Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ortiz Over Slow Start

Ortiz, 39, was mired in a nasty slump for the better part of two months (4 KomMedia)
David Ortiz is no stranger to slow starts. In 2008, 2009, and again in 2010, Ortiz slumped badly at the beginning of the year. Every time fans and media questioned whether he was done, and each time Papi proved them wrong. Granted, those were the three worst seasons of his Boston career, but he still averaged 28 home runs, 97 RBI, and an .854 OPS, proving there was plenty of life left in his bat.

This year, however, it really looked like Ortiz was done for good. For more than two months he was helpless at the plate, scuffling through his worst slump in five years. Following play April 27th, he was hitting .200/.312/.415. One month later his line was even worse, at .216/.303/.377. A closer look revealed that he was not the victim of bad luck or small sample size, but rather was suffering from increased ground balls (which, in his case, means more outs into the shift) and weaker contact. Papi had become, at age 39, a demonstrably worse hitter.

John Farrell had seen enough, and gave his struggling DH a few days off to clear his head. The break seemed to pay off when Ortiz responded with six hits over his next four games, but the boost proved short-lived. On June 10th--more than a third of the way through the season--he checked in batting a lowly .219/.297/.372 with just six home runs and 21 RBI to his name.

More troubling than Ortiz's terrible average and on-base figures was the disappearance of his once-prodigious power. Just one year removed from his eighth 30-homer, 100 RBI season (and his second straight with a .255 ISO), Ortiz was on pace to finish with his worst power numbers since his forgettable Minnesota days. His signature power was absent for much of the spring: from April 25th through June 9th, he managed only two home runs and 13 RBI.

As his failures and frustrations mounted, it appeared increasingly obvious that Ortiz was near the end of the line. Boston's cleanup hitter was dragging down the lineup, with numbers that would make Mario Mendoza wince. Dan Shaughnessy compared Papi's pursuit of 500 home runs (he began the year with 466) to Tim Wakefield's interminable (and ultimately costly) quest to reach 200 career wins.  There were calls for him to be removed from the starting lineup against lefties--long his kryptonite--so that Hanley Ramirez could mercifully take a break from left field on occasion. Not wanting upset his team's elder (and notoriously cranky) statesman, Farrell refused, dutifully penciling in Ortiz's name every night in spite of his worsening skid.

With Ortiz's cold spell persisting into June, Boston faced a rather uncomfortable situation. Ortiz, who is due a pricey vesting option in 2016 (which, barring a season-ending injury, he will reach), swore he would block any trade, which he can do thanks to his 10-5 rights (10 years in the majors, five with one team). Boston and Ortiz were stuck together like Matt Damon and that guy who looks nothing like his supposed twin, only nobody was laughing.

Ortiz wouldn't budge, and Farrell wasn't about to bench his biggest star and a future Hall of Famer. All the while, Boston was stuck in the mud or, more accurately, the cellar. Even with the Sox stinking up the joint in the first half (and Ortiz was a big reason why), the team's longest tenured member preferred to go down with the ship rather than abandon them for a contender. Both sides refused, or perhaps were unable, to give up on each other.
Ortiz has turned his season around, but the Red Sox haven't (Fox Sports Radio)
Fast forward six weeks, and Farrell's patience (or was it just stubbornness?) has paid off.

Slump? What slump? All is fine with the three-time World Series champion's swing, thank you very much. The ball is jumping off his bat again and flying out of the ballpark. His OPS has climbed back over .800--a 133 point improvement since tumbling to .670 on June 10th. He's righted the ship, even if the team he plays for hasn't.

Slowly but surely, Papi's bat has come around. He rediscovered his power stroke as the weather warmed, slugging seven home runs and driving in 15 over the last three weeks of June. He still wasn't hitting for average, with just three multi-hit games and a .254 mark during that time, but at least he was back to clearing the fences with regularity.

In July he's been back to the Ortiz of old, tearing the cover off the ball and making pitchers pay for their mistakes. His hot streak culminated in one of the best games of his career Sunday night. Both the Red Sox and Ortiz were at their best, as Papi paced Boston's 11-1 romp over Detroit with two home runs and a career-high seven RBI as part of a four-hit day. He continued his torrid hitting last night as well, bashing his 20th* homer of the season off John Danks (a lefty!) in the bottom of the first.

*That makes 14 consecutive seasons with at least 20 round-trippers for Ortiz--the longest streak in the majors. Once in danger of missing that plateau, he now has his sights set on for another 30-homer season, which would be his third straight and ninth overall.

With 14 homers and a .616 slugging percentage over the past six weeks, Ortiz has followed up one of his deepest funks with one of his hottest tears. After the drought has come a deluge, washing away the misery of Ortiz's April and May. Someday he'll stop hitting, but that day doesn't appear to be coming soon. The lesson, as always, is never count David Ortiz out.

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