Was 2009 the beginning of the end for Big Papi?
Make no mistake about it. Things were bad for David Ortiz early last season.
After an 0-for-7 night against the Los Angeles Angels on May 14, when he struck out three times and stranded a franchise-record 12 runners, he told reporters, "Just put down 'Papi stinks.'" He was benched the next night, and by the time May was over, he was batting .185 with but a single home run to his name.
That lonely home run didn't come until May 20 in his 164th plate appearance of the season, putting an end to the longest home run drought of his career. With a puny .287 slugging percentage and a strikeout coming every 3.7 at-bats, many thought Big Papi's time in the sun would soon set for good.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the retirement home. From June 1 on, David Ortiz suddenly returned to form, and then some. The numbers speak for themselves: a .264 batting average, a .548 slugging percentage, 27 home runs and 81 RBIs.
Yet some people still don't believe that Ortiz's first-half slump was an aberration, especially after spring training got under way and he started play with a 1-for-21 stretch. That start, combined with his positional limitations, has Ortiz's average draft position in ESPN.com standard leagues at No. 168 overall and falling. But isn't this all a huge overreaction?
"I've got nothing to prove," Ortiz told the Boston Herald. "The season, of course, is different. The season is the season. On April 2, who gives a [expletive] what you did in spring training? How many guys have you seen struggle in the spring and then boom, crush the season? And how many guys have you seen crush spring training and when the season starts, struggle like hell?"
It certainly sounds as if Big Papi has a big chip on his shoulder.
It's up to you whether you believe Ortiz when he says that his inclusion on a list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 was not the result of his actually using steroids. However, there's no disputing that there may have been legitimate reasons for Ortiz's early-season struggles in 2009: the pressure of playing important games in the World Baseball Classic, some wrist discomfort that carried over from the previous season's major injury, combined with his father's cancer diagnosis. It all adds up to a plausible explanation for Ortiz's poor April and May.
Or it simply could have been an extreme case of what Ortiz has gone through during the course of his career. He's always been a bit of a slow starter in terms of power production. Just take a look at his career splits in slugging percentage:
So maybe we shouldn't be all that alarmed, certainly not to the extent that he's fallen in most fantasy drafts. Here's a look as to where Big Papi is being taken in relation to other players with similar run production last season, and keep in mind that the stat line we are using for Ortiz doesn't include the first two months of the season:
Is Ortiz worthy of being up there with Justin Upton? Of course not! He's not likely to steal any bases in 2010, let alone 20. But if Ortiz had merely a respectable first two months of production rather than the spectacular failure that he endured at that point last season, you're looking at more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, which would have made him one of only 20 players to reach that milestone in 2009.
Plus, consider that Ortiz's performance against left-handed pitching has been abysmal during the past two seasons: .221 in 2008 and .212 in 2009. If that continues in 2010, Red Sox manager Terry Francona will certainly not hesitate to sit the slugger against left-handers. That should protect Ortiz's average from being too much of an albatross to your fantasy team while not putting too much of a damper, if any, on his power numbers.
Back in early June, when his average was way below the Mendoza Line, Ortiz told reporters he would make a comeback: "They say I can't hit no more. That I'm done. What, I have one arm now? I'm not 45." Although it is clear his skills have diminished some, and nobody should expect a return to the days when Fenway fans were treated to all those home runs and a .300-plus batting average to boot, we have to agree with Big Papi.
He's just as old as Lance Berkman, and unlike the Houston Astros first baseman, Ortiz didn't just undergo arthroscopic knee surgery. Yet despite somewhat similar projections for 2010, Ortiz is still being drafted, on average, eight rounds later.
There's simply no reason for it. He's not Grandpapi just yet.