Over the years, the man known as Big Papi has given Red Sox fans a lot. He gave us those two walk offs in the 2004 ALCS. He gave us his incredible clutch hitting in the 2005 season, when he hit 11 home runs in late and close situations and was more than twice as good as the average player in high leverage situations. With the Red Sox picking up his $12.5M option last week, it is fair to ask: what does David Ortiz have left to give us?
The notoriously bullish forecasts of Bill James sees Ortiz as being essentially the same player in 2011 as he was in 2010, hitting 33 home runs, and driving in 112 runs over 151 games at DH, exactly repeating his .380 weighted on base average from 2010 across a few more games next year. Most Red Sox fans would be happy with that and it isn’t an unreasonable expectation. However, there are a few reasons to be concerned.
The first thing that stands out is Papi’s rising strikeout rates. During his best seasons, from 2003-2007, Ortiz’s K% was 20.36, just slightly above average. The last two seasons have seen that rate jump up quite a bit to 24.8% in 2009 and to 28% last season. His walk rate has not been as strong as it once was either, but his 13.5% last year was at least in line with his career numbers and still well above average. As he is aging Ortiz is becoming more and more a three-true-outcome hitter, losing base hits to strikeouts.
Overall, Ortiz’s swing% hasn’t changed dramatically, but he has been swinging at pitches out of the zone at a steadily increasing rate. From 2003-2007 he swung at pitches outside the strike zone 18.04% of the time. Since that time his numbers have risen to 20.6% in 2008, 22.1% in 2009 and 26.3% in 2010. Pitchers have been catching on. In 2010 they threw only 41.5% of pitches in the zone, a very significant decrease from the 47.7% he has seen over his career. Ortiz has tempered the negative effects of this trend somewhat by making more contact on out of the zone pitches than ever before, but he is also swinging and missing more overall.
The pitch that is killing Big Papi is the slider. At one point he was exceptionally good at neutralizing this key weapon. Between 2003 and 2007 Ortiz never posted a negative number of runs above the average on sliders. Since 2007 he has been getting worse and worse against them, posting a -1.42 runs per 100 pitches on that pitch last season. He has also declined some against fastballs, providing fewer runs against those pitches over the last three seasons than at anytime before.
Despite these troubling signs, David Ortiz was very productive in 2010 and can be again in 2011. The key is power. During his prime, Ortiz hit 21.1% of his fly balls out of the park. For the last three years it averages out to only 15.7%. Now, in his 2010 renaissance, he rebounded from two awful seasons with a very solid 19% HR/FB. He lost significant time in 2008 to injury and that could have driven down those ’08 and ’09 numbers. In 2010, of his 33 home runs, hittrackeronline classified only one as "lucky" but 11 others as "just enough." His average true distance was better than the league average, so the signs from last year are largely positive. That is a big deal for Red Sox fans, as there is no ignoring the fact that a David Ortiz who hits 20% of his fly balls out of the yard is a very different player than one who only hits 15% out.
Looking at the power numbers Ortiz put up last season is encouraging. Even as his strikeouts increase, Papi can still hit with enough power and get on base steadily enough to provide 2.5 -3.5 Wins Above Replacement or between $11.25-$15.75M of value, making his option a pretty safe bet for Boston. Should they try to work out an extension, it should begin with a baseline rate of $5M per season and feature incentives based on plate appearances increasing that number to $8-$10M. A deal structured that way would give