For years now many people in the fantasy community have been predicting the decline of David Ortiz. It’s only natural; once a player reaches a certain age regression is inevitable. The bat speed loses a few mph, the player starts taking extra swings to compensate, the average takes a downward turn and before you know it that once star player is hitting .235 and lucky to launch 20 home runs.
David Ortiz turned 39 this November and is coming off a 30 home run 100 RBI season, his second in two years. It almost seems unfathomable that a player of Ortiz’s age can produce these kinds of numbers well past his prime, but big Papi is not the average player. I often wonder if Ortiz is even human, imagining something out of Men in Black waiting to see a little alien when his head is opened. Well, with another birthday come and gone and a new season approaching quickly, the question must be asked again. Is this the year Big Papi declines or will he continue to amaze us for one more year?
On the surface it seems nothing has changed here. Ortiz hit 30 home runs in 2013 and 35 in 2014, and both seasons were in 518 at bats. In fact, in 3 of the past 5 seasons he has had 518 at bats and one with 525 which make things nice for comparative breakdowns. Ortiz had an average fly ball distance of 297 feet in 2014, down from the 300 feet in 2010 and 302 feet in 2013 but higher than the 295 feet he averaged in 2011. He still has the distance which is impressive when you look at the yearly breakdown for distances and see the decline for players that can hit the ball 300 feet on average. With an ISO of .255 for the past two seasons, it’s clear that even if Ortiz loses a little power, it should not be much.
Walks and strikeouts
Just like the power, these numbers haven’t changed much but are trending in the wrong direction. Ortiz had a walk percentage of 12.5 in 2014, slightly lower than the 12.7 in 2013 and even lower than the 14.6 in 2012. The numbers are still above average so even a drop to 12.0 would be good, just not Papi good. The strikeouts percentage is on the rise, but not at an out of control rate. In 2014 it was 15.8, up from 14.7 in 2013 and 13.3 in 2012. At its current rate of growth Ortiz could have a K% close to 17 in 2015 which is slightly higher than the 16.5 Streamer is projecting. Unless Ortiz has that cliff year, you can expect a similar yet slightly less effective Ortiz next year in this department.
After three straight years of an O-Swing% around 27, the number went up to 30.2% in 2014. Ortiz is still swinging at the same number of pitches (46% the past two seasons), but in 2014 he was chasing a few more outside the zone. I mentioned earlier players swinging at extra pitches to compensate for a potential loss of bat speed; this could be a sign of just that. The O-Contact% was up as well from 2013 (69% from 67%), but still lower than the 73 and 77 percent he averaged in 2011 and 2012. It was the same thing with the overall contact rate, up from 2013 (81.7% from 80.4%) but lower that the previous seasons in 2011 and 2012 (83.3% and 84.7%). The extra contact is usually good for boosting the batting average, but there were other issues keeping that down.
Batted Ball Profile and Average
While Ortiz was making a little more contact, those extra balls were in the air. His FB% was up dramatically from 2013, going from 38.7% to 45.7%. Those extra fly balls were at the cost of a diminished LD%, from 22.6% to 17.7%. The line drive and fly ball percentages are what Ortiz was putting up from 2006 to 2010 when his average fluctuated anywhere from .238 to .332. From 2011 to 2013 his LD% was in the low 20’s while his FB% stayed steady in the high 30’s. It was during this 3 year stretch that Ortiz managed to maintain a batting average above .300.
In order for Ortiz to bring the average up he will have to raise his line drive percentage. If he can’t you’re looking at an average in the .265 range as a best case scenario. Again, an acceptable average if he can maintain the power stroke and is similar to his years prior to 2011.
So right now, other than the batting average, it looks like Big Papi is one his way to a season similar to the one we saw in 2014. It could be a cross between 2013 and 2014 if he can bring the average up, but there is one last factor we must consider with Ortiz.
In real life 39 years old is no big deal, but in the sporting world it’s ancient. Not that many players produce fantasy relevant numbers past a certain age, so let’s take a look at some power hitting players from yesteryear to see how they fared at age 39.
