Monday, May 13, 2013

Questioning Ortiz

Longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy made waves last week when he questioned the validity of David Ortiz's hot start. Shaughnessy has since caught his fair share of flak for insinuating that Ortiz is using performance enhancing drugs, especially since he did so without any hard evidence to back up his accusations.

But was what Shaughnessy did wrong? I don't think so.

Everyone seems to forget that Ortiz's name is on the list of players who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Whereas unlikable players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez have constantly been forced to answer to their past mistakes, Ortiz's murky history has been more or less swept under the rug.

That history is particularly relevant given his recent career trajectory. Ortiz struggled mightily in the first two months of 2009 and finished the season with a .238 batting average, nearly 100 points lower than the .332 mark he posted two years before. In 2010 he endured an equally painful start and struck out a career-high 145 times. Though still a great hitter, Ortiz was in his mid-thirties and clearly appeared to be a player in decline.

Then, in 2011 at the age of 35, Ortiz re-established himself as one of the game's dominant offensive forces. By slimming down, cutting his strikeouts in half and improving his performance against lefties, Ortiz rebounded to bat .309/.398/.554 with 29 home runs and 96 RBI (I'm still mystefied as to how he failed to receive any MVP consideration). The following year he was on his way to even bigger numbers when a torn Achilles derailed his season, limiting him to just one game after July 16th..

The same injury cropped up again this year and sidelined him until April 20th, but the combination of injury and missed time didn't stop him from pounding the ball upon his return. In his first 13 games back, Big Papi batted .440/.473/.840 with 17 RBI and a dozen extra base hits. He looked like the David Ortiz of old, hitting the ball with authority to all fields, driving in runs, and anchoring the heart of Boston's order.

Though Ortiz's torrid start to the season was unexpected, that does not mean it was without precedent. As Gordon Edes pointed out, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams both raked under similar circumstances. Ortiz is hardly the first player to perform so well at such an advanced age, either. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Frank Robinson were still studs in their age 37 seasons. Furthermore, it makes sense that Ortiz is aging gracefully as he's spent most of his career in the DH role, thus avoiding the wear and tear that results from playing the field on a daily basis.

Still, Shaughnessy was fair to wonder whether Ortiz is getting outside help. The steroid era has conditioned baseball fans to suspect everything and trust nothing. Everyone's burned too many times to simply accept a great story at face value. Baseball is much cleaner than it was ten years ago, but PEDs are still a problem. It would be naive not to acknowledge the possibility that Ortiz, who's used them before, could be juicing again.

PEDs are part of his story. They're part of the game. It's a touchy subject but, whether we like it or not, someone had to bring it up.

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