clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

David Ortiz's retirement tour is breaking the mold

New, 1 comment

We're talking a lot about the elderly slugger, but he's earned it by being really, shockingly good.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It's okay to be experiencing some David Ortiz fatigue. Personally, I find retirement tours pretty tiresome, and even if you don't mind the individual ceremonies, the accumulation of 20 of them over the course of the season can be a bit much. Especially for someone like Ortiz, where both his retirement and the tour have felt imminent for years. Plus, some blowback from the statistically oriented community is probably not surprising — Ortiz has been viewed as a slam-dunk Hall of Famer in the broader baseball world for a while, but anyone familiar with positional adjustments and the value of speed and defense might have some more deserving candidates in mind, whether they ultimately think Ortiz should get in or not.

But: It is basically impossible not to talk about him. He is almost 41, which is as old as dirt in baseball years, and has maybe half of a working knee between both his legs. He is also hitting .321/.411/.636, good for a wRC+ of 169 and a TAv of .329, the third- and fourth-best marks of his career and the best and 13th-best in the league, respectively. It's extraordinary! We should talk about it, because it's pretty dang nuts.

This is when you ask, "how nuts is it?" And then we head to the Play Index together, the go-to destination for anyone looking to answer that question. (Spoiler: pretty nuts.)

Now, this requires a bit of shenanigans, since Ortiz's final season isn't actually complete yet, and given the torrid pace at which he's been playing, there's every reason to expect him to cool off. Instead of using his current averages, I'm going to combine his year-to-date stats with the rest-of-year projections (FanGraphs depth charts, which use a blend of Steamer and ZiPS) to get a hypothetical full-season line. Maybe you think they're pessimistic, given how good he's been already this year; maybe you think they're optimistic, given his recent slowing; I think they're probably the best we've got, so.

Ortiz is projected for a season with the following line:

PA H 2B HR BB% K% OBP SLG wRC+ TAv WAR
FanGraphs 636 171 49 38 13.2% 13.8% .404 .617 163 --- 4.7

It's obvious just from looking at this table that he's doing something pretty extraordinary for a 40-year-old, but we can get more precise than that. I'll be comparing him to the other qualified seasons completed at 40 or above since integration in 1947. There aren't many, which already is telling, but even among this select group, Ortiz stands out.

- By fWAR, Ortiz's season would be one of the best qualified 40+ seasons; his 4.7 would rank fourth, behind only Willie Mays at 40 (5.9), Luke Appling at 42 (5.2), and Carlton Fisk at 42 (5.0). And from wRC+'s purely offensive standpoint, Ortiz's 2016 is on target to be the best ever; his 163 would beat Mays's 157 by a sizable margin. wRC+ is also adjusted for era, so this isn't just a quirk of timing; Ortiz is truly doing something amazing.

- Both systems project Ortiz for only four fewer walks than strikeouts. He's also already been intentionally walked 13 times, so while there's at least a decent chance he finishes with more unintentional walks than strikeouts, Ortiz is nearly guaranteed to complete the season with more walks of any kind. The list of old players who have accomplished such a feat is a doozy: Luke Appling, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Pete Rose, Graig Nettles, Darrell Evans, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson, Edgar Martinez, Kenny Lofton, and Omar Vizquel. That Ortiz is joining that list in the heyday of the strikeout is particularly impressive.

- Ortiz is projected to finish the year with a slugging percentage in the .610s. This also has a lot to do in the era in which he plays, but not only would that be the largest slugging from a qualified 40-year-old, it would be a full .100 higher than the next-largest (Stan Musial, with a .508 in 1962). The gap between first and second projects to be as large as the gap between second and eighteenth. Ortiz will have a higher SLG than Derek Jeter's in his oldest season (.313), plus Pete Rose's in his oldest season (.286). Ortiz is going out with a historic bang.

- Most striking, however, is the lack of decline that Ortiz has shown in this final season when compared to the rest of his career. We know he's in incredible pain, because he tells us he is, but he's playing nearly as well as he ever has. A full-season fWAR of 4.7 would be the fourth-best of his career, while the fWARs of the other players who completed a season at 40 or older were, on average, the 15th-best of their respective careers. Similarly, Ortiz's wRC+ would be the third-best of his career, behind only his 2007 and 2012 (which itself was shortened by injury, and so perhaps shouldn't count). No one else has ever had a season so close offensively to their peak, or so close offensively to their career averages. In their best old seasons, the other players had wRC+s 14 points below their career figures, on average; Ortiz is projected to finish 23 points above his career wRC+, easily the largest.

So yes, a year of retirement ceremonies can feel like a lot, and there are certainly better players who probably deserved as much or more fanfare than Ortiz has received and didn't get it. But Ortiz's retirement tour and swan song isn't like those of the past. This is no injury-riddled circuit that lasts about six months too long, but a final, thunderous tour de force, and it should be celebrated as such.