For the past dozen years we have watched David Ortiz pile up legendary numbers in a Boston Red Sox uniform. He’s played in 9 All-Star games, won 6 Silver Slugger awards and finished in the top-5 in MVP voting five times during his time in Boston. That’s before accounting for his postseason heroics and three World Series rings decorating his fingers. Now that Ortiz is winding down towards the tail end of his epic career, we are left to wonder what the Red Sox can expect this season from their 39-year old slugger.
To help us predict Ortiz’s expected production we can take a look at how other aging hitters have performed in their age 39 seasons and compare it to how they performed in recent seasons leading up to that year. This will give us historical context to assess whether or not we should expect a decline from Ortiz at this age.
Since 2000, there have been 13 players that have been active in the major leagues at age 39. In the table to the right you will see how they each performed at that age (stats from Baseball-Reference.com).
Barry Bonds is the clear outlier of the group, considering he was capping off his 4th straight MVP campaign at age 39. He is the only one on this list that still performed at an elite level at this age – which is saying something when you consider the caliber of the players on this list. Bonds had a little help enhancing his performance in his later years, so take his results with a grain of salt. He’s not the only one on this list with PED concerns, but hey, we aren’t here to point fingers.
To examine whether or not these players suffered any significant statistical decline at this age, let’s look at the average of what they produced in their age 36-38 seasons.
The results show that this group combined to average 1.3 less games at age 39. Their OPS+ declined by an average of 4.1 and their WAR declined by an average of 1.2.
With the exception of Matt Stairs (1.8 WAR improvement), none of these players showed significant improvement at age 39 compared to the average of their previous three seasons. The few that did show a mini-resurgence improved by less than 1.0 WAR, while several of them declined significantly at that age.
For the majority of these players, 39 proved to be the beginning of the end. Edgar Martinez (3.3 WAR) and Kenny Lofton (1.9 WAR) actually bounced back at age 40, but most of the others never equaled or surpassed the WAR they posted in their age 39 seasons once they reached their 40’s. Conine and Ibanez improved in their 40’s, but even in a bounce back season they were essentially replacement level players at that point.
So what does this mean for Ortiz? If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that we may want to start preparing for his inevitable decline. Ortiz was 5th in the AL with 35 home runs last season and has averaged a 158 OPS+ and 3.6 WAR over the past three seasons. It will be difficult for him to sustain those levels as he gets older. While his home run totals have improved in each of the last three seasons (coinciding with his number of games played increasing each of those years), his OPS+ has been in a three year decline.
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The good news is that Ortiz does have a few factors going in his favor. One is that his body has been preserved over the years by serving primarily as a DH, which means he has less wear and tear than the average player his age. That could make his case similar to that of Martinez, who remained a productive hitter late in his career. Boston has also vastly improved its lineup this offseason, offering Ortiz added protection to ensure pitchers won’t be able to pitch around him as easily. If he gets more pitches to hit than he did anchoring last season’s mediocre lineup, his production will benefit from that.
Ortiz proved last season that he still has something left in the tank. He’s not done yet, but the end is near. Ortiz has had a brilliant career and helped the Red Sox win many games, but Father Time remains undefeated.