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David Ortiz: “Papi”-ing the Bubble

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It's not terrible to be a part of Red Sox Nation these days. Your team's offense has some serious firepower – Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are highly productive, Jason Bay is absolutely murdering the ball, and even Mike Lowell is experiencing a bit of a resurgence and could put up a 25-homer season at his current pace.

Sure, the rotation has struggled some, but there's plenty of talent waiting in the wings and the bullpen is…well, to put it corny, a Green Monster. But that's not the problem.

Something is still missing from the mixture. A certain Latin flavor that gives the team… ah yes! That David Ortiz guy. The man who averaged 42 home runs from 2003-07 – along with an absurd .961 OPS in the worst of those years – is now 130 at-bats into a homer-less season and has only ten in 336 at-bats since returning from injury last season.

I can hear Red Sox fans now…

"But he's still walking, that's a good sign, right?" The fact that Ortiz is still drawing walks is a positive, yes, in that his downfall can't really be attributed to some massive problem like his plate approach just completely eroding. I don't think his regression has ever been about his plate discipline, though.

Ortiz's calling card has always been that, yes, he has what are called "old player" skills (lots of power, little speed or defensive agility), but he has incredibly quick wrists for such a big guy.

That fact is borne out (to use a small example) in the fact that he hit 38 home runs in '07 and '08 in AL East ballparks, and 28 of those were pull shots down the line in right. He may be a big guy, but he's powerful, so if you try to beat him with any kind of inside fastball he'll make you pay – along with the usual killing of any meatballs that get hung out to dry over the middle.

Now, that lone skill appears to be gone. It would make sense, given that Ortiz is now 33, that he might generally start to drop off a cliff, and it would also make sense for that process to be rather sudden and ungraceful given that his one unique gift – his wrists – was operated on last season.

I apologize for the rough math, but I'm not trying to disprove Einstein's Relativity Theory here. However, if you look at Ortiz's numbers from the start of 2007 through his injury last year compared to the numbers since, you see an unsurprising trend. He may still have a good eye, but his walks have crept down a bit (from 15.9% to 14.5%) while the strikeouts have gone up (18.4% to 19.9%).

I'm obviously no expert, but that looks to me like a hitter who is both losing his ability to dominate inside pitches (and perhaps striking out on them more) and struggling to figure out how to compensate for it given his newly altered (both surgically and chronologically) wrists.

I think part of that struggle is Ortiz pressing because everyone still expects him to be that 40-home run guy, when really he could be just as useful if he was only the 23-home run guy they wound up with last season.

I don't know yet if Ortiz is doomed. He may still come around, even if only to the tune of 15 or so homers, which would still make him a useful hitter for the Red Sox – just not one who will be around for much longer.

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  • Latin power hitter? Are you saying Julio Lugo is not the answer at cleanup?