It's no secret that Big Papi was less than intimidating in the 2008 playoffs — indeed, for much of the season. It's really a tale of injuries, and how well we think Ortiz will do in 2009 is essentially the same as saying how healthy he will be.
Indeed, health is the key concern for Ortiz, who may think he needs the protection of a big slugger like Ramirez to succeed, but the numbers simply don't bear this out.Since joining the Red Sox in 2003, Ortiz has batted .289/.383/.580 in the cleanup spot, presumably behind and not ahead of Ramirez. When Ramirez lost essentially the month of September in 2006, Ortiz batted .285/.485/.658 with only three intentional walks. That really didn't change in 2008. Without Ramirez after the trade deadline, Ortiz hit better and reached base more than he did before the deadline.
Yes, the problem was injuries. Here was Ortiz's line by month in 2008:
- April: .184/.294/.350, 5 HR, 15 BB, 19 K, 119 PA, 76 sOPS+
- May: .318/.409/.617, 8 HR, 18 BB, 18 K, 127 PA, 176 sOPS+
- Aug.: .278/.426/.464, 3 HR, 25 BB, 20 K, 122 PA, 135 sOPS+
- Sept: .244/.323/.581, 6 HR, 10 BB, 13 K, 97 PA, 134 sOPS+
Ortiz had knee surgery before the '08 season, and that clearly affected him in April, as he struggled worse than in any month he's been in a Red Sox uniform. He found his stride in May — April 30 to be exact — only to be derailed by the partially torn sheath in his wrist. He returned with a vengeance in July, but the clicking continued to bother him, and it was clear he had not regained his power.
As late as Sept. 2, however, Ortiz had provided some great numbers since his return — a .310/.439/.508 line. He had walked 30 times in 34 games and struck out just 24 times. He wasn't hitting home runs (just four), but he was still dangerous (27 RBI and 39 hits, including 12 multi-hit and four three-hit games). Then he tanked.
What happened down the stretch and into the playoffs can't be explained by the injury bug. One decent assumption is that Ortiz, worried about the loss of power caused by his troublesome wrist (either because the wrist itself was bothering him or thinking about the wrist was bothering him), changed his approach. He slammed six home runs in the next 21 games, for an Ortizian .563 slugging percentage. But he hit just .225 and his walk/strikeout numbers crumbled, just seven walks to 13 strikeouts. Ortiz got more aggressive, and it cost him. His OPS dived to .850 — a 120-point drop.
His mood seemed to darken as well, at least based on his postgame comments. And this makes me wonder if in the final month Ortiz suffered not so much from the wrist injury — particularly as he won't be having surgery this offseason, after all — as from overthinking the wrist injury and the loss of Ramirez.
Part of the problem is perception. Ortiz's September struggles wouldn't have been as noticeable without the dramatic effect they had on his overall numbers, which were far more susceptible to change without the two months' worth of plate appearances he missed. Likewise, had Ortiz simply missed the month of April entirely, we wouldn't be discussing the season in nearly the same terms — his OPS+ would have been closer to 150 (of course he also would have missed three months to injury, and we'd still have those concerns).
So what can we expect from Ortiz in 2009? Assuming good health, it's hard to argue against a 150 or better OPS+. After all, from April 21 to the end of the season, he hit .287/.391/.566 — a hair better than what PECOTA had projected, and that includes the odd shift in approach that destroyed his numbers in September. Of course, good health is not a safe assumption when dealing with a full-bodied slugger with a history of knee troubles.
Likewise, if the Red Sox sign Mark Teixeira, that could do wonders for Ortiz mentally. He seems to need that feeling of protection behind him, even if he doesn't need the protection itself. It might be a factor in the Sox' decision-making this fall about whether to make a serious pursuit.