Since announcing that he would be retiring at the end of the 2016 MLB season, 40-year-old David Ortiz has been playing like a man on a mission. Now in his 20th season and his 14th with the Sox, Ortiz is leading all of baseball in slugging (.622), OPS (1.022), and doubles (42), is posting his best batting average (.313) since 2012. He is on pace to match or eclipse his career averages in nearly every meaningful offensive category. It’s been the kind of storybook farewell performance that every athlete dreams of. And, assuming he goes through with his retirement plans come October (or November), Ortiz will be able to walk away from the sport on his own terms, knowing that he can still deliver at the plate even at age 40.
So doesn’t anyone else find this a little fishy?
Look, David Ortiz is a fan favorite in Boston and around the country for a good reason. His effervescence on the field, friendliness with the fans and media, and reputation as an outstanding teammate are well-documented. To the extent that we really know any professional athletes with whom we’ve never had personal interaction, Ortiz is one of the unquestioned good guys in the sport.
But let’s be honesta��he’s also someone with evidence against him when it comes to the use of illegal PEDs, for reasons that we’ll get to in just a moment. But first, a bit of historical perspective.
Back in the late nineties and early aughts, players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Barry Bonds were blasting baseballs further into the stratosphere than ever at ages when virtually all sluggers start to see their skills decline. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it seems ridiculous that we ever trusted that those results were natural. A power hitter who has a career year well into his late 30s? It’s just not feasible, unless that hitter was using alternative methods to postpone his inevitable decline. The same logic applies with other sports as well. Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tours de France during the same time frame as we all wrote off the European skepticism of his dominance as good old fashioned jealousy. In retrospect, that was a pretty ridiculous stance to take.
So as tempting as it may be to get caught up in the wonder of a player defying the odds to have one last brilliant season, remember that we’ve been through this before.
Getting back to Ortiz, let’s start with the fact that he’s already known to have used some sort of PED when he tested positive back in 2003 as part of MLB’s investigation into the their prevalence in the league. Now, the fact that MLB’s rules against PEDs were all but non-existent at the time certainly count for something, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was using.
And again, it’s not something we should have been surprised by. After making his Major League debut with the Twins in 1997 at the age of 21, Ortiz spent the next six years bouncing back and forth between the Majors and Triple-A while posting a slash line of .266/.348/.461. His Isolated Power over those six years was .195.
Then in 2003, after the Red Sox scooped him up as a free agent, he put up a monster .288/.369/.592 season while finishing fifth in the MVP voting, the first of five straight top-5 MVP finishes. That year saw his Isolated Power jump from .228 to .304. Over the course of the next five years, he had an Isolated Power of .310, a 59 percent improvement from his days in Minnesota.
No one can deny that a player suddenly morphing from a borderline failed prospect to one of the best hitters in baseball in his late 20s is, while hardly proof of PED use, at least pretty suspicious. To put matters in perspective, take a look at where Ortiz compares to the rest of the 500-home run club members in terms of the amount of home runs hit after the age of 26.
The names immediately after Ortiz on the x-axisa��Palmeiro, Bonds, and Sosaa��are hardly the company one would want to keep if hoping to avoid suspicion. Part of this is certainly due to the fact that he wasn’t able to amass many games played in his first six seasons, but that is also due in part to the fact that he simply couldn’t produce and/or stay healthy for most of those years. It’s also worth considering that the team that Ortiz joined in 2003 is one that also featured known steroid users Manny Ramirez and Jeremy Giambi.
So while the Red Sox undoubtedly deserve credit for finding a diamond in the rougha��Ortiz is still the pinnacle of the Moneyball philosophya��to think that his transformation, which occurred right around the time that he tested positive for some form of PEDs, was a direct result of said usage is hardly a stretch of the imagination.
And as if that evidence isn’t damning enough, it’s compounded by what’s occurred since.
Following Boston’s second World Series title in four years, Ortiz spent the 2008 and 2009 seasons (at ages 32 and 33) on a rapid decline that even had Bill Simmons of all people calling it the end of a great run:
a�?At first, we Sox fans thought we were just watching an early-season slump. Then three weeks passed and we started worrying. The guy couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield. His bat was so slow he had to cheat on fastballs; even then, he couldn’t catch up. One swing a night made him look like the drunkest batter in a beer league softball game. Look, I’ve seen slumps. This was different. This was the collapse of a career.a�?
It was unfortunate to watch, but perfectly understandable. 32 or 33 is a fairly common age for sluggers to hit their decline. Just look at the career arcs of other prolific home run hitters like Albert Pujols, Eddie Mathews, Juan Gonzalez, and Duke Snider.
However, after his career nadir in 2009, when he hit just .238 with a 102 OPS+, Ortiz skyrocketed back to the elite level in 2010 with an OPS+ of 154, followed by an even more impressive 173 mark (still his career high) in 2011. Since then, he has never failed to post an OPS+ under 140. This year’s mark stands at a whopping 169, with him becoming the oldest person in history to reach 30 home runs in a season. And his Isolated Power, which had begun to dip again over the last few years, now stands at .314. This would be the second-best mark of his career.
So I ask againa��don’t these results and trends indicate something fishy going on?
If this was a courtroom, the case would certainly be thrown out on the basis that all of this evidencea��with the exception of one positive test 13 years ago when there were no rules against ita��is purely circumstantial. And that’s fine. Ortiz is still entertaining fans in Boston and helping his team win, and while passing drug tests is no guarantee that a person is clean (again, look at Lance Armstrong), it’s certainly worth noting that Ortiz has never failed a second test.
The fact of the matter is that PED use in baseball and just about every sport on the planet is as murky an issue we can get. We all have our preconceived notions about what’s fair and unfair, what should be legal and illegal, and who is and isn’t gaming the system. I’m not calling for Ortiz to be suspended or his stats to be thrown out. And, I’m perfectly willing to admit that his warm demeanor and fun-loving personality make it a lot easier to accept his results than it was to accept those of the perpetually ornery Barry Bonds when he was putting up similar numbers in his 40s.
Still, let’s not delude ourselves. Let’s not wonder in amazement at how a big-bodied 40-year-old is putting up the kind of numbers you generally only see from guys in their mid- to late-20s. Let’s just call this what it isa��an almost certainly enhanced season that we’re all okay with because everyone agrees that Ortiz a good guy. There’s nothing wrong with that unless we start lying to ourselves in the process.