The Red Sox lost on Thursday to complete a sweep by the Orioles in Camden Yards, but one positive development did come of it: David Ortiz homered, snapping a 17-game drought that matched his longest of the past four seasons.
Facing reliever Chaz Roe in the eighth inning with the Red Sox down 6–4, Ortiz pulverized an 84-mile-per-hour slider that hung right over the center of the plate, sending it an estimated 431 feet to right centerfield. It was just his seventh home run of the year and his first since May 19, that coming off the Rangers' Yovani Gallardo. In the 17 games in between, he hit just .169/.225/.262 in 71 plate appearances. That line is boosted by the fact that three of his five walks were intentional, with two of them coming in the late innings of the game against the Rangers that immediately followed his last homer—a point at which Ortiz had homered in back-to-back games for the only time all season.
Alas, Ortiz's other 17-game homer-less drought immediately preceded that two-day binge, running from April 25 through May 15. To find one longer and contained in a single season, you have to go back to 2011, when he had both a 19-game outage (June 14 to July 6) and a 24-game one (April 3 to May 1). He's gone homer-less for longer, but all of those streaks, both wraparound and single-season, date to his days with the Twins. The longest in the latter category lasted 42 games back in '02, his final season before being non-tendered—one of the great roster bungles of the young millennium—and signed by the Red Sox.
That 2011 season didn't end well for the Red Sox, but despite Ortiz's multiple droughts, he did finish that year at .309/.398/.554 with 29 homers and a 154 OPS+, his highest since '07. By comparison, even with Thursday's homer, he's hitting just .220/.296/.385 for an 88 OPS+—numbers unseen during his 19-year-career save for a mercifully brief 0-for-20 stint with the Twins in 1999, back when he was 23. Given that he's not a young man anymore, one has to wonder if time has finally caught up to the 39-year-old slugger.
Even uglier than Ortiz's overall line are his splits against lefthanders. Though his career platoon splits are 164 points of OPS apart, the difference had narrowed in recent years. From 2012 to '14, he hit .301/.407/.584 against righties and .280/.342/.510 against lefties, still quite respectable. This year? Not so much: .277/.383/.508 in 154 PA against righties, but just .114/.111/.157 in 72 PA against lefties, awful enough that manager John Farrell benched him in favor of Hanley Ramirez in the team's last two encounters with southpaws—not to be confused with Ortiz's two-day benching at the end of May so that he could work at finding his stroke. Farrell said that the sitting against same-siders is temporary, but that hasn't made it easier for the voluble slugger to swallow. Via WEEI's Rob Bradford, Ortiz said on Wednesday, “I’m just not playing, that’s it … That’s something you’ve got to ask the manager. I’m not the manager here. I’m just a player, and I do what I get to be told. John told me yesterday I’m not playing today, so I’m here.”
Everybody has their theories about what's going on with Ortiz. Maybe it's MLB's new pace-of-game rules, of which he's been perhaps the most vocal critic among hitters. Ortiz is averaging nearly two full seconds less between pitches (from 25.2 last year to 23.3 this year), though he was as low as 23.4 seconds back in his injury-shortened 2012. Maybe he's trying too hard to get the ball in the air, as former teammate Pedro Martinez suggested on MLB Network recently. The stats certainly show that he's hitting ground balls with increasing frequency; via FanGraphs, 44.3% of his balls in play have been worm-killers, with a 1.25 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio, up from 36.6% and a 0.8 ratio last year—numbers very much in line with his career rates.
In the same segment as Martinez, Harold Reynolds suggested that Ortiz was struggling with his mechanics, using split-screen video to point to the later timing of his leg kick and the position of his hands relative to last season. Or maybe he's become too pull-conscious, as MLB Network's Dan Plesac suggested in a different segment, though a breakdown of his batted-ball rates doesn't bear that one out.
Whatever it is, Ortiz is hardly the only problem that the Red Sox have these days. At 27–34, they're last in the AL East, seven games behind the Yankees and with the league's second-lowest winning percentage (.443, ahead of only Oakland's .403) and run differential (-48, one run better than the White Sox). Just four of their top 11 position players in terms of plate appearances have an OPS+ above 100: Dustin Pedroia (135), Brock Holt (133), Ramirez (122) and Xander Bogaerts (108).
Ramirez, the only player on the team with more than nine homers (he has 13) is hitting .272/.322/.479 with 13 homers, but just three of those have come in the 31 games and 130 plate appearances since he injured his left shoulder in a collision with Fenway Park's leftfield wall in foul territory; he's slugging .380 in that span. On top of that, his defense in his new position, leftfield, has completely neutralized his value; he's a whopping 13 runs below average via Defensive Runs Saved, nine below average via Ultimate Zone Rating, and reportedly, the work he's put into his defense has tapered off significantly since the spring. Via Baseball-Reference.com, he's 0.4 wins below replacement level this year.
Among the offense's laggards, Ortiz has plenty of company with Pablo Sandoval (84 OPS+ and -7 DRS en route to -0.4 WAR himself), Mookie Betts (84) and Mike Napoli (97), not to mention pressed-into-duty rookie catcher Blake Swihart (50) or the recently recalled Rusney Castillo (47). Small sample sizes abound, but the team as a whole is scoring a meager 3.74 runs per game, 12th in the league, and hitting .244/.316/.369, the last of which ranks 14th in the league.
If anything, the team has been even worse on the run prevention side: Boston's 4.52 runs per game is dead last in the league. The rotation has been even worse than anticipated, with a 4.74 ERA and 4.00 FIP. Off-season acquisitions Rick Porcello (5.26 ERA, 4.25 FIP), Wade Miley (5.09 ERA, 4.22 FIP) and Justin Masterson (6.37 ERA, 5.26 FIP, and a stint on the DL) have been awful, as has holdover Joe Kelly (5.40 ERA, 4.14 FIP). If there's good news, it's that Clay Buchholz has rebounded from a rough start to post a 4.07 ERA and 2.91 FIP, and that knuckleballer Steven Wright (3.91 ERA) and rookie call-up Eduardo Rodriguez (0.44 ERA) have given the team a boost in the last couple of weeks. The bullpen has been better in terms of actual run prevention (3.43), but as a 4.27 FIP borne of high walk and homer rates suggest, things can always go downhill.
With the Sox staring down the possibility of a third last-place finish in four years, the question is how much worse they can get. At the moment, neither general manager Ben Cherington nor Farrell appear to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, but even with the faint glow of that 2013 world championship still visible, they only have so much rope. The long-term investments in Ramirez and Sandoval look particularly unwise, as though the team forgot the lessons of their '12 collapse. That time, the Dodgers bailed them out by taking virtually all of the remaining money on the contracts of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez off their hands, but the Sox can’t count on a similar rescue again.
As for Ortiz, perhaps he'll come around. His numbers certainly indicate that he’s still a dangerous hitter against righties, and as somebody who counted him out before amid a slow start five years ago, I've given up trying to shovel dirt on his career. Wherever the Sox finish in 2015, my bet is that he’ll regain his stroke.