A force at 40: Ortiz finishing career with a flourish
Papi's final season ranks among the best in history for a position player of his age
By Andrew Simon
David Ortiz's remarkable farewell campaign, which concluded its regular-season portion with Sunday's 2-1 loss to Toronto at Fenway Park, has stood out strikingly in the context of baseball history. Few position players, if any, have crafted such a fine final season.
But while Big Papi is choosing to call it quits at the end of 2016, there's nothing he can do about his age. Ortiz turned 40 last Nov. 18, and such an event is almost never a good thing for a Major League player. Yet the Red Sox slugger has responded to that milestone with one of his best years.
It's that production, at that age, that makes his season stand out the most.
Most hitters, even great ones, don't extend their careers into their 40s in the first place, and the ones that do often find themselves competing with eroding skills. Of the 12 Hall of Famers who recorded at least 100 plate appearances in their age-40 season since 1995, eight produced an OPS+ below the league average of 100, and only Rickey Henderson in 1999 topped the 110 mark. Most recently, Ken Griffey Jr. hit .184/.250/.204 over 108 plate appearances for the 2010 Mariners before retiring.
Ortiz, of course, has long reaped the benefits of the designated hitter role and played a total of five innings in the field in 2016. If not for the DH, his performance wouldn't be possible.
But while Big Papi's body might be faltering, his bat is as potent as ever, generating a final line of .315/.401/.620 with 48 doubles, 38 home runs and 127 RBIs. His 162 OPS+ finished behind only Mike Trout among qualified MLB hitters, while Ortiz led the Majors in doubles and slugging percentage.
When it comes to Baseball-Reference.com's wins above replacement (WAR), only two position players rank above Ortiz for a single season at age 40 or older since 1901:
Of the other eight players on that list, only Evans is not enshrined in Cooperstown, and none overlapped with Ortiz in the Majors. Since the Twins first brought up Ortiz in 1997, only Barry Bonds (2006-07) and Edgar Martinez ('03) have reached 3.0 WAR in a season in their 40s, and only four others reached the 2.0 plateau (Moises Alou, Harold Baines, Chipper Jones and Kenny Lofton).
Among 40-plus players, Ortiz broke Evans' single-season record of 34 home runs in 1987, Rice's record of 35 doubles in '30, and Winfield's record of 108 RBIs in '92.
Looking only at those with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Ortiz's slugging percentage surpassed Stan Musial's 1962 record of .508 by more than 100 points. In terms of OPS+, Mays was the only close challenger:
(Bonds posted OPS+ of 156 and 169 in 2006-07, at ages 41-42, but narrowly missed the plate-appearances cutoff both times).
When combined with the fact that this is Ortiz's final season, his age-40 exploits become that much more impressive.
Since 1901, he is just the 12th player age 40 or older to even qualify for a batting title in his last year. Of the previous 11, only Lofton had topped a 100 OPS+, at 105. During that time, the only players to reach even 3.0 WAR in such a scenario, regardless of plate appearances, were Bonds in 2007 (3.4) and Ted Williams in 1960 (3.0).
On Sunday, Ortiz's final regular season came to an end, but he might not be done making history, with Boston starting the American League Division Series on Thursday in Cleveland. Only 10 players have homered in the postseason after their 40th birthday, and only two have done it in the World Series: the Yankees' Enos Slaughter in 1956, and the Phillies' Joe Morgan in '83 (twice).
By the time October is over, there just might be another select list with Big Papi's name on it.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.