Edgar Martinez slipped at age 39, partially due to an injury that shortened his season. He did bounce back the following year before declining and retiring after the following season in 2004.
Raul Ibanez lost some runs and 30 points of average from his previous two seasons. He hung in there for 3 more seasons and had a power resurgence in 2013 before his total collapse in 2014.
Rafael Palmaero had a decent season, just not a Palmaero one. He lost 15 home runs along with 24 in each of the RBI and runs categories. He declined even further at age 40 and retired.
Jim Thome’s age 39 season was marred by injuries, similar to his age 38 season. Overall his numbers were good given the number of plate appearance. He played for 2 more seasons, but overall he was just holding on to the past at that point.
Steve Finley played until the age of 42, but he played his last fantasy relevant year at age 39. It was a bounce back from his previous season with all numbers above normal with the exception of a lower batting average.
Frank Thomas had a down year by his own standard but still solid overall. If I were to compare just one players numbers from this list to Ortiz for what to expect, it would be Thomas. He collapsed and retired the following season at age 40.
Andres Galarraga did what he normally does; he just did it without cracking 30 home runs and saw a decline in runs scored. He went on to play four more years, but this was his last hurrah as a fantasy relevant player.
Eddie Murray had a career year with his batting average at age 39 and a solid overall season considering he only played in 113 games. He declined the following year and retired one year later in 97.
Harold Baines had a typical (although injury shortened) season at age 39. He stayed a productive hitter though age 40, it was his final 2 years at age 41 and 42 that were his downfall.
Fred McGriff was injured for half of his age 39 season, but extrapolating his numbers over a full season and we see a drop in average, run production and power. He attempted to play at age 40 but should have just retired, which he did after 2004 season.
There are several things we can take away by looking at the above players and applying them to Ortiz. First off the days of Ortiz scoring 80 plus runs are a thing of the past. In 2014 Ortiz scored 59 runs. Other than the iron man year Steve Finley had, the highest run total for any of these players was 68 so I would say that is his ceiling. Finley also set the bar on home runs, the next highest total was Galarraga with 28. Jim Thome could have passed the 30 home run mark had he been healthy so there is a chance for Ortiz, but more than likely we’re looking at 25 and hoping for the best.
The batting average is the biggest concern here as Ortiz seems to have gone back to his old ways. It is possible that he improves upon the .263 he posted in 2014, but it is unrealistic to believe he will hit .300 again. I’m not saying it is impossible for Ortiz to hit close to .300, I’m just saying history is not on his side. If he can hit at least 25 home runs then 80 or more RBIs could be had. Ortiz has topped 100 in 8 seasons and finished with lower than 89 just once since 2003.
This should be the last year that Ortiz has any value in fantasy baseball, but for 2015 he won’t be for everyone. He played just 5 games at first base so unless you play on Yahoo or your league eligibility requirements are low, he will only qualify at DH. If you have 2 utility slots then he’s worth a gamble, but with only one I might be a little hesitant only because I hate to tie up that position with a player that does not qualify anywhere else..
As for the numbers, we’re looking at 60-65 runs, 25 home runs, 80 RBIs and an average around .265. Streamer is calling for similar power but more runs (84), RBIs (91) and a better average (.277). Those are pretty good numbers for an old guy, and not bad for a utility player either. Our early first base rankings which were done in October has Ortiz ranked #11 for first basemen (we still ranked him for 1st even though he doesn’t qualify in most leagues). He received rankings as high as 10 and no lower than 15 so the expert panel agrees.
David Ortiz should not be ignored come draft day despite his age. Looking at the above list of players though, it is safe to assume that this is the Last year that Big Papi will be of any fantasy significance. Personally, I know I am not brave enough to draft the 39-year-old even with a favorable outlook and nobody will fault you if you avoid him as well. To those brave souls who do draft Oritz, enjoy the memories of his last hurrah as a worthy fantasy player.