'David Ortiz' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/After David Ortiz reluctantly agreed to a one year deal worth $14.575M last February, he made it known that he felt “disrespected” by management considering his performance during his tenure in Boston.  His disappointment was certainly understandable.  He carried the 2004 team on his back to their first World Series championship since 1918, and he’d been the club’s cornerstone lineup threat over the previous nine seasons.  To him, he was simply asking for a leap of faith in trusting his abilities to remain productive despite his age and skill set.  It was a reasonable proposition to most, except perhaps the extraordinarily rational, data driven Red Sox front office.

Determined to prove management wrong, Ortiz put on a fantastic show of offensive production in 2012.  Prior to an Achilles tendon injury that truncated his season at 90 games, he hit for a .318/.415/.611 slash line with 23 home runs and 26 doubles.  Considering he was in his age-36 season and being saddled with so-called “old man skills,” his ability to buck the prototypical aging curve was nothing short of astonishing.

Looking forward to the offseason, Ortiz is already starting to think about his next contract.  According to an interview with the Boston Herald’s John Tomase, Big Papi is looking for a contract in the range of two years and $25-30M.  Truth be told, Ortiz’s deal will likely be on the high end of that range considering his 2012 salary and recent performance.  Still, he could give a hometown discount to the Red Sox in hopes of enticing them to take a gamble on a multi-year deal.  Either way, it’ll be very interesting to see how this whole scenario plays out if he hits the free agent market as teams like the Orioles, Yankees, Rays, and Athletics could all be in the market for a DH this winter.

While signing Ortiz, given his many contributions to the Red Sox over the years, seems like a no-brainer on many levels, it’s not that simple.  As I mentioned earlier, Ortiz is 36 years old, and has a skill set that hasn’t historically lended itself to late career production at the plate.  In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that Ortiz struggled to hit lefties so mightily that several people suggested that it might be a good idea to platoon him.  I was one of them.  In my first article for Fire Brand (back in February 2011), here is what I had to say about Ortiz:

“To me, it’s a cut and dry case. Ortiz should be benched against lefties. If this was based on a single year’s sample, I could toss the numbers out as a possible aberration, but it’s not. This is three years worth of data showing that not only does Ortiz struggles against lefties, but he’s actually getting worse. And not just a little worse, but a lot worse. While I understand that Terry Francona feels uncomfortable with telling Ortiz that he’s being relegated to a platoon situation, it’s his job to make those uncomfortable decisions. Honestly, if we were talking about any other player (for example, J.D. Drew), we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

Based on the data against lefties, my assessment was extraordinarily fair.  He’d been a below average run creator against LHP for three seasons since 2008 to 2010, hitting for wOBAs of .321, .310, and .268 respectively.  Given how his O-swing, O-contact, and strikeout-to-walk ratios were rapidly heading in the wrong direction, it was extremely difficult to imagine Ortiz making an appropriate adjustment given his age and declining bat speed.

What does Ortiz do right out of the gate in April 2011?  He starts mashing lefties like crazy; thereby making me look like a giant dumbass.  Of course, I was happy to be wrong.  Still, no one likes to say “This guy can’t hit lefties and should be platooned,” in Spring Training, and then watch him throw up .428 and .413 wOBAs against LHP in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Ortiz’s unbelievable and improbable rebirth, though extraordinary, has created a logistical nightmare for Ben Cherington and his front office.  Players like Ortiz are supposed to fall off of a cliff around age-32 (or earlier), and never return to form.  His ability to buck traditional performance trends and projections has been the Red Sox’s primary reasoning behind going year-to-year with the slugger.  The question in everyone’s mind is “How much longer can he do it?”  Based on last year’s performance alone, one would guess he has a few productive years remaining.  Based on historical trends, one could make a case that 2013 could be the year it really all comes crashing down.

To try to get an idea of how Ortiz might perform in his age-37 season, I’ve decided to take a look at a few of his most similar players–as determined by Baseball Reference’s similarity score.  I’ll primarily look at each player and their performance in their age-37, but I’ll provide the necessary context to performance trends as necessary.

1.  Lance Berkman – Like Ortiz, 2012 was Berkman’s age-36 season.  Coming off of a tremendous 2011, no one was quite sure what to expect.  Regression?  Sure, but it was tough to say home much.  Berkman had been one of the game’s most productive hitters before he bottomed out in 2010.  His 2011 rebound complicated things; thus making his 2012 season important to re-establishing his true performance baseline.  Unfortunately, injuries destroyed his season before it had really gotten started, so it’s tough to get a good graps of where his true talent level currently lies.  As for his age-37 season, if he plays, it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

2.  Carlos Delgado – Like Berkman, Delgado’s age-35 seaons was a collosal disappointment.  Nagging injuries, a sizeable decline in power, and trouble hitting LHPs all played a role.  While Delgado wasn’t the same hitter as he had been during his prime (1998-2005), a 128 OPS+ with plenty of power in his age-36 season was nothing at which to sneeze.  Coming off of a strong rebound season, much was expected out of the slugging first baseman.  He started out his age-37 season solidly (142 OPS+ in 112 plate appearances) before succumbing to injuries that caused him to miss the remainder of the season.  After the Mets declined to re-sign him, he wandered the free agent market without finding any suitors.  That is until the Red Sox stepped in with a minor league deal in August 2010.  It turned out to be ill-fated as he hit poorly in a handful of AAA games.  He never played another major league game again.

