How much is that Papi in the window?

The Red Sox front office has spent much of the off-season deconstructing and reconstructing their team while dealing with the happiness/unhappiness of Manny Ramirez. News surfaced at the end of last week that the heart and soul of Boston — AL MVP runner-up David Ortiz — wants a contract extension that will keep him in Boston for the rest of his productive career (and beyond).

According to a story in Friday’s Boston Globe, Big Papí wants a deal that would keep him in Fenway until he turns 36.

Currently 30, Ortiz is entering the last guaranteed year of his current contract. For his 31 win shares (fifth best in the AL) and 136 runs created (third best in the AL and tops on the Sox), the big slugger is set to make $6.5 million in 2006. The Red Sox hold a club option worth $8.4 million for 2007.

Now, I have long believed that Ortiz’s contract is among the best in the game. The Red Sox are getting insane amounts of offensive production (as well as unparalleled leadership and a few other “intangibles”) for less than $7 million! Plus, the Sox picked Ortiz up off waivers. It’s a steal.

While the Red Sox can bask in the glow of this thievery, I doubt that the team will be able to get away with paying Ortiz so little if he is to remain in Boston. I would imagine that Ortiz will want a deal that pays him anywhere from $13-15 million. He’s easily worth more money than Johnny Damon or Rafael Furcal, both of whom will be making in excess of $13 million. So why shouldn’t he want to break the bank? However, a contract extension here is the classic example of a team’s having to pay for what a player has done in the past instead of what he is likely to do during the course of his career.

Confused? That’s alright. Let’s take a look at David Ortiz and ten players whose offensive careers are most similar to his through age 29.

In 2005, the 29-year-old Ortiz had the following offensive line:

G AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG
159 601 119 180 40 1 47 102 124 .300 .397 .604

Ortiz right now is playing awesome baseball during his peak performance years. After 30, according to conventional wisdom, Ortiz’s production — or more basically, the production of a hitter in general — is bound to decrease. To see how Ortiz may perform, let’s look at how his comparables performed from age 30 onward.

At Baseball-Reference, every player is listed along with his comparables through their current age. Here is the list of Ortiz’s comps along with the similarity scores (out of 100):

Mo Vaughn (941)
Richie Sexson (931)
Ryan Klesko (919)
Lee May (918)
Danny Tartabull (916)
Tino Martinez (916)
Tim Salmon (914)
Jason Giambi (911)
Carlos Delgado (911)
Tony Clark (906)

Here’s how this group performed collectively at age 29:

G AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG
131 469 81 137 26 1 29 82 103 .293 .400 .540

Overall, Ortiz and this group stack up fairly well. Because Sexson played just 23 games at age 29, the numbers are a little on the low side. Ortiz out-slugged the group, but the on-base percentage and strike out-to-walk ratios are fairly consistent. It may be possible to determine how Ortiz will age by examining this group. The following table does just that.

Age Season G AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG
30 10 137 494 85 140 31 2 29 74 111 .283 .378 .528
31 9 144 507 83 143 29 1 30 70 108 .282 .374 .517
32 9 133 462 65 117 24 1 23 66 109 .253 .353 .458
33 8 132 451 64 124 26 2 24 56 95 .276 .358 .501
34 7 124 425 60 111 18 1 20 60 89 .261 .358 .453
35 4 93 324 37 82 13 1 11 28 61 .254 .316 .401
36 2 131 457 61 118 18 1 21 47 86 .258 .330 .437

First, this comparison is only useful up to about the age 34 season. With only two players playing to 36 and four playing to 35 (many active players have not yet at that age), it’s not statistically reasonable to determine anything from such a small sample size.

So from ages 29 to 34, this group witnessed an 11 percent decline in batting average, a 10.5 percent decrease in on-base percentage, and a 16 percent or 100-point drop in slugging. Notably, home runs declined from a high of 30 to a low of 20.

As superhuman as Ortiz has been, there is every reason to think he’ll suffer the same drop in production. Going from the heights of Ortiz down, however, isn’t awful. By age 34, Ortiz may be hitting around .270/.365/.500 with over 30 home runs instead of nearly 50.

But at this point, here’s where the comparisons get a little more worrisome. Mo Vaughn, Ortiz’s top comparable, saw a huge decline in bat speed at age 34 and played fewer than 30 games before an injury ended his career at 35. Now, he’s opening a $7-million car wash in Boston. None of the other players hit the same after 34, and they weren’t anywhere close to their 29-year-old peak season.

No matter how well or poorly Ortiz ages, it seems certain that he is currently playing at his peak. He’s very underpaid for his performance and seems destined to be overpaid by the time he is 32 and 33. In this case, I think it’s reasonable for the Sox to overpay because the discount they got now. In the end, it’ll balance out. But they shouldn’t give Ortiz too many guaranteed years.

In discussing his extension, Ortiz seemed set on getting a long extension from the Sox. But for all of the talk, the Sox would be better off giving Ortiz a two- or three-year extension that keeps him around until the end of his age 34 season in 2010. They could probably throw in some performance-based options as well. At that point, the Sox will just have to see if Big Papi can defy the downward spiral of age just as well as he can defy pitchers in the American League.

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8 Responses to “How much is that Papi in the window?”


