David Ortiz and the Greatest Age-40 Season Ever
by Matthew Kory - February 8, 2016 fangraphs.com
Because Ortiz doesn’t play defense, he’s unlikely to post the best overall season ever, so let’s switch over to a purely offensive stat: wRC+. This is ideal, as it controls for park factors and the general run environment. This way, we can compare hitter quality across eras without getting bogged down in silly things like defense and base running. So, who has the highest wRC+ of any 40-year-old in baseball history? Willie Mays! From 1971!
I will use OPS+ because it is more readily available than wRC+ and they produce similar results.
In 2015 at age 39 David Ortiz hit 37 home runs and slugged .553; career .547. His On Base Average: in 2015 .360; career .378. Ortiz reached OPS+ 141 in 2015 by hitting, not by walking. Career OPS+ 139.
50 player seasons qualified for leading in averages (502 plate appearances (PA) in recent seasons) for players at least 40 years old before July 1. Of those fifty, 27 had OPS+ >= 100. Rabbit Maranville had the two lowest at ages 40 and 41: 59 and 60. Here are the top 20:
Willie Mays did not hit especially well at age 40. Mays led the National League in walks for the only time in his career with 112 in only 537 PA. Mays walked 21% of the time. His next highest walks: 82 in 665 PA (12%) in 1964 when he hit 47 HR.
In 1971 at age 40: 18 HR, .271/.425/.482. That .425 on base average was his highest and the only time Mays led the NL. Mays also had 123 SO; second most SO: 92 in 1967.
SO and BB composed 44% of his PA in 1971. Willie simply did not hit the ball much and when he did it was well below his usual standards and well below what David Ortiz did in 2015 at age 39.
The point is not to denigrate the great Willie Mays but to point out how much we have lost common sense in evaluating performance. The fangraphs.com article referenced above ignores the obvious items just mentioned about Mays, who was a shadow of his former self but who apparently had adapted at age 40 to his limited skill. At age 41 Mays also used walks to simulate production. In 309 PA with the Giants but mostly with the Mets, Mays BA dropped from .271 to .250 but his on base average was .400; his slugging plunged still further from .482 to .402; career .557.
Please read the document I wrote January 21, 2009. The link is the first and last lines of this post:
Is Walking Hitting?