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Wed May 2, 2012 1:00am|
By Nicholas Minnix
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David Ortiz has been a force since he joined the Boston Red Sox prior to the 2003 season. His rotisserie production's fall-off came rather suddenly, in a manner of speaking, in 2008, when he got off to the first of a few consecutive terrible beginnings to his seasons. Later in 2008, he ended up on the disabled list with a partially torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, which required surgery and affected him once he returned.
Throughout those years prior to his 2011 campaign, Big Papi remained virtually the same type of hitter: a hulking, plate-crowding, intimidating hitter who drew walks because of those traits and was deadly when hurlers made mistakes that he could yank. He was also a bit of a hack.
A few years ago, some - this scribe among them - believed that Ortiz's bat speed had begun to desert him. The history of players with his body type doesn't - or, at least, didn't - suggest gradual decline was likelier than a sharp drop-off. Pitchers began to fear him less and challenge him more often.
Regardless of how much he's lost - anyone who thinks that Ortiz still whips it with the same ferocity at 36 that he did at 30 is kidding himself - the Red Sox sent him a message. Twice, in fact - when they chose to exercise his option for the 2011 season and then when they offered him arbitration and not the kind of multi-year contract he was hoping for.
Ortiz must've realized that he had to evolve as a hitter to survive and command the kind of money and security that he wanted as his career winds down. He was - understandably - disappointed that Boston didn't take note of his 2011 growth, when he struck out in a mere 13.7 percent of his plate appearances (a career best and roughly 10 points better than his figures in each of the two seasons prior) and batted .309.
So, he had doubters. In the fantasy baseball community as well. Who was convinced that Ortiz could repeat as a top-50 roto player, like he was last year? That some of his peripheral marks weren't flukes? That he was a changed man? He's not eligible anywhere other than UT, for crying out loud. What a drag if he tanks it again!
But Ortiz has lost considerable weight - you can't help but notice - and this season is backing up his 2011 results. In fact, he's bettering them. He's struck out only 13.3 percent of the time, and his contact rate (85.6 percent) is easily a career high. He's swung at and missed only 6.4 percent of the pitches he's seen, a lifetime best and better than his mark last year (7.0).
In his career, Ortiz has been close to ordinary (.263/.337/.477, 0.47 BB/K) against left-handers. In 2011 and 2012, he's ratcheted up his marks against southpaws (.347/.431/.609, 0.76 BB/K) dramatically. Watch him. He stays closed against them and doesn't give anything away.
Ortiz's career spray charts haven't changed much in his career, but the authority with which he hits to all fields has. Lifetime, Papi has posted a .908 slugging percentage when he pulls the ball, a .605 slugging rate when he hits it to the middle of the field and a .575 mark when he goes to left field. Last year and this one, those rates evened out: .730 SLG when pulling it, .636 in the middle and .733 when he goes oppo. He's going the other way with tremendous success.
And he's blistering the ball, with liner rates notably above 20 percent for these two seasons.
Ortiz has done well to adjust to his slowly waning physical ability and really become a more complete hitter. When you think about the discipline it takes for a slugger - and he's always been a better hitter than the average all-or-nothing slugger, so don't give him too much credit - to adapt this late in his career, it's impressive.
This season, Papi has walked a good bit less often than he usually does. He's also swinging a little more often. Wouldn't you, if you were having so much success doing it?
Will that catch up to him? Unlikely. He's improved his approach and outcomes versus southpaws as well as his ability to drive the ball to all fields. He won't sustain this .386/.439/.693 start, obviously. But, as long as he remains healthy, he should be a huge asset. Don't be afraid to accept a deal that includes the UT 'handicap' because you're worried that you'll get burned.