March 30, 2010
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
David Ortiz'z struggles in 2009 are well-documented.
Through 40 games and 149 at-bats last year, Ortiz was batting under .200 and had no home runs. By June 1, he was batting .185 and had one home run.
It was the longest power drought in history to start a season by a player who had hit 50 home runs in a season, as Ortiz did in 2006.
At the All-Star break, Ortiz was batting .222 with 12 homers and 47 RBI. And he continued to come on strong; over the last 69 games of the season, Ortiz hit .258 with 16 home runs and 52 RBI. And over the season's final 104 games, the Red Sox DH had 27 homers and 81 RBI.
But Ortiz went backward in the postseason, posting an anemic .083 batting average that was the result of one hit in 12 at-bats. There were no heroic home runs, no RBI, not even a walk. Ortiz had just one single and four strike outs.
The deep fears that the Red Sox faced early in the season came back in a flash. Once again, Ortiz looked like a spent player.
And so far this spring, Ortiz has done nothing to convince anyone that he isn't a shell of the star he once was.
Through most of spring training, Ortiz has reverted, looking like a feeble, frustrated former slugger. He still can't consistently catch up to fastballs, and too often fouls off, pops up, or swings and misses.
In truth, Ortiz's struggles began in 2008, his worst year ever as a Red Sox player. That year he posted a .264/.369/.507 batting line that included just 23 home runs and 89 RBIs. He followed that by hitting .186 with just one home run in the postseason.
For two consecutive seasons, Ortiz has struck out more often than he's walked, a radical departure from his prime years.
And last year, though his power numbers advanced slightly from 2008, his averaged dipped to just .238. That was a huge decline for a player who had hit at least .300 three times in his first six years with the Sox.
Last season, scouts noted that Ortiz was aware he couldn't catch up to the fastball. So he cheated and started so early that he couldn't adjust to the breaking ball. Ortiz was late on fastballs, and early on breaking balls and change-ups.
As a result, teams just pounded Ortiz with fastballs inside because he couldn't consistently drive them.
Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan diagnosed Ortiz's problems last year.
"When you start earlier you've got to make up your mind sooner about whether to swing and when you do that you swing at a lot of balls out of the strike zone. When you're able to wait and allow the ball to travel, your ball-strike recognition is better. Once he has trust in being short and direct to the ball, that's when he's going to recognize pitches a little better and that's when we're going to see him driving the ball."
What's worrisome is that Ortiz hasn't been able to maintain proper adjustments, and his negative tendencies have returned.
This spring, through 53 at-bats, Ortiz is hitting .226 with 12 strike outs. He has no walks and a .293 on-base percentage.
It's part of a decline that's been ongoing for a couple of years. However, now that he's in the final year of a contract that will pay him $12.5 million this year, the Red Sox may not be as patient as they were last year.
If Ortiz continues to struggle early on, the Red Sox will likely cut bait and make a move for a reliable hitter.
Ortiz's rapid fade is eerily reminiscent of another former Sox star. Jim Rice was an MVP candidate in 1986, declined rapidly, and was completely washed up by '89. He was just 36 at the time.
Like Rice, the 34-year-old Ortiz has often been mislabeled as a slugger. Both players were viewed as power hitters because each had a proclivity for home runs.
But the truth is, in their primes, both were simply great hitters. Both players hit over .300 numerous times, and because they were big, strong men who often made contact, balls regularly left the park.
But when vision goes, as was the case with Rice, it's over. And when bat speed decreases, as seems to be the case with Ortiz, a hitter's career faces the same consequences.
Just like Rice's sudden and rapid decline, watching David Ortiz wilt is both sad and disappointing.
The Red Sox were hoping for one last hurrah from Ortiz this year, but that appears to be nothing more than wishful thinking at this point.
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