Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Can Ortiz Keep Raking?

Ortiz is 39 years young (NextImpulseSports)
David Ortiz turns 39 years old today, and he's still going strong.

Five years ago it seemed unfathomable that Big Papi would still be a productive hitter one year shy of his 40th birthday, much less one of the best hitters in baseball. The end seemed near when, as a 33 year-old, Ortiz batted .238/.332/.462 (100 wRC+) with 134 strikeouts and 0.0 fWAR in 2009. His situation grew even more dire the following spring when he got off to a miserable start with only one home run, four RBI, and .524 OPS in April. Papi appeared to be in full-blown decline.

Of course, we now know that was merely a rough patch in what has been an otherwise stellar 12-year run in Boston for Ortiz. He rebounded to finish 2010 strong with 31 homers, 98 RBI, and a .943 OPS over the season's final five months. He was even better over the next three years, his age 35-37 seasons. As run-scoring plummeted across the sport, Ortiz's numbers surged as he batted .311/.401/.571 with 82 home runs during that span. Per wRC+, it was tied with Mark McGwire and Edgar Martinez for the seventh-best run that any hitter has ever sustained over those ages.

Last year at 38, Ortiz seemed to slip a bit. His batting line fell to .263/.355/.517, an 86 point drop in OPS from 2013 and a 153 point plunge compared to 2012. That can be explained entirely by his BABiP, which nosedived from .321 in 2013 to .256 last year. Such a free fall was not surprising given that Ortiz had his highest fly ball rate since 2009 in conjunction with his lowest line drive rate since 2010, but increased defensive shifts likely played a part in that as well. Nevertheless, Ortiz was still extremely productive with a 135 wRC+, .369 wOBA, 35 home runs (fifth in the American League) and 104 RBI (sixth).

So what can we expect from Papi in 2015, his age 39 season? Steamer's very optimistic, projecting him to essentially replicate his 2014 production. The system sees his BABiP regressing closer to the league average, which should pull up his batting average and OBP, but also expects Ortiz to hit for less power. That makes sense, as Ortiz is at an age where power drops off precipitously. It will be tough to him to surpass 30 home runs for the third straight season, as no 39 year-old had ever exceeded 30 taters in a season before Hank Aaron did so (with 40) in 1973 (Steve Finley and Barry Bonds have since achieved this as well).

That said, there's nothing alarming in Ortiz's profile to suggest his numbers are in imminent danger of falling off a cliff. He's a full-time DH playing half his games at one of the friendliest parks for hitters in the majors. Because he rarely played the field and was a part-time player until his mid-20s, he doesn't have as much wear and tear as most 39 year-olds, especially since he's been able to avoid major injuries for much of his career. His plate discipline has remained impeccable, his contact rates are excellent, and he still has tremendous bat speed based on the way he destroyed fastballs last year. His power is intact as well, for his 2014 ISO was identical to his 2013 ISO (.255).

Next year Ortiz might not be the hitter he was three years ago, or even the hitter he was last year, but he still figures to be mighty good. He'll continue to mash, just as he always has.

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