With last night’s two homer, six RBI show, David Ortiz continues to play like the Tim Duncan of baseball, refusing to submit to the inexorable gravitational pull of age. At 38 years young, Big Papi is now the MLB league leader in RBIs with 91. Young guns Jose Abreu and Mike Trout are still looking up at the Large Father, who is on pace to lead the majors in the category for the first time in nine years. With 40 games remaining, Ortiz is on pace to reach 120 RBIs. The last player to do so at this age? Cap Anson in 1891, who had 120 RBIs at age 39.
As statistical experts may argue, “runs batted in” is an imperfect statistic. It reflects the quality of the rest of the lineup as much as the skill of the player in question. The Red Sox lineup has been atrocious throughout much of this season, especially the bottom of the order, which hurts Ortiz hitting in the three-spot. On the surface, this makes Ortiz’ RBI numbers look even more impressive. However, it’s worth considering other statistics as well to get a more nuanced perspective.
On ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, Bill Baer made an argument for Joey Votto as MVP at this point in the 2013 season in spite of his 57 RBIs. Baer cited other important stats such as Votto’s league leading .434 OBP. Likewise, RBI-skeptic Zachary Rymer of Bleacher Report points out other advanced statistics that may be better than the RBI at determining a player’s run creating ability, such as RE24. This stat fully considers how well a player drives in runs based on the context: number of outs and runners on base. By this measure, Ortiz is only 17th in the league.
But in this age of sabermetrics, other advanced stats illustrate the continued prowess of aging Big Papi. Unsurprisingly, he’s ninth in the league in “Clutch,” demonstrating that he continues to drive in runs in crucial situations. He’s also sixth in the league in “isolated power,” which illustrates that he continues to be one of the best in the league at hitting for extra bases. According to FanGraphs, this is an incredible age defying feat, as isolated power typically declines precipitously with age.
Therefore, by both traditional and advanced statistical measures, David Ortiz remains a force to be reckoned with in the MLB. In the wake of the steroid era, it’s easy to point to such success as drug-aided, much like the age-defying power of Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. Indeed, Ortiz’ legacy will always be tainted by his failed 2003 drug test, although he has unflinchingly denied ever intentionally using steroids and says that he was just “careless” with his vitamin intake, according to ESPN. Whether Ortiz used steroids early in his career or not, it is far less likely that he is using now. The MLB’s new and more rigorous drug-testing program has caught big names like Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, and Jhonny Peralta, amongst others, in the last two seasons. Questions will always remain, but in the spirit of the American criminal justice system, I’ll consider Ortiz’s current success as innocent until proven guilty.
If he is clean, Ortiz’s current power-hitting success trumps any other age-defying achievements from this generation. Furthermore, Ortiz has the advantage over other accused cheaters of playing beyond the “steroid era” and succeeding in the “post-steroid” era. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame far later than his counterparts from the early 2000s, and baseball writers will become softer on the steroid issue as time goes on and some emotional distance can be reached. If he continues at his current pace, Ortiz will reach the 500 home run mark by next season (he’s currently at 459). Given all of the factors listed above, in addition to his well-documented postseason heroics, Ortiz has a great shot at reaching the Hall of Fame.
The other factor weighing against Papi is the DH stigma, but Frank Thomas, who played 56% of his games at DH, already broke some ground on that front when he was elected this year. The Edgar Martinez vs. David Ortiz debate will also be reignited once Papi becomes eligible. Regardless, Ortiz remarkably continues to add to his Cooperstown credentials with a World Series MVP last season at age 37, and a potential RBI crown this season at age 38. The Large Father refuses to submit to Father Time. It’s fun to debate his hall of fame qualifications, but for now, let’s just enjoy the unrelenting greatness of Big Papi.