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Numbers not on Big Papi's side

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  August 8, 2011 01:49 PM

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Though some Red Sox fans may refuse to believe it, there’s an inconvenient truth we can’t ignore much longer: David Ortiz is getting old. Sure, we’ve all heard this refrain before, particularly in 2009 when, at the end of May, he was hitting .185 with exactly one home run.

Just when his transformation into Grand Papi seemed complete, he hit seven homers in each of the next three months, finishing the season with 28. He finished last season with 32 homers after another slow start. And during his 2011 All-Star campaign, his slugging and on-base percentage are hovering around his career averages.

300ortizchart.jpgBut the uncomfortable fact remains that Ortiz is 35 years old. Historically, this is not a good age for a hitter’s power numbers, as shown in the accompanying graph. Using the simplest and most conventional measure of a slugger’s ability -- the long ball -- it’s clear that power hitters have difficulty maintaining their production levels as the years pass.

Since 1901, 100 players have hit 30-plus home runs in a season more than once beyond the age of 30; Ortiz is one of them, accomplishing the feat three times. However, when we extend the age condition to 35, things become a lot less encouraging. Only 18 players have hit more than 30 dingers in more than one season at or past that age.

When we take a look at some of the names on that list, the picture becomes even bleaker: Bonds, McGwire, Giambi, Sheffield … have we seen these names somewhere before? Eight of the 18 players reached those slugging totals at the heart of the steroid era, between 1996 and 2006, before the federal investigation into performance-enhancing drug use was finally commissioned. So, with the assumption that a slugger’s $12 million annual salary warrants an expectation of 30 home runs a year, Papi will seek to do something in the coming seasons that, arguably, only 10 other (mostly) clean players in history have accomplished. Yikes.

Admittedly, home run total is an imprecise measurement of a power hitter’s contribution to the lineup. Let’s look at slugging percentage -- a slugging percentage of .500 equates roughly to the 30-homer threshold. Repeating our test, we find a 75 percent decrease from the 30-and-older group to the 35-and-older group in the number of players with multiple .500-plus slugging seasons, a very similar decline.

Ortiz is on pace to finish ahead of these benchmarks for the second straight year, with 21 home runs and a .532 slugging percentage through Sunday. But, as the Orioles can attest, there’s no telling how fast age can catch up with a player. After an All-Star season in 2010 at, you guessed it, 35 years old, fellow Dominican Vladimir Guerrero -- whose age has also come into question -- is on pace for career lows in home runs, slugging, and OBP.

This might seem like heresy to Red Sox Nation, but, barring the discovery of the fountain of youth, it could be in Boston’s best interest to let Big Papi walk this offseason. It’s certainly possible that Ortiz defies the odds again and keeps up this production for a year or two. It’s just that, at his price tag, the safe money would seek out a long-term replacement instead. And, for all the fond memories he’s provided, something tells me Theo Epstein isn’t the type to shell out another $12 million to sit around the clubhouse and reminisce about ’04 and ’07 ... and possibly ’11.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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