Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Red Sox Player Preview: David Ortiz

The Boston Red Sox are branded into the identity of the city like no other team and, arguably, no player has meant more to the franchise in the last 10 years than David Ortiz.

Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield may still be on the team but Ortiz is the only player from that 2004 curse reversing Red Sox team that exemplified "the bunch of idiots", as Johnny Damon called it.

Lefties, slow starts and birthdays are
the greatest challenges facing the Sox slugger
Affectionately called 'Big Papi' by the Fenway faithful, Ortiz has given Sox fans plenty to cheer for in his eight seasons donning a Boston uniform. Whether it's been his late inning heroics on the field or his charismatic and charitable self off of it, he's earned the respect and adoration of the city and it's fans.

However, things haven't looked so bright for the hero in the past couple of years. Amongst two slow starts as well as steroid accusations in 2009, Papi's unfortunately lost a bit of that support. Last year, he even heard some boos.

Cities' relationships with their star athletes tend to end in more tragedies than fairy tales. It's sad to say but this could very well be the case for Ortiz. 2011 could be Big Papi's last year with the Red Sox. And he doesn't plan on retiring.
We will look at his 2010 statistics, his career highs in parenthesis, and his 2011 outlook.

Games: 145 (159, 2005)
Average: .275 (.282, 2009)
On-Base Percentage: .370 (.445, 2007)
Slugging Percentage: .529 (.636, 2006)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .899 (1.066, 2007)
Home Runs: 32 (54, 2006)
Runs Batted In: 102 (148, 2005)
Runs: 86 (119, 2005)
Doubles: 36 (52, 2007)
Walks: 102 (148, 2005)
Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA)*: 28.9 (65.9, 2007)

*Weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA) is a sabermetric statistic from Fangraphs.com. It's a statistic that is based off of wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average), and measures the number of offensive runs a player contributes to their team. It is a way of determining how valuable a player was to their team offensively. The MLB average is 0.0, so a positive wRAA value denotes above-average performance and a negative wRAA denotes below-average performance.

2011 outlook:

The most important thing for Big Papi will be avoiding his now customary slow starts. Papi's an emotional player and it's part of what makes him such a great player. However, it can also be a detriment. For the past two seasons, Ortiz has heard the media go on and on about how his career was nearing a close, being told he was old and washed up.

It started in 2009 when Ortiz went 149 at bats without hitting one out of the park. A career low. It wasn't just the homer-less streak that was concerning fans though. Ortiz had also struck out 30 times in the first month, it was beginning to look the end was nigh. Papi ended up pulling out of the slump and actually led the American League in home runs for the second half of the season. However, it didn't help matters when history repeated itself the next season.

In the first month of 2010, Ortiz was hitting .143 with just one home run and 21 strikeouts.

"I know how to hit. I'm just not going to hit when people want it," Ortiz told the media back in July of last year. "I wish I could hit when I wanted to, but it doesn't work like that. It's a process, man."

Papi's taking his time in spring training seriously,
hoping to avoid an April slump
This year, Ortiz is making sure that he speeds that process up a little bit. He may not survive another slow start.

Papi has quietly had a productive spring. He's hit .273 with a .726 OPS. He even stole a base. Ortiz has been going on most of the road trips -- which usually veterans skip -- taking 57 at bats this spring.

The reps are something Ortiz believes will help him avoid another abysmal first month of the season.

"I'm trying to play more," said Ortiz last week. "Hitting is all about timing. You come in from the off-season and sometimes you don't get to play that much in spring training. That takes something away from you and that's why sometimes it takes longer [to get going]. So, I'm trying to play more now. That's why I'm doing the road trips and things like that. So I can get more at bats and see more pitches."

Avoiding a slow start would go a long way for Papi. In each of the past two seasons he's been able to overcome those sluggish Aprils to end the season posting some decent numbers for the Red Sox. Last year, Ortiz was the home-run derby winner and hit over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs on the season -- the sixth time in his career he's accomplished those feats. If he had kept his production at a consistent level all season, his numbers could have been even better.

"My goal is not April,'' he said. "My goal is October. But I'm not going to lie to you, I'm going to try to do my best to hit in April like I hit in June. I hope I can get a [boatload] of hits in April so people can shut the [expletive] up.''

While logic would suggest that if Ortiz has a good start and follows it up with the same production he's had the past two years (his worst years in Boston) then he could have a big year. Yet, there's some mitigating factors to consider.

The first is that Ortiz isn't getting any younger. He'll be 35 this year, the same age as former Sox slugger Mo Vaughn in his final season in the MLB. Though Vaughn's career ended mainly due to his battles with injuries, there's no guarantee that an older Ortiz won't have those same struggles. That combined with the natural deterioration of his skills, Sox fans shouldn't expect numbers like Papi's 54 homer season in 2006.

Another problem facing Ortiz this year is his struggles against lefties. His numbers have trended downwards with each passing year. Last year Papi had an OPS of .599 versus southpaws, down from .716 in 2009. However, while manager Terry Francona recognizes this, he says he will still start Ortiz against most left handed pitchers.

Could this be the last year in Boston
 for one of the original curse breakers?
"I see his numbers against lefties. Believe me, I do," said Francona back in late January. "[But] you can't just sit him because I'm not sure he’d have as much success against righties. I really believe that."

Francona pointed out that Ortiz is a proud guy and confidence is key for him. So, perhaps it would be a big help that there'll be a little less pressure on him this season with new arrivals Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in town.

Yet, there's pressure on Ortiz this year not only to help his team, but to help himself as well.

The Sox picked up his one-year $12 million option for the 2011 season. It's highly unlikely that the club would be willing to give Ortiz a multi-year extension, so this is probably Papi's last year with the Red Sox.

Papi plays a position that's going the way of the dinosaurs, the designated hitter. It's a position that gets paid to do nothing but hit. It's unlikely that the Sox front office will be willing to dish out more money on an aging hitter -- even if it is Ortiz.

"That's going to be up to them,'' he said, "but when you got a guy who can give you 30 [home runs] and 100 [RBIs], you wouldn't change that for anything. Not that many teams have that guy in that position that can produce. Once you got one, you want to keep him, regardless.''

Even so, Ortiz isn't worried about this being his last year with the Red Sox. His thoughts are honed in on the baseball field, not his contract.

“It doesn’t concern me at all. I’m not even thinking about it,” he said. “I’m just thinking about putting up a good season, and the rest of it will be taken care of.”

Previous Players Previewed:

Kevin Youkilis

Adrian Gonzalez

Dustin Pedroia

Carl Crawford

Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Jacoby Ellsbury

JD Drew

Marco Scutaro

Jon Lester

Clay Buchholz

Mike Cameron

Josh Beckett

John Lackey

Want to know more about David Ortiz’s outlook in 2011? Please comment and ask questions in the comments section. Also, find me on Twitter @SaverSports.

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