David Ortiz: To Pinch Hit or Not To Pinch Hit?

After Sunday's win - on a day after a thrilling come from behind opening night, a day on which Josh Beckett signed a contract which gives the Red Sox baseball's best rotation through 2014, and a day during which we were all recovering from Neil Diamond jumping the shark - all anyone on WEEI could talk about was David Ortiz. As I sit down to write this column, Ortiz has just popped out to center with Kevin Youkilis on second base, in the eighth inning of a 5-4, Yankee-led ballgame. It's the second game of the season, and the second time Ortiz has come up against a lefty in a key situation. With Mike Lowell on the bench, it's worth exploring the question of whether to pinch hit for Ortiz or to let him settle in and see what happens.

After Sunday’s win – on a day after a thrilling come from behind opening night, a day on which Josh Beckett signed a contract which gives the Red Sox baseball’s best rotation through 2014, and a day during which we were all recovering from Neil Diamond jumping the shark – all anyone on WEEI could talk about was David Ortiz.

As I sit down to write this column, Ortiz has just popped out to center with Kevin Youkilis on second base, in the eighth inning of a 5-4, Yankee-led ballgame. It’s the second game of the season, and the second time Ortiz has come up against a lefty in a key situation. With Mike Lowell on the bench, it’s worth exploring the question of whether to pinch hit for Ortiz or to let him settle in and see what happens.

It’s been clear to anyone who has watched more than a handful Red Sox games over the past three seasons that David Ortiz is no longer the player he was in his prime. Between 2003 and 2007, Ortiz was more unbeatable as a hitter than basically anyone this side of Albert Pujols, with power to all fields, amazing plate coverage, and an uncanny ability to capitalize on mistakes. Over the past two seasons, however, Ortiz has seemed more mortal: an OPS+ drop of nearly 50 points between 2007 and 2008, and then another 20 last season. His power to left seems to have vanished, he’s swinging at more balls, and his contact rate has begun to decline while his K rate rises.

So certainly we’re not watching the same David Ortiz who set a Red Sox single-season home run record, or carried the team on his shoulders during one week in September, 2004. But the question before us is more specific: should Ortiz be lifted for a pinch hitter in key situations against left-handed pitchers?

Ortiz’s track record against lefties is uneven, During his prime, he regularly put up an .800-.900 OPS vs lefties; over the past three seasons that has shrunk to the mid-to-low .700s. And clearly last season’s epic early season struggles have only added to the perception of Ortiz as a declining player. His performance against lefties has generally followed the same trend – a large decrease in OPS from 2007 to 2008, and then a smaller one from 2008-2009. So the trend certainly supports the perception: Ortiz has increasingly struggled vs. lefties over the past few years.

None of that means that we need a sea-change in how we approach the DH spot, however. Mike Lowell is an incredibly valuable commodity off the bench, but let’s not kid ourselves: David Ortiz is still a dangerous hitter, and he’s earned some rope. Let’s not forget that no matter how ugly his final 2009 batting line may have been, after the month of May he became – once again – one of the most dangerous hitters in the AL, leading the league in HR over that span and putting up a top ten OPS in the process.

It’s possible that, down the line, it will become necessary to pinch hit for Ortiz in those situations. But this early in the season it’s easy to magnify problems, and it’s equally important to remember that it’s a long season. There’s no question in my mind that the best thing this team can do is give David Ortiz time. Sox management has rarely panicked, and this situation is not one in which to start. So for all the hand-wringers wondering just what the hell Tito was thinking: take a deep breath, look at the calendar, and try not to count David Ortiz out just yet.

Categories: Boston Red Sox David Ortiz Josh Beckett Kevin Youkilis

16 Responses to “David Ortiz: To Pinch Hit or Not To Pinch Hit?” Subscribe

  1. Daniel-san April 7, 2010 at 11:14 AM #

    wOBA vs. lefties 2007 – 2009:

    Player A: 351, 374, 347
    Player B: 373, 321, 310

    Player A has hovered around the 350 mark for the past 3 years while Player B has declined each year and now hovers in the low 3's. Player A is a catcher that is popular with his pitching staff and can allow Victor Martinez to DH on days he catches. As I'm sure you've figured out, Player A is Jason Varitek and Player B is David Ortiz.

    Terry Francona needs to make this happen! What is the downside? V-Mart can catch 100 games instead of 150, Tek can catch 60+ games instead of I don't know, zero, and Ortiz can DH against righties and pinch-hit on days the starter is LH.

    • TroyPatterson April 7, 2010 at 11:25 AM #

      Player C: .367, .405, .368

      That's Lowell vs Lefties. I don't see why we should add variteck to the debate.

    • Tim Daloisio April 7, 2010 at 12:09 PM #

      Love…love…love the blind A/B comps. Always a fun game.

  2. Daniel-san April 7, 2010 at 11:33 AM #

    I can't argue against Lowell offering a marginal upgrade on offense against LHP over Tek. However, real or imagined, pitchers like pitching to Varitek more than Martinez.

