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I fully understand the reasoning behind the Boston Red Sox extending David Ortiz, and him bringing the subject up in interviews. For the Red Sox, Big Papi has been a rockstar for the franchise both on and off the field, delivering three parades down the Charles and assuming a huge (omni)presence in the Boston community. For Ortiz, he has the security of an extra year of multimillion dollar earnings and doesn’t have to answer constant questions about his impending free agency from the relentless Boston media. Heck, Carlos Beltran just signed with the New York Yankees for three years, $45 million! So what’s one more year for the face of the franchise?
The Red Sox fan in me says another year is nothing (besides the millions of dollars, obviously). But when, after serious effort, I step back, separate myself from the emotional attachment to a Boston sports demigod, and survey the situation from as objective a perspective I can achieve, why should the Red Sox re-up with Ortiz a year before his age 39 season?
It’s no secret that Ortiz is at (or at least near) the top of his game, even at 37 years old. He just finished 2013 with a slash line of .309/.395/.564, capped off with a sensational World Series in which Ortiz recorded a measly five outs in six games. But he hasn’t even gone through his age 38 season, so is it realistic to expect this kind of production at age 39? According to MLB history (using OPS as the measuring stat and limiting our results to the expansion era of 1961-present), survey says no:
As you can see, only Barry Bonds in his ridiculous ‘roid rage of ’04 outperformed ’13 Ortiz based on OBP, SLG, and OPS. A mere 12 players have ever posted an OPS above .800 in his age 39 season. Six of them are Hall of Famers, one would be the best player ever if not for PEDs, and another (Chipper Jones) will be in Cooperstown once eligible. Not to be accusatory, but the remainder took place in the past fifteen years, during the height of the Steroid Era. By expanding the list to MLB hitters 37 and up, Ortiz is one of 69 hitters since 1961 to crack an .800 OPS, falling just ahead of Tony Gwynn (also a Hall of Famer) for 9th on that list. (For the record, though not surprisingly, Bonds ’02-’04 fills spots 1, 2, and 3.) If only so many Hall of Famers were able to perform at this high a level at age 39 (even after age 37), why should the Red Sox pay Ortiz an entire year in advance for such unlikely production?
Of course, just because such productivity at the plate has been rare for most 39 year olds doesn’t mean Ortiz is resigned to the same fate. Every player is different, and Ortiz’s own designated history over the past ten years is clearly more relevant than what Willie Mays did in 1970.
Boston fans can’t forget the two years when it seemed like Ortiz had abruptly reached the end of his career, batting .264 and then .238 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. 2009 in particular was an abysmal start, when he hit .206 with 30 strikeouts and z-e-r-o home runs in his first 34 games. Having dropped off in production so steeply once already, who’s to say it won’t happen again, especially as he gets even older (rumor has it that’s how time works) and his bat speed inevitably slows?
Then there’s his recent injury history. He’s just one season removed from only playing in 90 games — albeit 90 All-Star berth worthy games at 23 HRs, 60 RBIs, .318/.415/.611 — after injuring his Achilles tendon and sitting out the second half of 2012. He recovered to play in 137 games last year and finish tenth in the MVP voting, but did sit out until mid-April after suffering a setback during the offseason. Who knows when his body might break down again at this late stage in his career?
Listen, I’ll be the first one to pump my fist and watch YouTube clips of Ortiz in celebration if general manager Ben Cherington decides to give Ortiz an extension based on his unbelievably productive 2013 season and his lifetime achievements in Boston as an anchor in the lineup, the heart and soul of the clubhouse, and the face of the franchise. I’ll hardly even blink, mostly because I would hate to miss him launching another homer over the bullpen in right-center.
But considering the history of 39-year-olds producing at a high-level, there’s no rationale based on Ortiz’s expected performance in 2015 that would make the Red Sox sign him to an additional year, especially because he’s still signed for the upcoming year. Why wouldn’t the Red Sox take a wait-and-see approach and factor in Ortiz’s 2014 health and performance when considering an extension? If he’s still incredibly productive, you’re telling me Ortiz — one of the few remaining full-time DHs in a league increasingly opposed to the notion, mind you — would be more valuable to some other franchise? That the Red Sox would let one of the most popular figures in Boston sports history walk away? I don’t think so.
Even if the Yankees are willing to pay Carlos Beltran $15 million when he’s 39 and kneeless.