David Ortiz has not been much of an April slugger the last few years. In April of 2009, Ortiz hit .230/.290/.333, and followed that up with an even worse May (.143/.278/.242). April 2010 saw Ortiz struggle to the tune of .143/.238/.286 with one homer. While he finished both of those campaigns in a good place -- his 2009 OPS+ was 101, and 2010's 137.
April 2011 wasn't great, but it was significantly more productive than the two that came before. Ortiz posted a .267/.373/.395 line, and while that still lacked power -- Ortiz went deep just twice in April -- his contact rates and patience were vastly improved over the 2009-2010 starts to the season. It wasn't just luck on balls in play or anything, either, as his strikeout rates can attest to (2009 is April and May):
Ortiz never struck out very much prior to 2009. The 21.4 percent whiff rate he posted that year was a career-worst in seasons in which he qualified for the batting title, and the start of the 2010 campaign made it seem like things were only going to get worse as his bat slowed and Ortiz aged. While he cut down on the strikeouts for the rest of 2010, finishing at 24 percent, that was still a new career-worst, and in 2011 he would be one year older.
The Red Sox picked up his $12.5 million option, signaling they thought he had at least one year left in him in which he would be worth a hefty payday. For their show of faith, they received Ortiz's most productive campaign since 2007, as he hit .309/.398/.554 with 70 extra-base hits. It all started with his April, too -- he struck out just 10.8 percent of the time, and while that didn't last the season, he finished with a career-best 13.7 percent punch out rate, and just five more strikeouts than walks. In the previous two years, he had struck out 123 times more often than he drew a walk.
Ortiz has drawn raves for showing up to camp in better shape the past two years, and he credited getting more at-bats in the spring -- through unofficial or official games -- as part of the reason he was better prepared for the season. Given he's turned into something of a slow starter, it's not a surprise that more reps means a better Ortiz, faster.
Another area he's received credit in is in going the opposite way with the ball more often and more effectively. The answer to his resurgence has a little more to it than that, though, as this comparison table of his production on balls struck in different directions shows (measured in OPS+)
Ortiz improved on his production going the opposite way in 2011, and markedly, but he was already far better than the average lefty at doing so. He didn't do it significantly more often, either, as 75 plate appearances ended with a ball going the other way, as opposed to 63 and 75 in the previous two campaigns.
The more major change is in how he performed on balls he pulled. He was below-average with his pull production in 2011, but it was still a major step up from his struggles in that area in 2009. He also compensated well by hitting the ball better up the middle and the opposite way, as well.
When you combine the poor pull numbers from 2009 with his uncharacteristic performance against fastballs that season, you get the sense Ortiz was struggling with his bat speed. Fangraphs' pitch values are not predictive in nature, but one of these things is not like the others:
|Runs vs. FB|
Now we see a slimmer Ortiz, one who seems to have regained much of his previous bat speed. The Red Sox saw enough in his 2011 to give him a $14.75 million deal for 2012, and at this point Ortiz has to know that, given his age and previous decline, he's on a year-to-year basis from here on out. It might turn out that's good news for the Red Sox in both the present and future, as long as Ortiz keeps working to stave off the effects time has on his swing.