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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles- David Ortiz

Rounding out the infield, we have David Ortiz, who technically plays first base. He plays first base around 20 innings a year, all during interleague play games on the road. It has never been cringe-worthy exactly but with Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis setting the standard at the position, it isn’t great to see the large father there. It is always great to see him stepping into the batter’s box and the Boston Red Sox are just fine with paying him $14.575M to just do that, because, well, he is very good at the plate.

Hitting

During his prime, between 2003 and 2007, David Ortiz was absurdly good. He had an average wRC+ of 156. That just beats Hank Aaron’s (154) and Frank Robinson’s (155) career numbers, so it’s pretty good. His high watermark 175 wRC+ in 2007 isn’t so phenomenal that you could say it is like getting Ted Williams for a year, no, it was only the equivalent of a year of Barry Bonds.

After that incredible 2007 season, Big Papi suffered a wrist injury, limiting him to 109 games and weakening his home run power; that season he posted his lowest HR/FB ratio since leaving the Twins, with just 14.8% of his fly balls finding the seats. The injury carried over into the 2009 season and his reduced power (13.4%) compounded with a huge leap in his strikeout rate, which jumped to 21.4% after averaging 18.2% in his six years inBoston. It appeared that Papi Time might have caught up with the Red Sox DH. Ortiz was regularly jumping out in front on off-speed pitches and getting killed by lefties. With his generous mass, it was not hard to believe that the end had come for the 2004 ALCS hero. A painfully slow start to the 2010 season seemed to confirm Red Sox fans’ worst fears.

“But then what happened”… to borrow a phrase from Dustin Pedroia, “Laser Show. So relax.” David Ortiz put the wrist injury behind him and had an excellent 2010 season, especially given the nadir he had to rise up from. In the April, Papi had hit .143/.238/.286 for a wRC+ of 32. The man who had one been 75% better than the average hitter was 68% worse for the first 30 days of baseball in 2010 and yet, by year’s end he had a slash line of .270/.370/.529. His power had returned, with 19% of his fly balls turning into souvenirs. He still posted his highest strike out rate ever, 23.9%, but with his power and his ability to get on base, David Ortiz was once again a force in the Red Sox line up.

The big man could have left it at that. Had I been writing this profile before the 2011 season, I would say that his strike outs were a sign of his bat speed declining and that he would likely continue to whiff more than 20% but make up for it by walking and hitting the ball hard. That line of thinking assumes that David Ortiz is a baseball player like most baseball players that have come before. He is not. Big Papi is just more awesome than that.

By his own account, the presence of Adrian Gonzalez had a major impact on his hitting. Following his shoulder surgery after the 2009 season, discomfort forced Gonzalez to adapt his swing, transforming his upper cut power stroke into a more level stroke that resulted in more line drive contact, especially to the opposite field, and a higher BABIP, but less home runs. Ortiz was impressed with what Gonzalez could do hitting the ball the other way and adapted his own approach. The results were nothing short of incredible. Ortiz hit .309/.398/.554, his highest ever batting average; thanks almost entirely to his lowest ever strike out rate, 13.7%. He didn’t sacrifice much power, posting a .246ISO(career .261) and a HR/FB rate of 17.5% (career 18.6%). For any hitter, altering his approach at the major league level and succeeding is a colossal feat. Doing it as a 35 year old, who achieved superstar status with his original approach is just too much.

It is impossible to say what 2012 will hold for David Ortiz. The man is a professional hitter, and as a professional, he will hit. That’s what they pay him to do. After last season, all I can do is stand back and watch and admire.