  1. 1 Dave S. January 9, 2006 at 10:40 am

    Big 1B/DH types don’t seem to age too terribly well. Though, it’s certainly a good point that Papi’s iconic status and cheap production in his early career probably warrant the Sox overspending on him a bit.

    I wonder why teams and players don’t find more middle ground in guaranteed later year dollars. For example, I’m surprised that there aren’t more contract structures that have player options for lower dollar amounts and team options at significantly higher amounts for later years. This would ensure that the players with diminishing abilities could stay later years guaranteed, but at reduced rates; yet teams could also have the right to retain the services of players who merited retention.

    So for Papi, for example:

    Year Team Rate Player Rate
    1* $12M $12M
    2* $13M $13M
    3* $14M $14M
    4 $15M $10M
    5 $15M $8M
    6 $15M $6M

    Years 1-3 are set in stone, and as is. But in year four, the team can decline to pay at full rate, and the player can either choose to find a new contract, or to accept a $10M salary to stay and play.

    This way, the player would be guaranteed a salary over the full 6 years if they wanted to stay or couldn’t find a better deal; and if the player is still contributing at full steam, the team has the right to retain their services at a high rate.

  2. 2 Hudson January 9, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    Impressive statistical analysis, but I think it’s fair to say you’ve neglected to consider that Ortiz’s rise came out of nowhere — making him harder to compare to other players, and trickier to predict his future performance with such metrics.

    Rememer that when Big Papi came to the Sox, the Twins (and the rest of MLB) had few hopes for him, yielding the Sox one of the biggest bargains in recent baseball memory. Those who have watched his career say he improved by leaps and bounds in 2003 and 2004, and that no one could have predicted it.

    Can it be said of the supposed comparables cited here that at ages 26 or 27, they were not expected to become big producers?

    In other words, how many of them have a career arc anything like that of Ortiz? If the answer is few or none, then how valid is this approach in his exceptional case?

  3. 3 BosoxBob January 9, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    There’s one glaring problem with that list of comparable – there’s not a single full-time DH on it. Lee May topped the list with 414 games at DH (most late in his career), but that was less than a quarter of his total games. Ortiz already has 614 games at DH, and can probably be expected to play the field only about 10% of the time from here on out. Thus, he will avoid the daily wear-and-tear which no doubt had an adverse effect on those players’ batting performance, and also greatly decrease his risk of injury.

    I’d say that Edgar Martinez might be a better comparison (although even this is flawed, since Edgar played 3rd throughout his 20’s). Between age 27 and 29, Martinez posted OPS+ of 132, 138, 163, while for Ortiz, it was 144, 145, 161. Very similar. Martinez subsequently suffered through two injury-riddled year, then switched permanently to DH. From age 32-40, he had an average OPS+ of 158, with his “worst” year at 139. I believe it’s quite likely that Ortiz will be equally productive in his 30s.

  4. 4 J January 9, 2006 at 7:40 pm

    The Sox should give him what he wants…

    The main reason they were above.500 last year was because of his constant late game heroics, and consistent production at the plate.

    I think for Papi to be effective though Manny needs to stay in the lineup… Once Papi loses protection he could easily become Barry Bonds Jr.

    By the way, I am sooo glad I found this blog… Pitchers and catchers can’t report fast enough so anything baseball right now is great!.

  5. 5 Benjamin Kabak January 10, 2006 at 12:09 am

    Hudson: I don’t know if you can say Ortiz came out of nowhere. True, he’s really matured while under the auspices of Ron Jackson in Boston. However, if you look at his Minor League numbers and his limited success with the Twins, you see a player on the verge of greatness. Ortiz didn’t exactly burst onto the scene. Rather, he came into a situation where one team – Boston – was willing to give him at shot at being a full-time DH. The Twins were more interested in sticking him at first, and Ortiz suffered numerous injuries playing in Minnesota. The Twins showed they didn’t know what to do with Ortiz and weren’t keen on paying him what he would have made in arbitration.

    As to the critiques of fielding, I grant that Ortiz won’t be playing nearly the same amount of defense as Mo Vaughn or anyone else on the list of comparables. And yes, I recognize that comparables don’t do much to predict the future. It’s just a glimpse into what may happen. However, Ortiz has a history of injuries. To say that he isn’t at risk as his ages fails to acknowledge his past. Meanwhile, big players with his build often suffer from slower bat speed by his mid-30s. For the next few years, he’ll be great, but I would imagine that at around age 33 or 34, he’ll start to decline quickly. Do the Sox pay it forward or pay it back?

  6. 6 NBarnes January 10, 2006 at 5:59 am

    J: You’re interested in paying players for what they’ve done, rather than what they will do? Didn’t Ortiz draw a paycheck in 2004 and 2005? I thought he HAD been paid. The question isn’t if he kept the Sox above .500 in 2005 (probably not), but will he help put them in the playoffs in 2008 and 2009?

    I’m fine with paying him, at a reasonable rate for his likely performance, for his age 33 season. After that, well, that’s what performance incentives tied to vesting options are for.

  7. 7 J January 10, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    NBarnes: Good point, I jumped into this discussion in true Red Sox fan fashion… not quite head first…


  1. 1 The decline and fall of David Ortiz | River Avenue Blues Trackback on May 16, 2009 at 12:12 pm
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