Big Papi still has pop at nearly 40 years old

At the end of May, David Ortiz was posting a .309 OBP with just six home runs. The idea of Big Papi joining the 500 home run club this season was a pipe dream. Around that time, we heard an idea that had circulated many times in seasons past: Ortiz was done, kaput, finished. He was too old, his bat was too slow, and this time – really – he’d fallen off the cliff. There were articles about what was wrong with him, and for good reason.

Then Ortiz fixed those problems. From June 1st until today, he has put up a .389 OBP with 28 homers, good for a wRC+ of 172 (meaning he’s been 72% better than the average offensive player in the league). He’s put up an uncannily similar batting line to the one he posted last year. Take a look:

Season Games HR RBI BB% K% wRC+ WAR
2014 142 35 104 12.5% 15.8% 134 2.3
2015 130 34 95 12.4% 16.0% 139 2.6

2015 Ortiz is 2014 Ortiz in terms of performance (he’s pretty much 2013 Ortiz too, for that matter). The walk and strikeout rates are especially remarkable in their consistency. So how did he get here? We’ve heard about Big Papi having issues in the early stages of the season before; what did he fix this time around to be able to reach the 500 home run milestone during 2015?

First, let’s go over what was wrong. Matthew Kory explained the issues with Ortiz’ approach in an early-June article: Ortiz was hitting too many ground balls, and both his average grounder and fly ball was more weakly-hit than his career-norm. That’s an issue when you’re a slow power hitter who is shifted by defenses at one of the highest rates in the major leagues, because those weak grounders almost always turn into outs.

Ortiz also faced a disproportionate share of left-handed pitchers in the first two months of the season. His career splits for lefties vs. righties are pretty stark (he owns a career 110 wRC+ vs. lefties and a 159 career wRC+ vs. righties), so it’s understandable that he couldn’t find his usual level of production out of the gate. Hitting a lot of weak grounders and facing a ton of lefties when you’re a left-handed hitter is a recipe for a slump.

Then the end of May rolled around. Ortiz sat on the bench for two days, studying tape of himself and most likely hoping that a mental break might turn things around. It worked: the time off marked the turning point of his season. Quite simply, Ortiz started hitting more fly balls after his short break, and he started hitting everything harder. Take a look at his batted-ball statistics before June 1st vs. afterward:

  Line Drive% Ground Ball% Fly Ball% HRs Per Fly Ball Hard-Hit%
Before June 1 21.8% 43.0% 35.2% 12.0% 33.1%
After June 1 21.9% 33.9% 44.2% 25.2% 46.6%

Unsurprisingly, his power jumped along with the surge in hard-hit fly balls. He started hitting pitches in more parts of the zone for power too, rather than just punishing inside pitches. Here’s a plot of his power hot zones from before his break in late May vs. after (from the catcher’s perspective, courtesy of Brooks Baseball):

Ortiz_ISO_2015

Especially notice the change in power output for the lower part of the strike zone in the post-June 1st chart; Ortiz started elevating pitches instead of hitting grounders in the lower and middle parts of the strike zone, enabling the power binge. By facing a more even share of right-handed pitchers and hitting more fly balls harder while extending plate coverage, we now see the Big Papi we’re used to.

Now that we know his adjustments, let’s focus on the historical perspective of Ortiz’ 2015 season. We know that hitting 500 home runs in a career is rare; what’s even less common is how productive Big Papi has managed to stay as he has aged. Given the great power output Ortiz has accounted for this season, I wondered: where does he rank in the best offensive seasons for players his age and older? To answer that, here are the 10 best offensive seasons since 1918 by wRC+ for players at least 39-years-old:

Best_wRC+_39_Up

Barry Bonds is in a class by himself on this particular list. Then we have names like Ted Williams in 1958. Willie Mays in both 1970 and ’71. Edgar Martinez, Rickey Henderson, Ty Cobb. Almost all of them are Hall of Famers, and deservedly so. Then we have David Ortiz right in the thick of it.

Sometimes we forget what consistency looks like, and we get used to a player putting up the same numbers year after year. We get accustomed to excellence, and when it evaporates quickly in a player’s mid-30s, we move on to somebody else who is younger and still excellent. Very rarely do we see a player who does this in his age-39 season. Ortiz has marched past the age at which he should have seriously declined, and he’s still here, merrily bashing 35 homers a year with a high walk and low strikeout rate. This is a good reminder that this sort of production at 39 is a very rare occurrence.

It’s also a major part of what makes Ortiz such a unique story. Yes, he’s had countless clutch postseason home runs, memorable speeches, and moments of clubhouse goofiness, but the fact is that Ortiz was a late bloomer. The Minnesota Twins famously wanted him to spray the ball around the field, and so he didn’t hit 20 home runs in a season until 2002, when he was 26 years old. To reach the 500 home run mark, he had to make up for a lot of lost time while continuing to stay productive and healthy until he was 40; not many players can do that, and the ones who have – as we can see above – are considered some of the greatest hitters who have ever lived.

We could debate the merits of Ortiz’s inclusion or exclusion into Cooperstown for months, and there will be a time when that happens. Based on the historical company he’s currently in, as well as the fact that he’ll play at least another season, the odds are good that he’ll be a strong candidate. Regardless of whether he gets inducted, we should stop to think about the nature of this particular achievement; not only that he’s hit 500 home runs, but that he’s taken a longer and more difficult road than most of the other members in the club. In an age of wunderkinds, Ortiz is still showing that he’s an offensive force at almost 40 — and we shouldn’t expect him to go away quietly anytime soon.