Willie Stargell (3.6 WAR), 2009 Jason Giambi (-0.1 WAR), 2012 Todd Helton (0 WAR), 2009 Jim Thome (0.8 WAR), and 1984 Reggie Jackson (0 WAR). That only leaves us with four players, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

One of those remaining four players is Gary Sheffield, who stole 22 bases when he was 38 and 9 bases when he was 39. That doesn’t seem like something David Ortiz could do, so I’m going to reluctantly toss Gary Sheffield aside as a comparable player to Big Papi. Down to just three comps, I went looking for others. I found Carl Yastrzemski and Brian Downing. Yaz had 2.4 WAR at age 38, just like David Ortiz, and is left-handed, like David Ortiz, and played some first base, like David Ortiz. Yaz also played left field and even center field at age 38, so he’s not the best comp, but he’ll do for now. Brian Downing was a full-time DH at age 38 and had 1.9 WAR, close enough to Big Papi’s 2.4, so I’ll keep him also, despite his right-handedness. That gives us five comparable players look at.

Here is David Ortiz’ age 38 season again in case you forgot from a couple minutes ago:

YEAR PLAYER PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2014 David Ortiz 602 59 35 104 .263 .355 .517 .254 .369 135 2.4

 

And the five comparable players when they were 38 years old:

YEAR PLAYER PA AB R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
1978 C. Yastrzemski 611 523 70 17 81 .277 .367 .423 .146 .355 115 2.4
1989 Brian Downing 610 544 59 14 59 .283 .354 .414 .131 .348 120 1.9
2006 Frank Thomas 559 466 77 39 114 .270 .381 .545 .275 .392 139 2.5
2002 Fred McGriff 595 523 67 30 103 .273 .353 .505 .232 .366 125 2.5
2003 Rafael Palmeiro 654 561 92 38 112 .260 .359 .508 .248 .369 119 2.5
  AVERAGE 606 523 73 28 94 .273 .362 .477 .205     2.4

 

So, how did this group of four perform in their age 39 season?

YEAR PLAYER PA AB R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
1979 C. Yastrzemski 590 518 69 21 87 .270 .346 .450 .180 .349 105 2.2
1990 Brian Downing 390 330 47 14 51 .273 .374 .467 .194 .376 138 2.1
2007 Frank Thomas 624 531 63 26 95 .277 .377 .480 .203 .373 127 1.9
2003 Fred McGriff 329 297 32 13 40 .249 .322 .428 .179 .324 98 0.4
2004 Rafael Palmeiro 651 550 68 23 88 .258 .359 .436 .178 .340 105 0.3
  AVERAGE 517 445 56 19 72 .266 .358 .453 .187     1.4

 

This group lost 1 WAR and saw drops across the board but, again, it wasn’t a cliff dive. They retained some value. If David Ortiz ages like these four players, he would have a 2015 season that looks a bit like this: .257/.351/.491, 45 R, 25 HR, 80 RBI.

So, based on this minimally-scientific study that is by no means meant to replace Steamer or ZiPS or the Fans projections, it would appear that David Ortiz will hit somewhere between the two following batting lines in 2015 (shown along with the average of the two projections from above):

 

COMPS PLAYER PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
10 Comps David Ortiz 589 48 32 91 .271 .359 .519
4 Comps David Ortiz 514 45 25 80 .257 .351 .491
Average David Ortiz 551 47 28 86 .264 .355 .506

 

Or if you prefer a much more mathematical model, there’s always Cairo, Davenport, Marcel, Steamer, ZiPS, and the Fan projections, along with the average of this all these projections:

SOURCE PLAYER PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
Cairo David Ortiz 569 69 23 69 .296 .376 .509
Davenport David Ortiz 492 61 20 79 .266 .355 .459
Marcel David Ortiz 561 67 28 87 .276 .362 .513
Steamer David Ortiz 601 84 26 91 .277 .366 .496
ZiPS David Ortiz 537 59 29 88 .277 .363 .526
Fans (32) David Ortiz 590 89 28 92 .280 .369 .507
Average David Ortiz 558 72 26 84 .279 .365 .502

 

And there you have it—David Ortiz in 2015, not over the hill just yet.

We hoped you liked reading Big Papi vs. Father Time by Bobby Mueller!

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Bobby Mueller has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan as far back as the 1979 World Series Championship team ("We R Fam-A-Lee!"). He suffered through the 1980s, then got a reprieve in the early 1990s, only to be crushed by Francisco Cabrera in 1992. After a 20-year stretch of losing seasons, things are looking up for Bobby’s Pirates. His blog can be found at www.baseballonthebrain.com and he tweets at www.twitter.com/bballonthebrain.

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Matthew
Guest
Matthew

I did something similar: I did a little examination of players that were bad glove 1B or full time DHs since the DH rule was introduced in 1973 that posted a 2.0+ WAR after their age 38 season. There were 5 results. I also took a look at what they did after their “good” season. 1992 Dave Winfield(Age 39)- 3.8 WAR Rest of Career: -.09 WAR 1996 Paul Moliter(Age 40) – 2.5 WAR Rest of Career: -.01 WAR 2003 Edgar Martinez(Age 40)- 2.9 WAR Rest of Career -.03 WAR 2007 Frank Thomas(Age 39)- 2.0 WAR Rest of Career: -.02 WAR… Read more »

Nick
Guest
Nick

Palmeiro, Sheffield, Roids…
But I do like what you’ve done here.

Joshua
Guest
Joshua

Love your article! Love Big Papi too! Was looking at his bio on Fangraphs, what a amazing player! To hit like that as a DH is simply amazing. 2013 WS was one of the best hitting displays I have ever seen.