On April 30, 2010, David Ortiz‘s career looked to be all but finished. He’d just completed his third consecutive sub-par April, and was hitting an abysmal .143/.238/.286. He was having a terrible time recognizing pitches (especially against left-handed pitching), controlling the strikezone, and hitting the ball squarely with the barrel of the bat. If he wasn’t popping up infield fly balls, he was stubbornly hitting weak ground balls straight into the Ortiz shift. Fans and members of the Boston and national sports media cried foul, and demanded his outright release. The Red Sox front office, perhaps foolishly, remained patient. Though his April performance sample size was small (63 PAs), Ortiz’s performance in 2008 and 2009 had shown that his best days were clearly behind him. Like many players with the dreaded “old man skills,” his decline had been sudden and dramatic; thus lessening the likelihood of an imminent turnaround. Luckily for Red Sox fans, the front office’s patience with Ortiz paid off. Over the remainder of the season, he was their most potent offensive threat hitting .286/.385/.558. The Red Sox rewarded him by picking up his $12.5M option for this season.
This season, with Adrian Gonzalez in the fold, and Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury returning from injury riddled seasons, the Red Sox were merely hoping for Papi to provide a reasonable facsimile of his 2010 season. No longer did they need him to provide the heavy lifting, as they had brought in others to do so. Instead, he was being asked to provide steady production and lineup protection to those batting higher in the order. I guess someone forgot to tell Ortiz .
So far this season, Ortiz has produced a phenomenal .437 wOBA, which is good for fourth in the major leagues behind only Jose Bautista (.499), Matt Kemp (.455), and Prince Fielder (.440). His return to form is likely the result of his change in approach at the plate. For starters, rather than consistently hitting into the shift on the right side of the field, he’s spraying the balls to all fields. This change alone has helped him not only cut down on the probability in which he creates an out, but also elevate his batting average.
Secondly, he’s managed to improve his contact rate to a career high 85.0%, while maintaining a swing rate (45.9%) that’s consistent with his career norms. Not surprisingly, his improved contact rate has also had an affect on his strikeout rate. To date, Papi’s managed to reduce his strikeout rate from 28% last season to 11.8% this season without seeing a proportional corresponding drop in his walk rate. His ability to put the bat on the ball has increased his chances of getting on base via the hit. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ortiz’s performance is that while his 2011 BABIP (.311) is nearly identical to his 2010 mark (.313), he’s somehow managed to post a batting average that’s 55 points higher this season (.325) than last (.270).
Ortiz’s drastic improvement across the board has prompted much debate over whether or not the Red Sox should re-sign him after the season. In fact, this question came up during last Wednesday’s live game chat with our friends at It’s About the Money Stupid. When the question came up, I expressed that I wasn’t convinced the Red Sox will re-sign him either during or after the season. Right now, he’s crushing the ball like it’s 2006 all over again. If he maintains his numbers for the remainder of the season, it’s likely he’ll be looking for a multi-year deal (2-3 years) at a rate exceeding his current $12.5M salary. With Ortiz going into his age-36 season, it’s unlikely the front office will be willing to make that kind of a commitment. Regardless of his most recent performance, players with his age and skill set are far more likely to see negative performance regression than positive. This is especially true with designated hitters who lack defensive and positional components to provide additional value.
While Ortiz is hitting extremely well right now, who’s to say he’s going to continue hitting at this rate? Does anyone actually believe he can maintain an 85% contact rate and 11.8% strikeout rate? I certainly don’t. While I realize that he’s accumulated 6.5 times more than the number of plate appearances required for either rate to become reliable, it’s pretty clear he’s playing far above his true talent level. He’s never posted rates anywhere near these levels previously. Furthermore, he’s doing so at an age where most players are declining in that respect. While there are excptions to every rule, I don’t feel Papi is that exception. Over the previous three seasons, we’ve steadily watched Ortiz’s bat speed and plate discipline deteriorate. Now, all of the sudden it’s returned? Please forgive me for being skeptical of his turnaround sticking for the long haul.
Back to the question at hand: what should the Red Sox do about Ortiz’s contract situation? Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe expressed that in-season negotiations could become a “distraction” for Ortiz; especially if he “believes he’s worth two years and $25 million and the Red Sox think he should get one year and $10 (million).” While I certainly see his point, I’m not convinced his performance will be adversely affected by negotiating a deal mid-season; although, that is a possibility. To play devil’s advocate, it’s just as possible that a contentious negotiation could motivate Ortiz to prove the front office wrong; thus potentially improving his overall performance. That said, I don’t think it’s wise for negotiations to occur during the season because I don’t believe in making multi-million dollar decisions based on an incomplete campaign.
Trying to re-sign Ortiz during the free agency period would allow the Red Sox to not only evaluate the market, but also determine his projected performance value and weigh it against his perceived market value. If Ortiz’s demands lie too far outside of either indicator’s acceptable range, the Red Sox should let him walk and start looking for more efficient alternatives. With the way the 30-something DH market has played out over the past three offseasons, few have found the overwhelming riches they’d originally expected. In fact, most signed late in the offseason, frequently agreeing to contracts that fell well below their initial demands. David Ortiz, great season or not, could find himself in a similar position this winter.
So what are your thoughts? Will the Red Sox re-sign him? If so, to what terms do you think he’ll ultimately agree? I am predicting the Red Sox’s best offer will top out at one year, $12.5M with an option for a second season at the same price. In the end, I think Papi turns down the deal, and moves on. Let me know if you agree or disagree by giving your opinion in the comment section.