Commentary

Big Papi defies the aging process

On 38th birthday, Ortiz's place in history is set but it's clear he's far from done

Updated: November 18, 2013, 7:03 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

David Ortiz turned 38 on Monday. The last time I mentioned his age to him, after he'd hit two home runs against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series (his first two-homer game in the postseason), Big Papi launched into a mock diatribe.

"Thirty-eight, my ass," he said. "I'm 21. You see me swing that [expletive]? I swing that [expletive] like I'm 20."

It reminded me of the story of another Red Sox player who did amazing things late in his career, Ted Williams, who at age 38 batted .388 in 1957, .453 in the season's second half when he had 12 hits in his final 18 at-bats, and was on base 25 times in his last 31 plate appearances, including a record-setting 16 times in a row. When that season was over, Williams cracked: "All the American League's got is me and the Yankees. When I leave this league, it's going to be pretty damn dull.''

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera and David Ortiz
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelDavid Ortiz is eight years older than American League MVP Miguel Cabrera, but they put up similar numbers in the past three seasons.

Ortiz is in no danger of leaving. The Red Sox took care of that by signing him to a two-year extension worth $30 million after his 2014 salary was bumped up an additional $4 million to $15 million because he missed minimum time with his strained Achilles tendon. It was his first multiyear deal since the four-year, $52 million extension he signed at the start of the 2006 season, the extension kicking in the following year.

In 2011, the Red Sox exercised the $12.5 million option they held on Ortiz for that season. He signed a one-year deal for $14.575 million in 2012 after he accepted arbitration, then came to terms on a two-year extension after the team made him a one-year qualifying offer of $13.3 million.

How much value have the Sox gotten in the past three years? Only one player (with a minimum 1,200 plate appearances) in that span had a higher OPS: Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, who posted a 1.036 OPS and was named the American League's MVP the past two seasons. Ortiz was second at .972, rebounding from the Achilles injury to post a .959 OPS with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs.

The question now becomes, what are the chances of Ortiz maintaining that kind of production?

Let's just say that if he does, he will be joining only a handful of players able to do so since the expansion era began in 1961, and a handful of Red Sox players all time:

  • Only nine players have hit 30 or more home runs at the age of 38 and beyond: Barry Bonds, Darrell Evans, Hank Aaron, Frank Thomas, Rafael Palmeiro, Steve Finley, Willie Stargell, Rico Carty and Fred McGriff. Bonds, Evans and Aaron did it twice apiece.

  • At the same age, only a dozen players have had an OPS of .900 or better (minimum 400 plate appearances): Bonds, Aaron, Jim Thome, Edgar Martinez, Cal Ripken Jr., Stargell, Thomas, Stan Musial, Moises Alou, Harold Baines, Matt Stairs and Willie Mays. Bonds did it four times, Alou three, Aaron and Stargell twice.

  • Williams is the only Red Sox player in history to hit 30 or more home runs at 38 or later. He hit 38 in 1957.

  • Only two Red Sox players at that age drove in 100 or more runs: 38-year-old outfielder Bob Johnson drove in 106 in 1944, when many big leaguers were serving in the armed forces; and 38-year-old Tony Perez drove in 105 at age 38 in 1980.

  • Only three Sox players had an OPS of .900 or better at that age: Williams at 38 had an OPS of 1.257 and an OPS of 1.042 at 39; Johnson was at .959 in '44; and first baseman Mickey Vernon, 38 in 1956, had a .914 OPS. There were 11 position players 38 or older in the big leagues last season, the oldest was Jason Giambi of the Indians, at 42. Only three -- Raul Ibanez, 41; Todd Helton, 39; and Ichiro Suzuki, 39 -- had as many as 400 plate appearances. They also were the only players to appear in as many as 100 games, although Rays catcher Jose Molina just missed at 99.

    [+] EnlargeJackson/Ortiz
    Ron Antonelli/Getty ImagesOrtiz shares a laugh with the original Mr. October, former Yankees great Reggie Jackson.

    Ibanez, who played for the Mariners, led the senior set with a .793 OPS and also in home runs with 29 and RBIs with 65. Helton of the Rockies and Mark DeRosa of the Blue Jays were the only other players with an OPS over .700, and Helton's 15 home runs made him the only other member in that group who reached double figures in homers.

    Thus far, Ortiz has defied the aging process. He has done so, he has sworn consistently, without the assistance of PEDs. He becomes outraged when it is suggested otherwise. The only time he has ever been linked publicly to possible PED use came in 2003, when the players' union agreed to a survey test: If more than 5 percent of the players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the union would agree to mandatory testing. Those tests were supposed to be confidential, and the union had the right to destroy the tests afterward. It didn't do so, and the FDA seized the results as part of the BALCO investigation. The New York Times reported, six years later, that Ortiz's name appeared on a list of 104 players who tested positive on the survey test.

    At the time of the report, Ortiz said he was "surprised" to learn his name was on the list. In August, he said he still hasn't been informed -- by MLB or the union -- how his name wound up there. And, of course, he has been subjected to regular testing ever since, not only for PEDs but also HGH.

    Until proven otherwise, Ortiz's extraordinary performance at the end of his career deserves to be connected more to Williams than Bonds.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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