Commentary

David Ortiz having season for ages

With his best production in years, Big Papi shows no signs of slowing down

Updated: June 29, 2012, 1:29 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Soon enough, David Ortiz will hit his 400th career home run.

After taking Toronto's Jesse Chavez deep Wednesday, he's just one home run shy of becoming the 49th member of the 400 club. Only five players have hit that milestone while in a Red Sox uniform: Manny Ramirez, Andre Dawson, Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx.

It's a significant number for a player whose career seemed to be on the downswing when he hit his 300th. Ortiz finished 2009 with a .238 batting average. A platoon appeared to be in his near future because of a .212 average against left-handers.

At that point, it seemed his quest for 400 would mirror the chases of the likes of Duke Snider (who hit 23 home runs in his final three seasons combined) and Al Kaline (who fell a home run short).

Instead, Ortiz has reworked his approach against southpaws, resulting in more success than ever. At 36, he's having his best season since 2007. Rather than celebrate his career at 400, it's far more intriguing to consider whether 500 could be within Ortiz's grasp. Only 25 players have reached that total.

Does Ortiz have another 100 home runs in him?

With the season not quite at its midpoint, perhaps it's a bit early to project numbers over a full 162 games. However, Ortiz's pace makes it too tempting to resist.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz launched his 21st home run of the season and 399th of his career Wednesday.

Through Boston's first 75 games, Ortiz is on pace for 45 home runs, 114 RBIs and a .309 batting average. Those numbers, at his age, would put him in rare company.

Only three players have reached all three of those figures in a season after turning 36: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

Ruth is the only American League player with at least 40 home runs and a .300 batting average after age 36, having done so in 1931 and 1932. In the National League, Bonds and Ruth are joined by Andres Galarraga.

Unlike those who stumbled into 400, those names provide Ortiz with a blueprint for continued production as age 40 approaches. Galarraga, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds are four of the 13 players to hit 100 homers after their age 36 season.

Ortiz also is on track for just shy of 50 doubles (49.68 to be exact). There have been only 11 seasons of 50 doubles and 40 home runs in MLB history. No one has done it after turning 30.

Even 40 doubles and 40 home runs is unprecedented at Ortiz's age. Willie Stargell was 33 when he became the oldest to do so in 1973.

Ortiz is on pace for 93 extra-base hits. Not surprisingly, that would easily be the most ever for a player 36 or older. Hal McRae, who had 81 extra-base hits in 1982 at age 36, currently holds that distinction.

The two oldest players with at least 90 extra-base hits in a season? Lou Gehrig (1936) and Ruth (1928), both of whom were 33.

With 87 games to play, it's far from certain that Ortiz can replicate the first 75. It stands to reason that a player his age might slow down as the wear-and-tear of the season takes its toll. Injuries become more frequent with age.

Ortiz will reach 400 at an old age in terms of players who eventually hit 500. Of the 25 members of the 500 home run club, Williams reached 400 at the oldest age, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He was a month shy of his 38th birthday but still had another 121 home runs in him. Ortiz, if he ever reaches 500, would be the next oldest.

Consider that Williams hit 192 home runs after he turned 35. Ortiz already has the fifth-most home runs in Red Sox history after turning 35. That's with only 50. Clearly, prolonged success is not common as age advances.

The steroids era blurred that reality. Since 1990, there have been 31 seasons in which a player 35 or older hit at least 35 home runs. It had happened only 21 times before that, with Aaron and Ruth accounting for seven of those. Given his positive test for a banned substance in 2003, it's understandable that Ortiz's performance will receive heightened scrutiny. The new reality in baseball is no longer a presumption of innocence, particularly for previous offenders.

Williams stands as a paragon for success as an aging player. Save for Bonds, no one has put up a higher OPS after turning 37. Williams, Bonds and Ruth are the only three to stay above a 1.000 OPS.

Even for Ortiz, that's too lofty a standard to follow. However, at 36, his historic pace indicates that he has more left in the tank than most his age.

Ortiz is on track for the fifth-highest OPS+ (OPS adjusted for era and ballpark) by a Red Sox player 36 and older. Three of the four performances ahead of Ortiz came courtesy of Williams, while Bob Johnson accounts for the other.

If Ortiz reaches 500 home runs, he'll have to approach Williams' level of performance in his late 30s. For most, that would be unthinkable.

So far, Ortiz has defied age, performing at a nearly unprecedented pace.

If he continues like this, maybe 500 isn't so crazy.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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