How great is David Ortiz?

Brief introduction: Hey there, I’m Walter Kosumak. I’m the pen name behind the NotWallyGM parody account on Twitter, and Ian has graciously given me the keys to write about the Boston Red Sox for SOX & Dawgs.

I’ll begin my first post with a grand statement: the best Red Sox hitters ever are Ted Williams, Carl Yaztrzemski, and David Ortiz.

Does that sound odd to you? Because it makes sense to me. When Ortiz said, before spring training, that he wanted a new contract, it launched a new round of “When will this guy get old?” conversations. That’s a shame. Instead of dwelling over his age, we should be reveling in witnessing the greatness of David Ortiz every time he steps to the plate.

Before defending the place I’ve given Ortiz among other Red Sox hitters, I’ll compare Ortiz’s recent performances to what we saw of him earlier in his career to see how he’s extended his career as a potent force at the plate. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and Ortiz has been so successful with these adjustments that you could say he doesn’t age – he merely adjusts.

Here’s a broad view of Ortiz’s stats from 2003 – 2010 and 2011 – 2013:

2003-10 .286 .386 .958 36
2011-13 .311 .401 .972 27

We can see a couple things going on here: Ortiz’s power has decreased with age, but his abilities to make contact with the ball and get on base have increased. It’s worth noting that Ortiz’s power decrease runs concurrent with a decline in home runs throughout baseball. In 2004, 5,451 home runs were hit; but we saw only 4,934 home runs in 2012. Maybe Ortiz’s power decrease isn’t age related, but this home run decline in all of baseball has, ironically, made Ortiz more valuable as he ages since players who can hit 25-35 HR are no longer a dime a dozen.

What abilities has Ortiz developed to beat age to remain one of baseball’s elite hitter? He’s added three elements to his game: hitting to all fields, better clutch hitting, and a newfound ability to get hits off left handed pitchers. These adjustments can be observed in some of Ortiz’s stat splits from 2008 – 2013.

First, here’s Ortiz’s ability to hit to all fields display in his batting average for balls hit up the middle and to the opposite field:

Up the Middle Opposite Field
2008 .299 .268
2009 .301 .356
2010 .398 .355
2011 .369 .405
2012 .390 .438
2013 .384 .379

Many managers still opt to place a defensive shift on Ortiz. This strategy that worked against Ortiz earlier in his career, as evidenced by his .268 average for opposite field balls in 2008. But since 2009, Ortiz’s average for balls he hits to the opposite field hasn’t dipped under .350. The younger Ortiz was more of a one-dimensional power hitter, but as Ortiz has aged, he’s become a superior contact hitter who not only sprays the ball to all fields, but does this while being one of the biggest power hitting threats in MLB.

This has helped Ortiz get more clutch hits. The notion that Ortiz has become better in the clutch seems unthinkable because he’s thought of as being Mr. Walk Off Homer, but check out these stat splits for his batting average with runners on second and third, and with the bases loaded.

Second & Third Bases Loaded
2008 .100 .400
2009 .083 .353
2010 .300 .267
2011 .263 .333
2012 .250 .500
2013 .455 .455

Ortiz having a high batting average with the bases loaded is understandable because pitchers can’t pitch around him when first base isn’t open, but hitting with runners on second and third must be a batter’s toughest job – especially when that batter has the power threat that Ortiz possess. Pitchers won’t want to throw Ortiz anything close to the strike zone, yet Ortiz has figured out ways to get hits in this situation. I triple-checked his .455 average in 2013 with runners on second and third and it’s not a joke. Ortiz has adjusted to find ways to be a better clutch hitter.

And Ortiz has accomplished this while hitting against all pitchers. Ortiz has always mashed right handed pitchers while having trouble against left handed pitchers, but look at these splits for his batting average against southpaws:

vs. LHP
2008 .221
2009 .212
2010 .222
2011 .329
2012 .320
2013 .260

Judging from Ortiz’s dip to .260 off LHP in 2013, perhaps pitchers have finally started adjusting to this new facet of his game. But .260 is around 45 points better than the averages vs. LHP he put up in 2008 – 2010.

Through these adjustments, Ortiz is becoming the definition of the cliche “40 is the new 30.” This is a player who should be in the twilight of his career and regressing, not progressing. And by figuring out ways to prolong his career, Ortiz is climbing the ranks of the Red Sox record book:

  • For On-Base Percentage, of all Red Sox hitters with over 5000 ABs and 1500 games, Ortiz is third all-time with .390; behind Ted Williams (.482, best all time in MLB) and Wade Boggs (.428).
  • For On-Base Plus Slugging, of all Red Sox hitters with over 1500 games, Ortiz is second (.962) behind Williams (1.116).
  • For Home Runs, Ortiz is currently fifth with 373 in a Red Sox uniform. Jim Rice is third with 382, and Dwight Evans is fourth at 379 – so Ortiz will likely by in third by the middle of May.
  • For RBIs, Ortiz is sixth with 1191 – but he has played only 1514 games as a member of the Red Sox. Everyone ahead of Ortiz has played over 1800 games for the team.

Those are the numbers that Ortiz has put up just with the Red Sox. For his career, Ortiz has 431 home runs and 1429 RBIs, with a .287 BA and .381 OBP. If Ortiz gets up to 1600-1700 RBIs, he’s in Cal Ripken, Frank Thomas and Ernie Banks territory. And if he has those RBIs while becoming a member of the 500 HR Club, then how can he not get into Cooperstown?

How feasible is it for David Ortiz to attain 500+ HR and 1600+ RBIs before the end of his career? Pretty damn feasible. Consider this: Jason Giambi was 43 in 2013 and he still found a job in baseball. Giambi was once a left handed power threat, but he hasn’t had a season with over 450 AB since 2008.

If Giambi can find a job as a pinch hitter at 43 (and it looks like Giambi will still be in MLB at 44), then it’s not difficult to imagine David Ortiz having playing options available to him over the next few seasons if he doesn’t choose to retire. So it’s likely that Ortiz will reach 500+ HR and 1600+ RBI.

Ortiz might have 500 HR right now if the Twins realized his potential and knew how to develop him as a player before giving up and releasing him.

Everything I’ve gone through doesn’t even take Ortiz’s postseason performances into account. I think we all remember those extra inning game winning hits in games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS, as well as his career .455 BA and .576 OBP in the World Series. Ortiz has 14 World Series RBIs, too – averaging 1 RBI per World Series game he’s played in. That’s not too shabby.

Not only has Ortiz been great, but we’re still witnessing his greatness. I could have lead off this piece with where Ortiz stands all time among Red Sox hitters, but then people would say “Yeah, that’s great, but he’s getting old.” By detailing how Ortiz has adjusted along with where he ranks all time among Red Sox hitters, it becomes clear that he doesn’t just have a few years of baseball left in him, but he will be talked about for generations after he retires. Our grandparents had Ted Williams, our parents had Carl Yaztrzemski, and we have David Ortiz.

Perhaps I’m biased, but as far as I’m concerned all of this should be enough to convince even the most grumpy Red Sox fan that the club extending Ortiz’s contract is worth it. For anyone who’s still not convinced, consider that another one of MLB’s premier hitters who hits for contact and has power just signed a 10 year, $292 contract extension. David Ortiz isn’t Miguel Cabrera, but with Ortiz making a guaranteed $31 million over the next two seasons to produce at a level a couple grades below what Cabrera brings to Detroit, it can be argued that Ortiz gave the Red Sox the biggest hometown discount in the history of baseball.