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:
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:
And here are his 10 comparable players in their age 38 seasons:
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:
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:
And the five comparable players when they were 38 years old:
So, how did this group of four perform in their age 39 season?
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):
|10 Comps||David Ortiz||589||48||32||91||.271||.359||.519|
|4 Comps||David Ortiz||514||45||25||80||.257||.351||.491|
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:
|Fans (32)||David Ortiz||590||89||28||92||.280||.369||.507|
And there you have it—David Ortiz in 2015, not over the hill just yet.
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.