In spite of all that, David Ortiz is off to the best start of his career. The lone bright spot of Boston’s season, Big Papi is leading the American League in batting average (.436) to go along with 12 RBIs and 10 extra-base hits.
And Ortiz can maintain his hot start all the way until the end of 2012—regardless of whether his team can rebound from its disastrous start.
Initially, it seemed like a stretch that a 36-year-old who's spent the majority of his career as a designated hitter can have a monster year—especially when the rest of his team is underperforming. But there are several indicators that suggest Ortiz’s start is not a hot streak but rather a harbinger.
Before the season began, there was doubt that Big Papi would be back for a 10th season in Boston. At the last minute, Ortiz and Boston avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $14.575 million contract.
To Ortiz, this is no farewell season. Whether it’s with the Red Sox or another club, Big Papi is hitting like a player intent on landing a multi-year deal beginning in 2013. At the rate he’s going, he will earn such a contract with flying colors.
Ortiz is an embodiment of how pronounced the Contract Year Effect is in baseball. He looked like a finished player at several junctures from 2008-10, only to bounce back in the final year of his old deal with a strong 2011. Now, he’s trying to ensure himself of a future in the game in 2012 and beyond.
The Red Sox have been held to three runs or fewer in eight of their first 14 games (all losses). But Papi is not to blame.
Ortiz has recorded hits in five of those eight games. Oftentimes, he has had one of the team’s few pieces of solid contact (his home run against Ivan Nova on April 20 being an example).
Once it has rounded into form, the Red Sox offense will again be one of the highest-scoring lineups in baseball. Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis have yet to get going, and when both Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford return from injuries, they will inject even more punch into Boston’s attack.
Through 15 games, Ortiz has shouldered much of the offensive load himself. When he starts sharing the burden with his teammates, expect his home run, RBI and extra-base hit totals to be bolstered by it.
Big Papi’s first at-bat of the 2012 season—against reigning American League Cy Young and MVP award-winner Justin Verlander—epitomizes his approach at the plate thus far. Rather than trying to pull the ball, Ortiz drove it with authority to the left field corner of Comerica Park, winding up on second base with Boston’s first hit of the regular season.
When Ortiz displays a penchant for going the other way with power, Red Sox fans know that he’s locked in. And right now he’s doing so against some of the harder throwers in the game. Not only Verlander but also Max Scherzer and Matt Moore.
And Papi is still capable of hitting the ball a long way to right field. When Tampa Bay’s Jeremy Hellickson tried to bust Ortiz inside on April 14, Ortiz promptly deposited the ball into the Boston bullpen 400 feet away in right center.
Ortiz habitually used the whole field during the mid-2000s when he was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He’s exhibiting that penchant again—and again becoming a feared hitter.
Ortiz shed quite a bit of weight during the offseason. WEEI’s Alex Speier says that Papi is “perhaps leaner and more fit than he has ever been with the Red Sox.”
When Ortiz struggled in recent seasons, he looked soft and slow. It happens to the best of players once they hit their mid-30s, and the effects looked like they were more pronounced for a hulking DH like Papi. (If you want another view of what age can do to the skill set of a big slugger like Ortiz, look no further than the downturn in Adam Dunn’s career.)
Papi’s commitment to offseason conditioning does two things. One, it cuts down on the time that it takes him to get into the flow of the regular season, hence his faster-than-normal start to 2012. Second and more important, it prevents him from being worn down by the 162-game grind.
Ortiz is, literally, in great shape to maintain his hot start for the foreseeable future. He’s a leaner slugger than in previous years and well-equipped to turn around pitches on the inside that once got by him.
At the height of his struggles in the late 2000s, Ortiz was so inept against left-handed pitchers that then-manager Terry Francona often sat him against southpaw starters. The sight of Big Papi flailing helplessly against low-and-away sliders in the dirt became a regular one.
To his credit, Ortiz has worked tirelessly to the point where he’s not only capable against lefties, he in fact hits them better than right-handers.
After hitting a meager .212 and .222 against southpaws in 2009 and 2011, Papi turned a corner in 2011. In 201 at-bats against lefties, Ortiz hit .329 (compared to .298 in 404 at-bats against righties). Among his 57 hits, 17 were doubles and eight were home runs. That has carried over into 2012, when Papi is hitting .500 (9-for-18) against left-handed pitchers.
