Over the last few months, I’ve found myself thinking about David Ortiz all the time. Obviously, it was sparked by his announcement that 2016 will be his final major-league season. I’ve been trying to figure out which of his many career highlights is my favorite. I’ve been trying to figure out where he fits in Red Sox history. I’ve been trying to figure out where he fits in my personal baseball-watching history. Players retire every season, but it’s not every year we say good-bye to a player of Ortiz’s talent-level and aura.
So, it’s drawn me to his various player-pages to look at his numbers, and oh my god everything about them is insane. Everyone here knows he’s great. You wouldn’t be reading a Red Sox website without know Ortiz is great. However, I think we as a fan base take for granted how uniquely great he is.
There are two exceedingly rare qualities to the star’s game that may not get the press they deserve. (It’s also possible I’m not paying enough attention.) The first one is that the dude just doesn’t age. He was supposed to be entering his decline phase in 2009 when he finished the year with a 102 OPS+. That was seven years ago. Since then, he’s put up OPS+’s of 137, 154, 173, 159, 140 and 141 with a cumulative mark of 149. For context, Jose Bautista’s 40-home-run 2015 campaign resulted in a 149 OPS+.
To make matters even more impressive, he’s done this in a league that is increasingly shifting its defenses. Ortiz has always been affected by moving defenses, but it looks like it’s particularly hurt him in the last two seasons when he’s put up .256 and .264 BABIPs, respectively. Just imagine how good his seasons would have been if he could’ve even gotten those marks up in the .280 range. Beyond that, Jeff Sullivan has already talked about his refusal to age, and did so more eloquently than I could, so go read that.
The other part of his game that just boggles my mind — and the one that I find myself thinking about more and more — is his combination of power and plate discipline. Intuitively, we know he draws a lot of walks. Intuitively, we know he doesn’t strike out all that much. Intuitively, we know he hits a lot of dingers. We don’t need to look at the numbers to know that’s true. That’s doing him and you a disservice, though, because Ortiz has a rare profile that’s only becoming rarer and rarer. When you look across the league, the majority of the big-time power hitters also strike out all the time, a la Chris Davis. On the other hand, most of the players with low strikeout rates are slap hitters, a la Ben Revere. Ortiz has somehow blended the best of both worlds, and it’s an incredible feat.
Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? Ortiz has accrued 9,465 plate appearances over his career. In that time, he’s put up a 13.1 percent walk-rate, a 17.6 percent K-rate and a .263 Isolated Power. To put that into context, he has the 29th best walk-rate in the game since he joined the Red Sox in 2003, and the second best ISO to go along with his above-average strikeout rate.
Little depth behind an uncertain Red Sox outfield
Should something go wrong in the outfield, the Red Sox don't really have very many options to turn to at the moment.
Things get even more impressive when you look at his individual seasons. Over that same span, there has been 29 individual seasons in which a player has qualified for the batting title and finished the year with a walk-rate over 12 percent, a K-rate under 16 percent and an ISO over .250. Four of those seasons belong to Ortiz, a larger share than any player besides Albert Pujols.
It gets even better when you look at the years in which he’s been doing this. The Red Sox DH has met those marks in each of the last three seasons. This is insanity when you consider how much the league-wide strikeout rate has ballooned across MLB over the last couple years. Last season, for example, a perfectly average major leaguer walked 7.7 percent of the time, struck out 20.4 percent of the time and put up a .150 ISO. While Ortiz has put up those numbers three years in a row, the rest of the league has only done so three times since 2013.*
*Weirdly enough, those other three times were courtesy of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, the two rumored replacements for Ortiz in 2017.
There are so many reasons to be impressed by Ortiz’s remarkable Red Sox career, which will be coming to a close after the 2016 season. In my opinion, for whatever that may be worth, the most impressive quality has been how good he’s been at the tail-end of his career. Specifically, his combination of power and plate discipline in a league that is getting away from those combinations is just bananas. Everyone knows Ortiz is an amazing player, and I’ll never tire of looking for new evidence of his dominance.