Back in 2009, it was starting to look like 33-year-old David Ortiz just didn't have hitting in him any more. One year removed from hitting 23 homers in just 109 games, Ortiz went the entire month of April without going deep. He struck out 22 percent of the time, after consecutive seasons with 15 percent whiff rates, and things didn't get any better as that season continued. Ortiz's line dropped from .230/.290/.333 to .185/.284/.287 by the end of May, with his punch out rate climbing along the way.
Ortiz recovered in a way that made it seem as if the first two months never happened, posting a .264/.356/.548 line with 27 of his 28 homers from June through October. Initially, it was believed that the early-season slump had something to do with lingering effects from his 2008 wrist injury, but when he once again struggled to begin the next season, it was tougher to accept this.
Ortiz hit just .143/.238/.286 in April of 2010, bopping a single homer and striking out a whopping 33 percent of the time. On May 1, Ortiz smacked two homers, and his season was saved from that point forward. The lefty hit a much more Papi-esque .286/.385/.558 the rest of the year, on the strength of 31 homers and a much more acceptable 23 percent strikeouts.
Ortiz's bat speed had noticeably slowed -- and subsequently picked back up again -- during each of those seasons. It was far worse in 2009, possibly due to his wrist, but also because the issues lingered through May. While pitch values are not predictive, they do give us a glimpse into a player's actual performance. Ortiz had always been an excellent fastball hitter in his career -- not surprising for someone with his prodigious power -- but in 2009, he was just two runs above replacement, according to PITCHf/x. In 2007 and 2008 -- the first two years for which we have this data -- Ortiz had been worth 22 and 15 runs above replacement against four-seamers.
Ortiz also looked far more lost at the plate than he had in the past, swinging at pitches outside of the zone that he would normally let go. His patience became passive, and hitting coach Dave Magadan stated in late April that Ortiz's hands were higher than normal, lengthening his swing and the time it took him to come around on pitches. He struggled to go the other way with pitches, missing on them entirely or letting pitchers punch him out by living on the outside part of the plate. These problems weren't as pronounced in early 2010, but they hadn't vanished, either.
Ortiz made strides in 2011 to combat these early-season issues. Much like new teammate Adrian Gonzalez, Ortiz started to go the other way more, going against the shift that was employed more and more as he became an even more extreme pull hitter to combat his slowing bat. He made it a point to get more playing time in spring training, as more in-season swings had brought back the Ortiz of old -- getting those plate appearances out of the way in February and March meant a better chance at success in the games that counted.
The result? Ortiz struck out just 11 percent of the time in April of 2011, and while he didn't hit for much power yet again, his .267/.373/.395 line was far ahead of anything he had done to begin the last two seasons. (In fact, it was above-average, with Ortiz posting a 118 OPS+ for April, compared to 64 and 42 in 2009 and 2010, respectively.) With less of a hole to dig himself out of, it's not surprising that Ortiz finished with one of the most productive campaigns of his career, even at age 35.
Last year was the start of a new approach and new preparation, but things are paying off even more this season. April isn't over, but Ortiz is hitting .420/.474/.667 with eight doubles and three homers. He's striking out just 14 percent of the time, and had more hits through the season's first 16 games than any left-handed hitter in Boston's history. That's a group that includes a few players you might have heard of, including Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski. While so few games isn't something to be excited about normally, with the way Ortiz's last few Aprils have gone, this could very well be significant.
Once again, Ortiz has not been as dependent on pulling the ball as he was when his bat speed was giving him trouble. The table below measures his production to each field direction, in terms of split-adjusted OPS+. Essentially, how Ortiz fares pulling the ball, going up the middle, or going the other way, compared to other lefties:
He's still pulling the ball effectively, but he's going the other way with fantastic success, and up the middle -- the place all hitters should strive to go -- is getting plenty of play, too.
Ortiz's early-season success is part of the reason the Red Sox are continuing to score runs, despite the absence of Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury. It's also why they were able to continue to score while Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Adrian Gonzalez continued their own trends of slow Aprils. All the money the Red Sox spent on him this winter and last might have seemed like more than was necessary given the slow DH market, but if he keeps doing this late-career Edgar Martinez impression, no one is going to care how much he costs year-to-year.