December 9, 2013
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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
10 years ago today, the Red Sox made one of their best moves to help their roster. On Jan. 22, 2003, they signed a player recently released by his old team – David Ortiz.
Yeah, that worked out well for them.
Ortiz had been a Twin. He made his big league debut as a young 21-year-old in 1997, but had never quite broken through. In 2000, he showed flashes of promise, hitting .282 with 36 doubles, 10 home runs, and 57 walks in just 130 games.
He hadn’t really regressed since then, but he hadn’t progressed as much as the team wanted. In 2002, Ortiz belted 20 homers in 125 games, but his OBP was a middling .339 as a designated hitter, the Twins figured they could do better. They cut him on Dec. 16, 2002 and after 37 days on the market—37 days in which any team that wanted him could’ve claimed him—the Red Sox gobbled him up.
He immediately began prospering. After his previous high of 20 homers, Ortiz knocked out 31 in 2003, while raising his average to .288 and improving his walk rate from roughly one every three games to one every two games. Oh, and he enjoyed the first of several 100 RBI campaigns.
In 2004, Ortiz became a star. He belted 41 homers, drove in 139 runs, and batted .301. In the postseason his clutch hits helped propel Boston’s historical come back from a three-games-to-none deficit over the Yankees in the ALCS and then the team’s first World Series championship in 86 years right after that.
His next two years would be even better, as he led the league in RBIs both times while hitting 101 homers. Yeah, that signing 10 years ago today worked out well.
Obviously, there is an elephant in the room when discussing Ortiz’s big improvement: PEDs. Ortiz has been linked to them.
While not wanting to dismiss that, I’d like to point out there’s more going on than just that. ‘roids by themselves don’t turn an unemployed ballplayer into an MVP candidate. There’s another factor explaining both why the Twins cut him and why he’s taken off since then—institutional philosophy.
Eons ago I read an interview with David Ortiz in which he said part of his problem was that the Twins kept trying to change his swing. They’d had lots of success with players like Brian Harper in the 1990s promoting a contact hitting approach. Don’t swing away, try to make contact, and put the ball in play. That was the Minnesota offensive way. While it worked with some, with Ortiz it was forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Look at Ortiz’s numbers for a few minutes and how they changed over time. Perhaps the most striking difference in Minnesota and Boston isn’t the homers and RBIs—even in Minnesota he had some power. It’s walks and strikeouts. He didn’t draw many walks with the Twins and the longer he was there the worse he was. But at least he didn’t strike out much.
Meanwhile, Boston accepted the strikeouts as something that happens with big swings, and encouraged Ortiz to develop his plate discipline. His strikeouts skyrocketed in Boston while he led the AL in walks in back-to-back seasons. Ortiz doesn’t currently walk as much as he used to, but his overall plate approach is different from Minnesota—and much more appropriate for him.
Or, to put it another way, if organizational philosophy wasn’t an issue, how do you explain Minnesota’s decision to cut Ortiz? He had his weaknesses there, but he was still a good player. In 2002, he posted an OPS+ of 120, well over league average. He just wasn’t their kind of player.
But Ortiz was Boston’s kind of playerand a decade ago today he became their player, period.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something occurring X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim.
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