David Ortiz

The Slow, Gentle Decline of David Ortiz

There is no bigger figure in the Red Sox organization than David Ortiz.

The veteran slugger has done everything but literally move mountains during his 13 years with the Red Sox, and an extended highlight reel of the biggest moments in franchise history would borrow heavily from Ortiz’s catalog of late-game heroics.

Ortiz has aged gracefully over the past few years, allowing him to not only pad his career home run total (which currently sits at 470), but also enabling him to further his legend in Boston. After he reached the 30 home-run plateau in back-to-back seasons in 2013 and 2014, one could be forgiven for believing that Ortiz would simply go on belting long balls forever. Admittedly, nothing feels so lasting and permanent as Ortiz blasting a ball high and deep into the night sky at Fenway.

Nevertheless, Ortiz is now 39 years old, an age when many ballplayers have long since faded into obscurity. And his slow start to this season is an unfortunate reminder that we can’t expect Ortiz to maintain his remarkable track record of production for much longer.

Not that Ortiz has been a disaster by any means at the plate in 2015. Through Wednesday’s contest, he is batting .242/.333/.421 with four home runs and a 104 wRC+. Those numbers are slightly better than what your average hitter will produce, yet they certainly aren’t on par with what we’ve come to expect out of Ortiz.

His slow start to this season is an unfortunate reminder that we can’t expect Ortiz to maintain his remarkable track record of production for much longer.

Most notably, Big Papi’s power has been missing, with his .421 slugging percentage and .179 ISO far below his numbers from a year ago. As our own Matt Collins noted at Over the Monster on Wednesday, Ortiz isn’t punishing fastballs quite like he has in the past, which is probably the primary factor for his power struggles so far.

Still, there remain plenty of reasons to believe that Ortiz will begin producing again soon. That .257 BABIP is well below his career average, and he has been hitting the ball hard consistently as the exit velocity data on Baseball Savant demonstrates. Coming into Wednesday, Ortiz ranked 20th in all of baseball in average exit velocity off the bat (min. 40 plate appearances). Interestingly enough, both Mookie Betts and Mike Napoli (who have also been the recipients of bad luck on balls in play) rank just ahead of him on the list.

Beyond all this, Ortiz’s decade-plus track record of mashing should prevent us from panicking less than six weeks into the season. Back in 2008 and 2009, when Ortiz was going through far worse slumps at the plate, just about everyone assumed he was done. His resurgence in the years since should serve as a strong reminder not to write him off just yet. The Red Sox’s struggles on offense are due in large part to their designated hitter’s underperformance, and depending on Ortiz has long been about as good a bet as one can make.

Yet Ortiz’s numbers have begun to deteriorate in the past few seasons, a reality that becomes apparent in the table below:

2012 .415 14.6% 13.3% .293 170
2013 .395 12.7% 14.7% .255 152
2014 .355 12.5% 15.8% .255 135
2015 .333 12.6% 17.8% .179 104

There is clear decline here, and while Ortiz remains an above-average hitter, his production has dipped more than his normal counting stats might have you believe.

Of course, given his age, a decline in Ortiz’s performance shouldn’t be unexpected. Moreover, there is nothing extreme in any of his current numbers that indicates his production is suddenly going to fall off a cliff. Ortiz isn’t striking out at an excessive level, nor has his ability to take a walk disappeared.

The Red Sox, for their part, took a big step in adding certainty to the club’s offensive future this past offseason when they signed Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to long-term deals. Sure, those signings were made with the 2015 campaign very much in mind, but Ramirez and Sandoval will also serve as two bats Boston can depend on beyond this season.

You can be certain that Ben Cherington and the Red Sox front office are well aware that a future without Ortiz will come sooner rather than later. Ramirez and Sandoval, then, provide an added layer of security if Ortiz’s decline comes faster than expected. It’s not hard envisioning either of those two slotting into the DH spot at some point in the years ahead.

None of this is to say that Ortiz’s days as a power threat in the middle of Boston’s lineup are over. He has defied the effects of aging pretty well over the years, and it’ll just take a few vintage home runs for his early-season scuffles to soon be forgotten. Writing off Ortiz at this juncture would be short-sighted, to say the least.

But the day where the Red Sox lineup no longer features David Ortiz is approaching, and probably faster than we all want to admit. That shouldn’t necessarily change our views of Boston’s 2015 chances, even if a future without Big Papi is unpleasant to imagine.

For now, let’s savor every last moment and count our blessings when Ortiz inevitably heats up again for the Red Sox.

Photo by Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports Images

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3 comments on “The Slow, Gentle Decline of David Ortiz”


His career is based on steroids……and lying about it!

Ben Carsley

I think this is the first purely troll comment on BP Boston. Congrats!

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