Following a hitless effort in a meaningless Fort Myers affair last spring, a collection of reporters slowly surrounded David Ortiz in the Red Sox' expansive spring training clubhouse and began to ask him if he was concerned about his lack of production. He was 1-for-19 at the time.
Such inquiries might seem silly, for it was just spring training. But the questions about Ortiz were surfacing because of what he went through the year before, getting off to a painfully slow start before turning it on in June. Would the same thing occur? Did he have enough left to dig himself out of it once more?
Of course, when he followed up his slow spring training by hitting .143 with one home run through the first month of the 2010 season, the questions came fast and furious. No longer were the early-season struggles just something to keep an eye on. They were part of what was becoming a legitimate pattern and causing some to begin to wonder if one of these years Ortiz would never bounce back.
Then, just like in 2009, he did, producing his finest season since 2007. Now, as he turns 35 and enters what could be his final season with the Red Sox, we wonder again if Ortiz has the magic in his bat that produced an exceptional summer. Can David Ortiz deliver back-to-back 30-home run, 100-RBI seasons?
For his part, Ortiz said he felt as good as ever as he tore apart American League pitching for the better part of five months following the slow start this year. That could be classified as cliche, but in Ortiz's case it is a bit more notable.
His 2009 season was not up to snuff in large part due to the fact that the left wrist injury that nearly ended his 2008 campaign was likely still an issue. It had something to do with the slow start that year and its effects could've carried into the offseason, for all we know. That is speculation, of course, but it’s important to note that Ortiz's only struggles as a member of the Red Sox came in the aftermath of the one major injury he has suffered as a major leaguer.
By that logic, 2010, with the exception of what might have been an aberrational April, was a return to normalcy for Ortiz. He reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for the first time in three years and had his highest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in that time. The six-time All-Star was not at the gaudy levels of his first five years in Boston, but in a year dominated by pitching throughout baseball he saw a return to offensive prominence, ranking in the top 10 in the American League in home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits, walks, slugging percentage and OPS. Exactly what you want in your designated hitter.
For his efforts and perhaps because there are fewer and fewer teams that can boast of a DH of that quality, the Red Sox chose to pick up Ortiz’s $12.5 million option, far above what the going rate is for the position’s elite players. He made clear he wanted a long-term extension but has indicated he is OK with the situation as it stands.
So, Ortiz is physically fine, mentally satisfied, motivated by a true contract year and coming off a spectacular campaign. All that can keep him from duplicating his 30-homer, 100-RBI showing is a continued regression against left-handers, who nearly turned Ortiz into a platoon player as he slumped through the early portions of the season.
Big Papi’s OPS vs. southpaws has fallen in each of the last four years, bottoming out at a Cesar Izturis-like .599 in 2010. His at-bats have also decreased each of the last four seasons without injury, a slight indication that Terry Francona is less reluctant to give his DH a rest now and then vs. a difficult left-hander.
A lighter workload would obviously curb Ortiz’s chances to reach the aforementioned milestones. So, too, would a slow start, questions from reporters and a third straight season of having to dig himself out of a hole. Until he shows he cannot, however, it’s impossible to say his 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons are a thing of the past.
Each day of November, NESN.com will explore a different issue facing the Red Sox this offseason.
Nov. 17: What will John Lackey's second season in Boston bring?
Friday, Nov. 19: Is Daisuke Matsuzaka ready to give the Red Sox a solid season once again?