Seemingly every year or two for the past decade when David Ortiz has gone through a rough stretch—a bad April, a slow start coming back from the disabled list, or even just a hitless key series—it has become a story in Boston, with attention-grabbing headlines asking if he’s washed up. The answer has always been a resounding no. In fact, few players in baseball history have as thoroughly and convincingly avoided being washed up for as long as Ortiz.
At age 26 he was released by the Twins—as a Minnesotan, the state ban prevents me from discussing this matter any further—and from the moment Ortiz started putting up big numbers in Boston many people have been waiting for him to come crashing back down to earth. He never has, topping an .850 OPS in 13 of the past 14 seasons, with a low-water mark of .794 in 2009 that really pressed the “he’s washed up!” alarm.
Just last season Ortiz was hitting .219 in early June when a local television reporter asked him about being washed up, which led to this memorable rant a few days later:
“I’m not washed up. I guarantee you that. I can wake up and hit, bro. That’s my nature. I’m not washed up. … And my [expletive] is not going to finish like this, I’ll tell you that right now. I’m not going to end up like this. … But I’m not washed up. I’m not. You know why? Because they pitch me very carefully. If they don’t, I make them pay. All of them [expletive] who say I’m washed up, tell them to sit down and watch the game.”
Almost exactly one year later, at age 40 and in what is supposed to be his final season, Ortiz is making them pay by putting up the biggest numbers of his brilliant career. He guaranteed it and then he proved it.
Ortiz is hitting .333/.413/.686 with 11 homers, 20 doubles, and 41 RBIs through 41 games, leading the American League in slugging percentage and OPS while ranking third in on-base percentage and fifth in batting average. Ortiz also leads the league in Isolated Power (.353) and Baseball Info Solutions' hard-hit percentage (49.2) while ranking third in average exit velocity (94.8 mph). His swinging strike rate of 8.0 percent is the third-lowest of his career. In short: He’s [expletive] smacking the [expletive] out of the ball.
Ortiz’s adjusted OPS+ of 188 would be a career-high, which is quite a feat after ranking among the top 10 in OPS+ nine previous times. Ortiz is a great hitter who may be headed for his greatest season on a farewell tour. In addition to the best numbers of his career Ortiz is approaching rarefied air for all 40-year-old hitters. With the caveat that we’re not even two full months into a six-month season—still plenty of time for those predictions about being washed up to finally come true!—his performance seems destined to rate among the very best of all time for 40-year-olds.
There have been quite a few exceptional seasons by 40-year-old hitters in part-time roles, with familiar names like Carlton Fisk, Jim Thome, Paul Waner, Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Moises Alou, Eddie Collins, and Jim Edmonds all topping an OPS+ of 125 while logging fewer than 400 plate appearances. However, the list of 40-year-olds with at least 500 plate appearances and an OPS+ above 125 is much shorter:
- 158 OPS+ – Willie Mays, 1971
- 141 OPS+ – Edgar Martinez, 2003
- 138 OPS+ – Dave Winfield, 1992
- 135 OPS+ – Darrell Evans, 1987
- 134 OPS+ – Ty Cobb, 1927
- 128 OPS+ – Rickey Henderson, 1999
- 126 OPS+ – Luke Appling, 1947
Five of those seven players are Hall of Famers and the other two have strong cases to join them some day. Right now Ortiz would sit atop that list with a 188 OPS+, giving him a 30-point edge on Willie Mays, a 47-point edge on Edgar Martinez, and at least 50 points on everyone else. Ortiz is still 300-plus plate appearances short of 500 on the season and expecting him to maintain a 188 OPS+ throughout would be wishful thinking, but he’s got plenty of room to drop and still land at or near the top of that list.
Some other all-time records for 40-year-olds that appear to be within Ortiz’s reach:
- Homers: 36 (Darrell Evans, 1987)
- Doubles: 35 (Sam Rice, 1930)
- Extra-base hits: 62 (Dave Winfield, 1992)
- Times on base: 265 (Sam Rice, 1930)
On-pace-for numbers in late May are silly, but … well, Ortiz is on pace to set a new record for 40-year-olds in each of those categories.
It’ll be tough for Ortiz to catch Mays for the age-40 WARP record of 6.0, because Mays hit .271/.425/.482 in a lower environment for scoring while also going 23-of-26 stealing bases and seeing more than half of his action in center field. Perhaps that’s fitting anyway, because Mays has a compelling argument for being the best all-around player in baseball history and Ortiz has always derived his huge value exclusively from his bat. Here’s the top 10 in WARP at age 40:
- 6.0 WARP – Willie Mays, 1971
- 4.2 WARP – Dave Winfield, 1992
- 4.1 WARP – Darrell Evans, 1987
- 3.4 WARP – Carlton Fisk, 1988
- 3.1 WARP – Brian Downing, 1991
- 3.0 WARP – Rickey Henderson, 1999
- 2.9 WARP – Edgar Martinez, 2003
- 2.8 WARP – Chipper Jones, 2012
- 2.8 WARP – Jim Edmonds, 2010
- 2.4 WARP – Stan Musial, 1961
Ortiz has 1.6 WARP through the Red Sox’s first 45 games, so he’s another good month from breaking into the top 10 and could pass everyone but Mays by the end of the season. In total, only 17 players have ever had more than 2.0 WARP at age 40.
Red Sox fans won’t want to hear it, but despite playing some of his best baseball and putting up numbers few 40-year-olds have ever approached Ortiz has repeatedly made it clear that he still plans to retire. For instance, just a few days ago he told Rob Bradford of WEEI.com that he’s “100 percent sure I’m going to retire” and “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.”
If he sticks to that plan Ortiz would also put himself in the conversation for the best performance ever by a hitter in his final season. Here are the OPS+ leaders in a final season for players with at least 300 plate appearances:
- 190 OPS+ – Ted Williams, 1960
- 172 OPS+ – Joe Jackson, 1920
- 169 OPS+ – Barry Bonds, 2007
- 145 OPS+ – Will Clark, 2000
- 143 OPS+ – Mickey Mantle, 1968
That’s quite a group. Ted Williams retired at 41, hitting a homer in his final at-bat. Shoeless Joe Jackson was kicked out of baseball at 32. Barry Bonds stopped playing at 42 because no team would sign him. Will Clark and Mickey Mantle both retired at 36.
Looking at the WARP leaders for a final season (since 1950, so no Joe Jackson) shows a slightly different mix:
- 4.9 WARP – Jackie Robinson, 1956
- 4.4 WARP – Roberto Clemente, 1972
- 4.3 WARP – Will Clark, 2000
- 3.9 WARP – Ted Williams, 1960
- 3.8 WARP – Barry Bonds, 2007
Jackie Robinson hit .275/.382/.412 in his finale—slightly above-average production in 1956—and also played third base and second base with strong defensive numbers. Roberto Clemente had a typically outstanding age-37 season in 1972, hitting .312/.356/.479 for the Pirates while winning his 12th straight Gold Glove award in right field. He no doubt would have kept playing and would have remained a star if not for his death in a plane crash that December.
Ortiz is two months into what looks likely to be one of the best seasons in baseball history for a 40-year-old hitter and he’s currently playing at a level from which very few players have ever decided to voluntarily step down solely on their own terms. Perhaps that’s reason for Red Sox fans to hope he’ll eventually reconsider, but if not Ortiz can join fellow Boston legend Ted Williams in leaving on the highest of high notes. That’s how he wanted to end up, bro.
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