In 2011, has David Ortiz been as good as he was during his years as a perennial MVP candidate?
“Absolutely – if not better. I think he’s actually even better,” said teammate Jason Varitek. “It’s there to be absolutely considered [in the same light].”
Here’s a quick breakdown of what has been a huge campaign for the 35-year-old. He is on pace for 33 homers and 104 RBIs. He is hitting .311, the second highest average of his career. He has a .397 OBP, tied for his third best mark. His .588 slugging percentage is in the mix with what he did from 2003-05. His .985 OPS is the fourth best mark of his career, well ahead of teammates Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia -- all of whom have been mentioned as MVP candidates.
Yet in some ways, the fact that Ortiz' numbers match up with the lines he produced during his run of five straight top five MVP finishes from 2003-07 does not fully suggest how good he’s been, for a couple of reasons.
First, across baseball, offense is down significantly from its 2003-07 levels. So in relative terms, Ortiz has been even more of a force than his numbers might suggest at first. Perhaps the best measure of that notion is his OPS+, which measures his OPS relative to that of the league while adjusting for the ballpark he plays in.
Entering Friday, Ortiz had an OPS+ of 165 – 65 percent better than that of the average player in the AL, a mark that is behind only his 171 OPS+ of 2007 as the best of his career. That 2011 mark ranked third in the AL, behind only Blue Jays masher Jose Bautista and Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera.
Secondly, Ortiz has been better than ever against lefties. He is setting new career standards for average (.338), OBP (.429) and OPS (1.035) against southpaws. That, in turn, means that his at-bat to at-bat consistency is arguably better than it has ever been in his career.
It has been, in short, a monster season for Ortiz, a year that reached its monstrous pinnacle in the just-ended 15-game hitting streak in which he hit .500 (28-for-56) with seven homers. (Ortiz went 0-for-3 on Friday to snap the streak.)
Of course, Ortiz is not supposed to be doing this. He was supposed to be amidst the “productive decline” phase of his career, the peaks of 2003-07 having been left in the rearview mirror.
At least, that was the conventional wisdom based on decades of evidence. But it was not Ortiz’ outlook. And he is clearly relishing the opportunity to leave those who doubted his abilities in a position of silenced stupor.
“I’m not going to stay 20 my whole life. If you’re good at what you do, it doesn’t matter how old you get. You’re good,” said Ortiz. “Most of the people who say that, if they played baseball, their career was average, so they struggled.
“Dude, I’m a strong human being. I’m a beast. I’m strong as hell. I know how to stay strong. That’s why, at my age, you see me doing what I’m still doing. Somebody told me, ‘Guys, when they get to your age, there’s no way they can hit 30 homers.’ Really? We’ll see. We’ll see.
“People always want to talk about that. It’s not the same for everybody. How many guys can play as many games as Cal Ripken played? There’s only one Cal Ripken. How many guys are going to get as many hits as Pete Rose got? There’s only one Pete Rose.
“There’s always special people in this game. You can put it on the same page. Trust me, what I’m doing right now is something that I know I have the capacity to do it.”
Ortiz understands how such claims sound. He recognizes that there is arrogance in the boasts.
Yet he does not apologize. It is part of who he is. More importantly, it is an attitude that has made him great for his career in Boston. And it is that sense of self-certainty that permitted the slugger to overcome his struggles at the start of both 2009 and 2010 to re-establish himself as one of the most formidable sluggers in the game.
“Even through tough times, I’ve always been confident about myself. I never have a lack of confidence about me,” said Ortiz. “I know how to bounce back. It’s easy to deal with things when you come out on top, but when you go down in the pile, there’s not too many people who know how to get out of that.”
Ortiz also suggests that his consistency in 2011 is noteworthy for another reason. He is batting in the fifth spot in the lineup, typically a place in which he is protecting the Sox’ cleanup hitter, but one in which the players behind him – Carl Crawford for 41 games, J.D. Drew and Jed Lowrie for 27 games each – have not been the sort of power-hitting threats who would give opponents pause about pitching around the Sox DH.
He notes that he is being challenged less frequently than ever, seeing fewer fastballs than ever. The numbers back up the claim.
The percentage of fastballs that Ortiz has been thrown throughout his career has almost always aligned with his performance at the plate. In his five seasons as a top-five MVP candidate, he saw the percentage of fastballs he faced decline every year, from a peak of 60.8 percent of pitches in 2003 to a low of 51.9 percent in 2007.
Then, as he fell short of that superstar standard from 2008-10, opponents started attacking Ortiz amidst suggestions that his bat speed had declined. By last season, he saw fastballs on 58.3 percent of the pitches that were thrown at him.
According to Fangraphs.com, he has seen fastballs on 51.6 percent of the pitches he’s faced this year. That would be the lowest percentage of fastballs Ortiz has seen in any year in his career.
“What does that tell you? There’s you’re answer. I’ve got all that extra work to stay consistent at what I do, because it doesn’t come easy,” said Ortiz. “[Opposing pitchers] know I’m dangerous, and I need protection. Simple as that.”
That is part of what has made Ortiz’ year so interesting. He has adapted to display a better approach to all-fields than he has shown in years. His plate coverage on off-speed pitches away has been different than it had been in recent years, playing into his tremendous season.
His performance this year has not generated the MVP buzz that he did in past seasons. A couple of factors play into that development.
First, with defensive metrics offering a clearer gauge of a player’s cumulative value, the deck is stacked more than ever against a DH who cannot contribute with the glove. Secondly, the dramatic walkoff hits that were once a signature of his game have not been present (even though, in close-and-late situations – 7th inning or later with the Sox up by one, tied or with the tying run either on base, at the plate or on deck, Ortiz is hitting .293 with a .406 OBP, .569 slugging mark and .975 OPS).
Even so, there is little to criticize about the slugger’s year. At an age where decline is the normal pattern, Ortiz has shown an ability to adapt and to excel.
History suggests that his season is an aberration. Ortiz insists that he will not be a prisoner to such patterns, and that his days as a lineup force are far from over.
He is reaching an interesting stage in his career in terms of milestones. He is now at 377 homers in his career. Plateaus such as 500 homers, while still distant (only 14 players have hit 123 or more homers after turning 36), are appearing somewhat more clearly on the horizon.
“Right now, I’m looking at myself like I’m doing really good. Playing three or four more years, things can get interesting. But that’s not something I’m really focusing on. I’m focused on coming here everyday, kicking ass,” said Ortiz. “It doesn’t even cross my mind right now.”
But while he is not focused on milestones, Ortiz is mindful of his future, and his conviction that he can continue to be what he has been, and what he is now: A beast.
“Nobody’s going to stop me from doing what I’ve been doing. I’ve been doing this for years – for years,” said Ortiz. “I’ll take my chances. Simple as that.”