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May 22, 2013

Skewed Left

A Somewhat Happy 40th for the Immortal Ramon Ortiz

by Zachary Levine

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Ramon Ortiz turns 40 tomorrow, and I didn’t get him anything. That’s probably okay. Nobody else did, either, and that’s what makes the end for him so much harder to watch.

We remember the end for the great ones, whether they went out on top like Chipper Jones and seemingly Mariano Rivera, or with nothing left, like Willie Mays. And by the way, we got them something.

Ortiz’s career has taken another fascinating turn in 2013, not because he added another team to his collection—he crosses off a new one every season—but because he got called up to join the rotation of a team that was favored to win the American League East.

If you had been given this set of facts about Ortiz in 2007, what odds would you have put on his pitching A) Six years later, in his age-40 season, B) In a starting rotation, C) For a team that came in with talent expected to win a division?

  • He was 34 and had pitched for four teams in three seasons
  • His last year with an ERA below 5.30 was three years earlier
  • He had never recorded a season above 1.5 WARP and had only one season above 1.0 WARP

Okay, how about 2 ½ years later, after he didn’t play in the majors in 2008 or 2009? How about two years after that, after he’d been worse than replacement level in 2010 and 2011? And how about after the 2012 season, when he once again couldn’t find major league time?

As Ortiz’s career comes to an end, it’s worth noting just how remarkable his career has been, even though he’s the type who will generally be skipped over in the career obituaries and fade quietly. Ortiz has lasted in the major leagues since 1999 despite putting up almost no value in the aggregate.

Ortiz’s career WARP—after 217 starts and 83 relief appearances—would not come close to leading the majors in WARP this season alone. If this is really the end, he reaches it in some pretty rare territory. Only 17 pitchers who debuted since 1950 can claim a lower career value despite making 200-plus starts. Yet Ortiz kept managing to find work, which is a tribute to his durability—a skill in itself—as he’s been hurt only twice in his entire career (and even those injuries were pretty minor).

For the most part, he’s made a career out of getting by until the guy whom the team really wanted was ready, and then finding other work. The pursuit took him to Japan in 2008 and to Fresno, Buffalo, Durham, Iowa, Scranton and Buffalo again since then as he just tried to hang on.

And that’s what Ortiz’s start for Toronto on Tuesday night felt like: a guy just trying to hang on. It was one of the toughest things I’ve seen on a major league field—and I’ve covered a 106-loss team and a 107-loss team.

There was just nothing left.

It’s total gambler’s fallacy to say it, but the fact that Ortiz entered the game with a 2.35 ERA despite seven walks and four strikeouts made me think it was going to be even worse, and it was. There was no fastball left and thus no confidence in the fastball, reflecting the trajectory of the end of his career.

Ortiz tried to get by just firing slider after slider as he continues to move away from the fastball.

Year

Fastball+sinker %

4-seam velocity

2007

50%

92.57

2010

44%

91.38

2011

35%

91.26

2013

39%

89.04

He lasted 2 1/3 innings, striking out one and allowed four runs on six hits. Yet for a night, the desperate Blue Jays thought he was their best option.

It took a remarkable set of circumstances for Ortiz to get another shot at the majors. To oversimplify, J.A. Happ is hurt, Dustin McGowan is hurt, Kyle Drabek is hurt, Ricky Romero is bad, Josh Johnson is hurt and bad, and Aaron Laffey is gone. So Ortiz got his first win since 2007 in his previous start, and that’s a moment he richly deserved after hanging on for so long. But with his outing on Tuesday coming on the same day as a successful start at Triple-A Buffalo for Romero, who could be on his way back, game no. 300 of his career could really be it. It would be five seasons after his Baseball Prospectus 2008 comment ended with the line “At 35 and with ERAs above five in three straight years, he's about done.”

The more interesting one is the tail end of his player comment from the BP annual in 2007.

His slider doesn`t fool people all that frequently, and his flat fastball and relatively short stature make for a pitcher without a lot of ability to attack hitters from different planes, so everyone hits him, and everyone can drive balls for power off of him. If he wasn’t good enough to get by in RFK last year, he probably can’t contribute anywhere in the majors. The Nats are trying to bring him back; they have need, but he needs them every bit as much.

In 2007, Barry Bonds led the National League in on-base percentage, and he’s already been on the Hall of Fame ballot. In 2007, Brandon Webb finished second in Cy Young voting in the apparent prime of an age-28 season. He is out of baseball. Ramon Ortiz found another team that needed him just as much six years later.

Certain players were clearly meant for certain teams. Kevin Correia, the soft-throwing righty with abysmal strikeout totals, was born to be a Minnesota Twin; he just took a while to realize it. Jeff Francoeur is a perfect Kansas City Royal. And Ramon Ortiz and this mess of a Blue Jays team were meant for each other.

He gave them some innings, not great ones and certainly not ones that were sustainable, with now eight walks and five strikeouts going into that 4.08 ERA. And the Blue Jays gave him his ending, which not everybody gets, especially not players with Ortiz’s career path.

And so maybe that makes it a happy 40th.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Blue Jays,  Ramon Ortiz

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