3.  Jason Giambi – In his prime, Giambi was one of the game’s best hitters.  Once his prime ended though, that distinction went away.  He was still productive, but it was clear that he’d entered his decline phase.  In his age-36 season, he put together a very solid season at the plate that was punctated by his ability to mash home runs (37) and draw walks (110).  His age-37 season would be very different as injuries and poor production plagued his ability to hit.  Are you noticing a pattern yet?  He would bounce back admirably in his age-38 season, but it was obvious to everyone that Giambi was a high-risk/high-reward player at this point.  He played one more season as a starting player, but that was ill-fated.  He has spent the last three seasons as a back-up/pinch hitter in Colorado.

4.  Jim Edmonds – I’m not convinced this is a great comp for Ortiz.  Offensively, sure.  But in terms of everything else, Edmonds was a far superior athlete who played a demanding defensive position and displayed average base running skills.  Regardless, Edmonds was a superstar at the plate producing a 157 OPS+ between 2000 and 2004.  His 2005 season (age-35), while solid overall, showed a noticeable dip in production.  By his age-36 season, he was completely finished as an elite hitter.  He hung on for a few more seasons as a productive league average hitter, but he never came close to attaining his previous elite status. 

5.  Paul Konerko – Konerko has had a strange career.  He seemed to peak in his age-29 and age-30 seasons before stumbling into the Adam LaRoche territory of mediocrity.  Something strange happened in his age-34 season.  Just when he should have been tailing off into a career as a bench player, Konerko woke up and reeled off three seasons with 160, 141, and 128 OPS+ respectively.  Clearly, a performance decline is evident.  As such, we should probably expect to see a proportional decline in his upcoming age-37 season.  It’s no guarantee though as Konerko has followed a similar path as Ortiz, but to a lesser degree.

6.  Johnny Mize – Mize was an absolute beast at the plate, and it’s a shame that he’s so underappreciated.  In his age-34 and 35 seasons seasons, he hit 51 and 40 home runs for the New York Giants, respectively.  His career OPS+ up to that point?  An outstanding 168.  Still, like so many great power hitters of his ilk, his superhuman power took a nose dive in his age-36 season.  After that season, Mize mostly served as a platoon first baseman or a pinch hitter for some very good Yankee teams.  His OPS+ from age-36 to age-40?  115.  Still good, but hardly elite.

7.  Juan Gonzalez – Talk about falling off of a cliff…  Yes, Gonzalez won two MVP awards, neither of which he really deserved.  Yes, he played most of his career in Texas under the cloud of PEDs.  Still, the man could mash like no one’s business.  Through his age-29 season, he was a prolific power hitter blasting 340 home runs.  He took a massive step back in his age-30 season, his only in Detroit, but much of that was due to the expansive dimensions of Comerica National Park at the time.  He bounced back with a tremendous season at the plate the next season in Cleveland, but he’d never reach those heights again.  Injuries and a rapidly declining skill set rendered him essentially useless for baseball purposes.  He only played 186 games of baseball for the rest of his career before leaving baseball for good.

8.  Derrek Lee – I’m not a huge fan of this comp, mostly because Lee’s career yo-yoed quite a bit after he hurt his wrist in 2006.  Still, it works fairly well.  During his age-33 season, Lee smacked 35 home runs and produced a 146 OPS+.  That would be his last great season as his production plummeted significantly.  After two seasons of bouncing around from team-to-team, the major leagues decided they didn’t have room for a right-handed first baseman with a rapidly declining skill set.  He was done by age-35.

9.  Gil Hodges – While it might be easy to claim that Hodges, like his teammate Duke Snider, was adversely affected by the move from Ebbett’s Field in Brooklyn to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, that’s simply not the case.  Whereas Snider was a left-handed, hitting in a park that was murder on left-handed power hitters; Hodges was right-handed and had the luxury of hitting toward a left-field space that would make Fenway’s left field seem expansive.  With Hodges, it was all age-related.  He managed to hit pretty well in his age-34 and 35 seasons, but he rapidly became less effective starting in his age-36 season.  He hung on for four more seasons, but only as a bench player.  He was a shell of his former self at the plate producing an 84 OPS+. 

10.  Albert Belle – Here’s an interesting case, although it won’t help us much.  Belle’s career as a major league player was essentially done after his age-33 season.  A degenerative hip condition forced that issue.  Technically though, he hung on for three more seasons in terms of his contract.  Truth be told, Belle had already shown signs of decline.  In his age-33 season, he produced his worst offensive season at the plate.  Lows in home runs, slugging percentage, WAR, etc.  We’ll never know if he would have bounced back the next season, presuming optimum health, but it’s pretty likely his days as an elite hitter were over.

After reviewing Ortiz’s top 10 most similar comps, you can start to see why the Red Sox front office has had some much trouble with the idea of committing to him beyond one year.  It’s an incredibly risky proposition in general, but it’s much more so for a player with a skill set known for rapid, unexpected decline.  Furthermore, injuries and yes, platoon splits will likely play a larger role as time goes on.  Ortiz is already a designated hitter, which means he has negative defensive value.  (And it’s even worse when he plays first base.)  His base running skills also leave little to be desired.  His entire value stems from his ability to hit.  When that goes, the carnage will be ugly.

I don’t really see any way for the Red Sox to retain Ortiz without offering a multi-year deal.  Quite honestly, the best option might be to entice Ortiz into signing a two-year deal at the low end of the spectrum ($25M) by dangling a third year mutual option.  Regardless of whether or not Ortiz deserves a multi-year deal, the odds are solid he’ll end up declining over the life of it.