David Ortiz would like an extension on his contract, and the sooner the better.

But for various reasons having to do with history and upon-closer-inspection statistics, it would be better if the Boston Red Sox waited.

If you’re not caught up on the latest, Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reported on Friday that Big Papi is pressuring the Red Sox to tack another year on the two-year, $26 million deal he signed last winter. Apparently, negotiations between the two sides are already happening.

For what it’s worth, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported in November that Ortiz and the Red Sox actually agreed last winter not to negotiate until his two-year contract expired. But hey, you can’t blame Ortiz for wanting an extension now.

The guy hit .309 with a .959 OPS and 30 homers in 2013, and he is fresh off an MVP performance in the World Series. When it was suggested that he could just wait until after 2014 to talk, it’s no wonder Ortiz brushed it off.

“What for?” said the star designated hitter. “You know what’s going to happen if I’m healthy and good to go. I just hate the situation where I have to sit down at the end of the year and talk about my following year. Let’s do it now. We’re world champs right now.”

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington should hear Ortiz out, but that’s it. Extending Ortiz now would only make sense if there was some sort of assurance that he could be himself in 2015, and no such assurance exists.

Let’s start by defining what Ortiz being himself means. If we narrow it down to 2013 and the past three seasons as a whole, it means:

This is fantastic stuff on its own. But for production accumulated between the ages of 35 and 37, it’s historically fantastic.

A search on Baseball-Reference.com for players who have logged as many as 1,500 plate appearances with an OPS+ as high as 160 in that age span returns only five other names:

  • Barry Bonds: 237 OPS+
  • Babe Ruth: 210 OPS+
  • Hank Aaron: 173 OPS+
  • Nap Lajoie: 167 OPS+
  • Tris Speaker: 164 OPS+

Four Hall of Famers, and one guy who, at the least, has the numbers of a Hall of Famer.

As for how these guys did after their age 35-37 explosions… Well, it’s a mixed bag:

Bonds was tremendous, but we know the reasons for that. After him, Ruth wasn’t the same player. Aaron rebounded at age 39 after a down year at age 38, but in a modest amount of playing time. Lajoie and Speaker, meanwhile, both fell apart.

It may be a small sample size, but it’s one that reaffirms something we already know about baseball: aging sucks. 

And if you’re thinking it, history doesn’t look much kinder if we narrow our focus to designated hitters.

A search for players who A) played until they were 38, B) played at least 50 percent of their games at DH and C) logged at least 3,000 plate appearances returns only a couple of names. Here’s how those players did in their age-39 seasons:

Once again, we find ourselves looking at a mixed bag. Frank Thomas wasn’t himself as he got older. Ditto Don Baylor. Harold Baines was quite good between the ages of 36 and 38, but then he dropped off at 39. Cliff Johnson didn’t even play an age-39 season.

Edgar Martinez and Hal McRae appear to be exceptions to the rule. The catch is that Martinez logged only 407 plate appearances in his age-39 season, and McRae logged only 369 in his.

In all, here’s what history has to say: If Big Papi enjoys a healthy and Big Papi-ly productive season at the age of 39, he’ll be doing something that’s very rarely been done throughout history and never been done by a designated hitter.

If you’re the Red Sox, the question is easy: Why be quick to sign up for something that’s essentially unprecedented?

As it is, the Red Sox don’t even know what Ortiz is going to do in 2014 at the age of 38. A good guess is that it probably won’t be anything like what he did in 2013.

Via FanGraphs, here’s what the ZiPS projections see for Ortiz in 2014:

So fewer plate appearances and generally less awesome production. Which sounds plausible.

Fewer plate appearances would come courtesy of an injury, and that’s fair given both Ortiz’s age and the fact that he had an injury cut his 2012 season short and bite into his 2013 season. Less awesome production wouldn’t be a surprise due to Ortiz’s age and, indeed, what happened in the second half.

That story goes:

Ortiz was hardly bad in the second half, but he wasn’t excellent either. Two easy symptoms to point to are the increase in strikeouts and decrease in fly balls that went over the fence.

Perhaps the least encouraging symptom, however, is how Ortiz suddenly stopped crushing fastballs. He generated 17.4 runs above average against heaters in the first half, but only 2.7 in the second half.

In particular, he struggled against right-handed four-seamers. As Brooks Baseball can show:

That’s a pretty serious drop-off in production, and one reminiscent of Ortiz’s dark days of 2008 and 2009 when he seemed to be no match for good fastballs.

And while Big Papi did mash for most of the postseason, his struggles against heaters did bite him in the American League Championship Series. Against the Detroit Tigers‘ collection of hard-throwing right-handers, he collected only one hit off a righty four-seamer.

Maybe Ortiz will put these struggles behind him in 2014 and go on to have another excellent season. If he does so, he’ll have proved once again that age is just a number, one that has no influence on his ability to hit.

But the Red Sox should wait to see if that happens, not expect it to happen. Because if they extend Ortiz’s contract only to see him decline in 2014 and then decline further in 2015, they’ll be sorry.

And it might not be just because they’ll be paying good money for not-good production. Maybe it will be because that money could have been committed elsewhere.

Here’s some food for thought: Next winter’s free-agent market is poised to include Max Scherzer, Homer Bailey, Justin Masterson, James Shields and maybe Clayton Kershaw, as well as Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval, Colby Rasmus and Brett Gardner. 

The Red Sox are going to need pitching with Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and possibly Jon Lester coming off the books. They might need a third baseman and/or a center fielder. The players listed above are players who would fill these needs, but also players who are likely to cost a lot.

Extending Ortiz wouldn’t necessarily stop the Red Sox from helping themselves to any of these guys, mind you, but every dollar helps. 

The Red Sox are going to be tempted to honor Ortiz’s desire for an extension. He’s the longest-tenured member of the team, he’s a fan favorite and he’s coming off a stupendous season. These are all solid reasons to go ahead and do it.

But pushing back against those are the reasons not to do it. Ignoring those would be unwise.

And that, indeed, would be quite out of character for this Red Sox front office.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.


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