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.