Monday, February 17, 2014

Big Papi: Big Legend

The best Red Sox hitters ever: Ted Williams, Carl Yaztrzemski, and David Ortiz.

Does that sound odd to you? Because it makes sense to me. It's a shame that, whenever we discuss David Ortiz, conversation centers around one question: "When is he going to get old?" 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 getting into where Ortiz ranks all time among Red Sox hitters to show his greatness, let's 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 - essentially, what Ortiz has done to keep himself great.

Baseball is a game of adjustments; David Ortiz knows this, and he's adjusted his approach at the plate as he's aged. Ortiz has been so successful that one might say he doesn't age - he merely adjusts. Perhaps, judging from the pessimism regarding conversations about Ortiz, it shouldn't be surprising that fans haven't gotten used to Ortiz's adjustments. To our credit, pitchers certainly haven't gotten used to Ortiz's adjustments either.

To get an broad view of how Ortiz has adjusted, let's look at a 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. So maybe Ortiz's power decrease isn't age related. Ironically, this home run decline in all of baseball has made Ortiz more valuable since players who can hit 25-35 HR are no longer a dime a dozen.

How has Ortiz beaten age to remain one one 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

Ortiz had a .438 batting average on balls he hit to the opposite field in 2012 - are you fucking kidding me? This is the same hitter that world-renowned fucking super genius putzbag Joe Maddon still puts a fielding shift on? The same hitter that everyone thinks can only pull the ball and hit homers or ground outs? Think again. Younger David Ortiz was more of a one-dimensional power hitter, but he's adjusted to become the better all-around hitter we've seen for the past few seasons.

And Ortiz has been able to get more clutch hits. Here are 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

I can see Ortiz having a high batting average with the bases loaded 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 you have 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 - it's no joke. Ortiz was that good in the clutch.

Finally, Ortiz has accomplished this hitting against all pitchers. Look at these splits for his batting average against left handed pitching:

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 around 45 points better than the averages vs. LHP he put up in 2008 - 2010.

Through these adjustments, Ortiz has stayed ahead of his age. This is a player who should be in the twilight of his career and should be regressing, not progressing. And by prolonging 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, then David Ortiz will have playing options available to him over the next few seasons if he doesn't choose to retire. So he will reach 500+ HR and 1600+ RBI.

If the Minnesota Twins knew how special David Ortiz was before they released him, we could only imagine what kind of stats he would have amassed by now...

All of these doesn't even take Ortiz's postseason performances into account. But 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.

Not only has Ortiz been great, but we're still witnessing his greatness. I could have lead off this post with with 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, I hope we can understand 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.

David Ortiz is a once in a lifetime hitter for Boston. Decades from now, when you're pushing 80 or 90 and have great-grandchildren, if you're lucky enough to take them to Fenway (and of course Fenway will still be there), you will tell them, "I saw David Ortiz play here." Why? Because they will ask, just like we grew up asking about Ted Williams. David Ortiz is that kind of hitter. His legend will live on after he's gone, and we should really appreciate every time he steps to the plate. So consider that, and the adjustments he's made, the next time you wonder if giving Ortiz another contract is worth it.

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