    Additionally, are we assuming soon-to-be 32-year-old Victor Martinez will be catching 150 games this year?

    • TroyPatterson April 7, 2010 at 12:14 PM #

      Your right that it's probably best Tek is used against lefties and this would be a good way to maintain positive value from him. I wouldn't say it's the best way to solve the question of Papi vs lefties though. If lowell is moved soon i would immediately switch to your option as a solid choice for a rotation using Tek mainly against lefty starters.

  3. Mr Punch April 7, 2010 at 11:50 AM #

    To get back to the original topic: In the 8th inning last night, Ortiz came up in a key situation. The Yankees brought in a LHP to face him. The Sox have a hitter who is now significantly better than Papi against lefties (and hit well in Florida). There are no defensive implications, of course. IMHO the pinch hitter was mandatory.

    It's very early in the season, and I understand why Papi's given some rope, and why he started the opener against Sabathia. But I see two questions ahead: (1) When would you ever use Lowell if not in that situation? (2) If Francona, in effect, can't or won't manage a declining Papi effectively, doesn't that force the FO to get him off the roster if he doesn't start hitting?

    • Andrew April 7, 2010 at 4:39 PM #

      Again, we're two games in. Beckett had a rough end to last season and got roughed up in his last start. Should we start thinking about running Tazawa or Bowden out there instead? In answer to your question 1, the proper places to use Lowell are these: first, as a pinch hitter for someone else (Scutaro, Beltre, Cameron – someone who doesn't have the offensive capability of David Ortiz, past or present) or second as a regular sub-in for Beltre or Youk. He can get plenty of AB's that way. And again, we're two games in – what evidence do we have that Francona can't or won't manage Papi correctly?

      I'm just not sure what – aside from two lousy months at the START of the 2009 season, have convinced so many that David Ortiz has somehow become a heavier version of Willie Harris.

  4. Kurt April 7, 2010 at 11:52 AM #

    Bottom line: If Ortiz continues to struggle, it's nice to know that we have other viable options at DH in the organization rather than having to make a panic-based move ala Mirabelli (I know – a different position, but best example of a Sox panic-based move in recent memory) a couple years ago.

  5. Tim Daloisio April 7, 2010 at 12:09 PM #

    "You guys wait till [expletive] happens, then you can talk [expletive]. Two [expletive] games, and already you [expletives] are going crazy. What's up with that, man? [Expletive]. [Expletive] 160 games left. That's a [expletive]. One of you [expletives] got to go ahead and hit for me."

    Don't think it's getting to him at all….do you?

    • TroyPatterson April 7, 2010 at 12:35 PM #

      I felt the same way with the way I was reading these "reporters" on Twitter last night essentially labeling him as done based on a 0-7 start. I feel they are pushing the issue as it gives them plenty to write about.

  6. Tim Daloisio April 7, 2010 at 12:17 PM #

    Francona on this very topic on WEEI just now mentioned that he left Ortiz in because with a man on 2nd and 0 outs, Papi's propensity to pull the ball when he makes an out would have moved the runner along.

    He just didn't count on Papi popping out to Center….

    • TroyPatterson April 7, 2010 at 12:33 PM #

      That's actually not a bad defense. Lowell would be likely to pull to the left side and get the runner stuck at second. While Lowell is more likely to get on base his overall chance of pushing Youk to third was probably the same if not lower.

  7. polako1 April 7, 2010 at 5:11 PM #

    Seems simple to me: treat Ortiz as if he is a hitter in a slump, and in certain situations, pinch-hit for him if it's in the best interest of the club. If he doesn't like it, then it's up to him to do whatever it takes to make sure he does not get substituted for in those situations. Respect for a player, or fear of a player, rarely wins a game for the team.

    • Andrew April 7, 2010 at 8:11 PM #

      Why would one treat him as though he's in a slump? We're two games in. As I write this, he just drove in the first run of this ballgame with a solid hit to right off – wait for it – a left handed starting pitcher. I know Sox fans aren't comfortable, generally, without something to complain over, but can we wait until he's got maybe 30 PAs?

      • Gerry April 8, 2010 at 12:53 AM #

        You hit the nail on the head. Papi is a highly emotional indiividual who performs better with support. The reporters from the Herald, etc. that have been laying in wait for him, and anything negative about Beltre, Cameron, Drew, Scutaro, are not Red Sox fans, have have little concern about success by the Sox and their players. They are the equivalent of ambulance chasing lawyers. IMO, take the high road with guys like Peter Abraham who, while he won't whitewash anything, loves the game and the team and won't be a party to a lynching. The answer is obvious about Papi. Keep him in the lineup 'till he starts hitting, as he did tonight. Same answer about Marco, JD, etc. I'm certain that some of these guys are chomping on Tums & Rolaids because Beltre, Cameron and Lackey are doing so well and Ells had a good game.

  8. BrandonStewart5 April 7, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

    Hopefully that clicks for him… there's a certain Yankee that's 0-10…