The dichotomy of David Ortiz

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David Ortiz
Left-handed pitchers are making David Ortiz look old. (USA Today)

David Ortiz is still a great hitter. Sort of.

The Boston Red Sox suffered through almost a hundred years without winning a World Series until turning things around in 2004 – which was then followed by two more championships in 2007 and 2013. Through all of this success, there has been one constant on the team – designated hitter David Ortiz. And the owners, I guess. Oh, and Fenway Park. Whatever. You get the idea.

“Big Papi” was a castoff from the Minnesota Twins who Boston snatched up, and he has become one of the town’s all-time favorite sports figures by anchoring the Red Sox offense with an impressive combination of power and patience.

This season has been rough for the Red Sox. They keep finding new ways to lose games – oscillating between implosive pitching, frightening defense and comatose offense. The pitching was always a question, but it’s the team’s offense that was supposed to be what carried them to the playoffs.

Ortiz hasn’t been involved in any of the defensive shenanigans since he is the team’s designated hitter. The DH is a feature of all American League teams – and eventually all National League teams when someone smart figures out that teams that play against each other in the same sport should have the same rules.

Last season, Ortiz, as the team’s DH, was one of few offensive bright spots for the first-to-worst Red Sox. Sure, his numbers have been slowly declining as he’s gotten older, but so have all offensive numbers around baseball. And no athlete can avoid the diminishing skills that accompany getting older – though some of them have tried. Right, Alex Rodriguez? Right, Roger Clemens? Right, David Ortiz (allegedly)?

We’re almost a third through of the way through the season and Ortiz has only six home runs and a .690 OPS. A player’s OPS is his on-base percentage and his slugging percentage added together. It’s not a perfect statistic, but it accounts for all the different aspects of offense: contact, patience and power.

Sorry to bring math and numbers in here, but we are talking about how he’s performing and not how nice a guy he is. Numbers are one of the best-known ways to quantify things. And the tool we will be using to quantify is OPS. An elite hitter in baseball would have an OPS of .900 or higher. Any player with an OPS under .700 better be really good at defense or he better be really good at something other than baseball.

Ortiz is a designated hitter, and as such has been designated by his team to hit. So there’s an expectancy of a higher OPS than the average player who also plays in the field. The average OPS for DHs this year is around .800 and any team would be pleased as punch to have that kind of production throughout the year from their DH.

Most of you already know this, but some of you don’t, so it’s worth mentioning that left-handed batters hit better against right-handed pitchers – just as right-handed batters hit better against left-handed pitchers. And while right-handed batters tend to hit just slightly worse against righties, left-handed batters are usually much worse against lefties.

It’s such a drastic advantage for the pitcher that most teams have what’s called a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) – one of the great baseball acronyms up there with TOOTBLAN (Thrown Out On The Basepaths Like A Nincompoop). A LOOGY’s sole job is to come in and pitch for one out against a lefty hitter.

I’m bringing this all up because Ortiz is left-handed, and he is killing right-handed pitching to the tune of an .880 OPS and a 162-game pace of 30 home runs. These numbers alone would rank him as the third best DH in the league. Very impressive indeed.

But, and it’s a Kim Kardashian-sized “but,” against left-handed pitchers, he as an under .300 OPS. That kind of number is less than what most pitchers can do and the designated hitter was specifically designed to replace the anemic batting production of pitchers. More like “Little Papi,” am I right, guys? Also Ortiz has no walks against lefties. Zero walks. This is a guy who averages 80 walks a year in his career. More like “Quadriplegic Papi,” right, guys? Because he can’t walk. Okay, I know, I’m a monster.

Maybe Ortiz will get back on track and start hitting well against lefties. Or maybe he’s getting old and this ability was the first thing to go. The obvious solution appears to be benching Ortiz against lefties and letting him destroy righties for the rest of the season. He’d still be the team’s primary DH because there are a lot more righty than lefty pitchers.

A great philosopher once said, “The elderly, although slow, and dangerous behind the wheel, can serve a purpose.” – Lloyd Christmas, Dumb & Dumber

The Crime Dog got Tracied in L.A.

To delve further into this conundrum, let me tell you the story of how Jim Tracy ruined Fred McGriff’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame.

Those of you familiar with my writing know I consider Jim Tracy to be one of the worst baseball managers of the last couple decades. Those of you with eyeballs, and any amount of common sense, will most likely have observed this for yourselves. One of the many stops of the Jim Tracy Destructor of Baseball Teams Tour was the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2003 as he was wreaking havoc in Chavez Ravine, the team signed Fred McGriff to be its first baseman. It was a sound front office decision that Jim would eventually poop all over.

McGriff was one of the preeminent first basemen of the ’90s and still had some hitting skills left in that aging bat of his. And though he should have probably signed with a team that had a DH position – or a manager not named Jim Tracy – he chose the Dodgers as the place to potentially put the finishing touches on the end of his near Hall of Fame career. He was closing in on the magic 500 home run mark that would almost guarantee his enshrinement in Cooperstown.

However, McGriff was left-handed. Or “is,” I guess. I don’t know. Is that something that can change? Probably, right? Maybe an amputation at some point. Anyway, he was a lefty when he played baseball – that I know.

Being at the end of his career, one would be correct in assuming he was getting old and some of his skills were diminishing. Two things he definitely could no longer do well were hit left-handed pitching and play every day. But Jim Tracy was running the show so those two glaringly obvious points were set aside.

I hate to bring up numbers again, but McGriff had a meager .600 OPS against left-handed pitchers and a very effective .800 OPS against right-handers. So, you have an aging player, who needs some days off to rest and who can’t hit lefties, playing every day and you’ll never guess what happened next. Oh, wow, you guessed it on the first try. I guess it was super-obvious. McGriff struggled against lefties and got injured.

Even more confounding, was the fact the Dodgers had also signed right-handed first baseman Ron Coomer that year. He couldn’t hit righties but he destroyed lefties with an over .900 OPS. So, Jim Tracy could have had Commer start against the lefties and McGriff against the righties and would have had a Voltron combo first baseman with an .850 OPS. Not to mention the additional rest for McGriff.

McGriff’s injury was essentially career-ending and though he tried like hell to make it to 500 home runs, he came up just a few short. No Hall of Fame. No enshrinement. He can only visit the Hall as a ticket-buyer like the rest of us.

The 2015 Red Sox find themselves in a very similar situation, and they already have the solution in-house with right-handed slugger Hanley Ramirez. He could easily take over being the DH against left-handed pitchers. As a bonus, since he’s the worst defensive player in baseball this year, making him DH not only boosts the team’s offense but the defense as well.

I understand manager John Farrell’s reluctance to bench Ortiz against lefties. There’s the status thing and the veteran leadership and all that. I get it. Ortiz is the heart and soul of the team. But this team is on the brink of collapse, and either the heart or the soul needs a jump start.

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