After a season in which a league-best offense led the Red Sox to a world championship, the team underwent a number of changes in its lineup. They allowed Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. and Stephen Drew to seek employment elsewhere, opting to give some of their younger players an opportunity to prove themselves in everyday roles. Part of the reason they were able to do this with confidence was that they had one of the truly elite hitters plugged into the middle of their lineup in David Ortiz. Bona fide power bats are becoming harder to come by in today's game, but Boston's designated hitter is one of them, making him a valuable commodity.
The lineup still has productive bats around him, most notably Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, but Ortiz is clearly the straw that stirs the drink, as they say. So far in 2014, the offense has sputtered a bit, and the big man in the middle of the lineup could be a reason why. While he hasn't gotten off to a horrible start, it's not the Ortiz we are used to.
In his age-38 season, his first month ended with a .250/.356/.440 line, good for a 112 wRC+. That's still safely above-average, and is perfectly fine for most hitters around the game. However, for a designated hitter with the expectations we all have for him, it leaves a little bit to be desired. Luckily, it doesn't appear that it's a performance that's here to stay. A big reason for the deflated line is a low batting average on balls in play. Today, his BABIP sits at a low .260 mark, which would be his worst since 2001, when he was still a middling player on the Twins. Compare that to last season, when a .321 BABIP helped lift him to a 152 wRC+, and it's easy to breath a sigh of relief. This isn't all bad luck, though. Ortiz has been lacking the same kind of hard contact we've seen in the past. The power is down a bit -- his .190 isolated power is well below the mid-.200's number he typically puts up. Per Fangraphs, just 16 percent of his batted balls have been line drives, his lowest rate of his career, and the first time in three years he's been below 21 percent. While that's worrisome, it's also important to remember it's April, and it's been a particularly cold one. These numbers could and should rise with the temperature.
His approach has also been different in the start of the season, though. For whatever reason, Ortiz has been less aggressive than he's been in the past. So far this year, he's swung at less pitches than he ever has, especially at those in the zone. His Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches in the zone swung at) is a full eight points lower than his career average. Possibly correlated is that he's seeing more first-pitch strikes than he has in his career. Patience has always been a key part of Red Sox offenses in general, and especially for Ortiz, but he may be taking it to an extreme this year. Moving forward, he should start jumping on some of those first-pitch strikes. If they're going to give him those pitches to start an at bat because they figure he'll watch it go by, he has to make them pay for it and drive them.
A last concern is that he's been even more pull-heavy than usual. Even before shifting became as prominent as it is nowadays, opposing managers put the infield shift on Ortiz. He's been a pull-hitter for his entire career, and he's not going to stop now. However, when he's really at his best, he drives the ball the other way, and punishes the Monster with wall-ball doubles. Looking at his spray-charts, he isn't distributing his hits as well so far.
Obviously, the sample size is really small right now, and the weather could be a problem here. The issue stands though, as Ortiz's hits -- especially doubles -- were scattered all over the field a season ago. When he is using the entire outfield, he thrives as a batter.
In the end, there shouldn't be too much of a concern. Most of his issues have been with hard contact and extra base hits, and he has enough of a track record to be given the benefit of the doubt for now. If it continues when the weather starts to warm, then maybe it's time wonder if age is finally catching up with him. As for the approach issue, if I have faith in any hitter to make adjustments to improve his game, it's going to be David Ortiz. Improvement should be on the way, and the Red Sox will need it. If Boston's lineup is going to come close to the level it was at in 2013, Ortiz is going to have to be the one to push it there.