Two seasons ago, a pitcher like Matt Moore—with his plus fastball and nasty slider—was even money to send Ortiz back to the dugout in three pitches. Now, Papi can go 3-for-3 off Moore or any other lefty without anyone being surprised.
In the previous four seasons, Ortiz has never hit higher than .267 for the month of April. In two of those seasons, 2008 and 2010, Papi finished the first month of the season below the Mendoza Line (.184 in ’08 and .143 in ’10).
Through 14 games in 2012, Ortiz is putting his previous four Aprils to shame. While he probably won’t match the ten homers he smacked in April ’06 (the season he hit a career-high 54), he should exceed his best Aprils in almost every other hitting category.
During his career, Ortiz has thrived during the middle months of the season. If he comes anywhere close to his monthly averages in 2012, he will end the season batting .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. (His career batting averages during the other months: .290 in May, .299 in June, .303 in July, .271 in August and .285 in September.)
In past seasons, Ortiz has had to overcome slow starts before finishing strong. This year, he won’t have any catching up to do. He’s been hot from the start.
Hitting coach Dave Magadan is now in his sixth season with the Red Sox. He has been with Ortiz during the depths of Papi’s career, and now with his help, Ortiz has returned to being the hitter that he once was.
It’s the basis for a good rapport between coach and player. Over the past two seasons Ortiz has looked as comfortable as any point in his career, and when adjustments need to be made he trusts Magadan to point them out and help him with them.
Magadan was quoted last week saying that Ortiz has the look of a “man on a mission.” If anyone would know, it would be someone who works with Papi every day and has seen him work to get back to being an elite hitter.
Having Magadan around is like having a security blanket for Ortiz. He had the same relationship with predecessor Ron Jackson, who helped him become a star. In the past season and change, Magadan has helped him reemerge as one.
Ortiz’s big smile, relaxed attitude and penchant for busting peoples’ chops have made him the center of attention in the Red Sox clubhouse since his arrival in 2003. But to say that he’s been a team leader during that whole time would be a stretch.
Dave Magadan told WEEI’s Alex Sepier last week, “There’s no question that he’s a rallying point on the team. When he’s going well, he’s excited and he’s into the game, he’s getting big hits, he leads us.”
And because he has walked the walk so far this season, Papi doesn’t mind trying to talk the talk. He had no hesitation telling the media following Boston’s 6–2 loss to the Yankees last Friday, “Is it going to take until July for us to start winning? We need to step up, do something different and make things happen.”
Outside of Dustin Pedroia and occasionally Kevin Youkilis, the Boston clubhouse is a taciturn one. Ortiz needs to be one of those players to shake the Red Sox out of their slumber. It can’t be just big smiles all the time for one of the team’s most important players.
For all his wisecracking and toothy smiles, Ortiz is a proud man and a proud player. The road bumps he endured from 2008-10 are still fresh in his mind, even if he has bounced back considerably since then.
Boston’s fans and media can be incredibly brutal. Each at one point wrote Papi off as washed out during that two-and-a-half year stretch (never mind that Ortiz had a prolonged struggle with a wrist injury during that time).
It’s not just the critics that Ortiz wants to answer to. He wants to prove something to himself, to make up for those moments since 2008 when his plate appearances have been un-Papi-like. Each time he struck out in a key situation or had an inside fastball blown by him during that time, it hurt him more than it hurt his fans.
Ortiz is out to right every wrong he committed at the plate during his slumping years. And he’s out to right every wrong written and said about him.
Of course, it also helps that regardless of what David Ortiz does for the rest of his Red Sox career, his legacy cannot be challenged.
This is, after all, one of only two players remaining on the team who was on the roster for both the 2004 and ’07 World Series titles. For a four-season stretch, he was the most clutch player in baseball. The owner of walk-off hits in consecutive ALCS elimination games—against the Yankees, no less.
And however this season ends, he will go down as one of the most universally loved players in Red Sox history. A slugger whose tenure in Boston has spanned an entire decade—a rarity this day in age—and has been replete with unadulterated joy.
So yes, he still carries a chip on his shoulder. But his past accomplishments already make his career up to this point a smashing success. He doesn’t need to worry about his credentials, and he can just play ball. The clearer his mind, the sweeter his swing.