The Papi Dilemma: Behind the Decline of David Ortiz

Matt GelfandCorrespondent IApril 14, 2010

NEW YORK - AUGUST 08:  David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox speaks to the media regarding his positive test for a performance enhancing substance as part of the 2003 Survey Test during a press conference at Yankee Stadium on  August 8, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

"I can't think of a player who contributes in so many ways...David embodies what we want a Red Sox player to be.  It was just an easy decision for us that David as a player and David as a person is someone we want to commit to and commit to for a long time." - Theo Epstein, April 11, 2006.  

Hindsight's a bitch, isn't it Theo?

A little food for thought...

David Ortiz through April 14, 2009: 

.172 BA, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 7 K

David Ortiz through April 14, 2010:

.153 BA, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 13 K

Yes, it's only seven games. Yes, we should be worried. 

Through the first two weeks, although it didn't seem mathematically possible, Ortiz has managed to regress.  

The man who once embodied everything it meant to be a member of the Boston Red Sox now makes fans cringe every time he steps to the plate.  

Papi looks like an out of shape Mike Tyson surrendering to a no-name he would've planted on the canvas in short order a decade earlier, or a lumbering Kevin Garnett still shouting expletives at his teammates and treating each game with unmatched intensity, only he's become the fourth best player on his own team, struggling to stay afloat with over 40,000 NBA minutes on his war torn legs.  

It's one of the saddest things to watch in sports when once-great athletes become mere mortals.

And in the case of Ortiz, possibly the most clutch hitter in Red Sox history, adorned by all New Englanders, his cloak of armor is suddenly fading.  

The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately fans, still skeptical from last season's miraculous story of two halves, have already turned on him.  The rest of us continue to live in the past, remembering the good old days, when we didn't expect him to strikeout every at bat.

The bar has been dropped to appallingly low levels for Ortiz this season. Mendoza line? Please. One sacrifice fly per week seemingly qualifies as a success for Papi these days.  

And no doubt he'll get a standing ovation if/when he accomplishes that feat, from a crowd that expects nothing more from him.

The hits he has gotten this season have mainly been a product of the shift that defenses astonishingly still deploy for him.  The fact that he still gets that sort of respect around the league, despite his recent struggles, is a testament to the amount of respect he built during his peak from 2005 to 2008.  

So what's really wrong here? His bat speed is obviously the main culprit, as he's behind on fastballs and trying to overcompensate on changeups, leaving his batting zone with more holes than Pinhead's face.  

You know how all baseball videogames represent a batter's "hot" spots with red, and "cold" spots with blue?  

Well, Papi might have the first ever all-blue zone.

His confidence is non-existent.  It's as if in his mind it's already May 14 and he's still homerless, repeating 2009's first half all over again.

David Ortiz stars in 2010's breakout summer blockbuster, "Groundhog Season!"  

Ortiz did go 1-for-4 Wednesday against the Twins.  Then, without any rhyme or reason, he attempted to steal a base.  

You can figure out the result of that disastrous decision without looking at the box score. It's as if he's overcompensating, saying to himself, "I have to do something to help this team, I'll worry about if it's rational or not later."  

What's more, Ortiz's spot in the lineup isn't as cushy as it once was. Last year, Ortiz had more ground to stand on, and he could rest assured manager Terry Francona would keep him in the lineup while he tweaked his approach and figured out what was wrong. Job security was never an issue, because the Red Sox had no depth.

Epstein changed all that with the additions of Adrian Beltre, Jeremy Hermida, and Bill Hall.  

Beltre's arrival pushed another Red Sox fan favorite, Mike Lowell, to the bench, and irate fans calling for Papi's head currently treat Lowell's offensive potential like the second coming of Manny Ramirez.  

Hermida is currently Boston's hottest hitter, and seems like a clear upgrade over the (lack of) production Ortiz is currently generating.  

Whether the true source of Papi's decidedly ungraceful decline is age, lack of PED's, or simply a mental block, we might never know.  

But one thing is certain—the longer his mind-boggling slump continues (or the longer Francona keeps penciling in his name on the lineup card), the less patience Red Sox faithful will have with him. 

Fans may soon be forced to re-consider the nickname "Big Papi" and replace it with something a little more appropriate, like "Pequeno Nino."