The Biggest Papi

Tony Massarotti breaks down David Ortiz’s batting and brainpower, pitch by pitch.

Boston Magazine |
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Photo via AP

Beyond the blinding smile and the scintillating bling, David Ortiz is, at his core, surprisingly vulnerable. Ortiz needs to be loved. He wants to be feared. Only in the confines of the batter’s box can he simultaneously be both. Particularly in October.

Maybe this explains why Ortiz was named most valuable player of the World Series, during which he batted an ungodly .688 to lead the Red Sox to their third world championship in 10 seasons. Over the past 11 years, Ortiz has become as iconic in Boston as the Zakim Bridge—“This is our fucking city,” he blared in the aftermath of the marathon bombings—and on the field, too, he has always been his best at just the right moment.

“I was born for this,” Ortiz said following the Red Sox’s Game 5 win over the Cardinals.

Well, yes and no. True, Ortiz was born to hit. But that hardly distinguishes him from scores of other major leaguers. What separates Ortiz is his ability to hit when it matters most, an admittedly vague concept that can apply to an entire season (2005, when he clocked 47 home runs and finished a career-best second in the American League MVP voting) or a singular moment (he’s had 19 walk-off hits for the Red Sox).

As his hitting legend has grown, so has his force of personality. Big Papi has always loved being Big Papi, the gentle giant: menacing on the outside, soft beneath the shell. He’s far more likely to put his arm around a teammate, like he used to with the detached Manny Ramirez, leaving the in-your-face confrontations to someone like the feisty former Red Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera. In the sixth inning of Game 4 of the World Series, with the score tied 1–1 and the Sox trailing St. Louis two games to one, Ortiz gathered his slumping teammates around him in the dugout, not to air them out so much as to inspire them. “Vámonos!” he’d shouted from second base after smacking a double the inning before. Now, he told them, “Let’s relax and play the game we know how.”

What Ortiz fails to get enough recognition for, though, is his intellect as a hitter—for being, oddly enough, unemotional.

When he stepped in against fellow Dominican Joaquin Benoit with the bases loaded and the Red Sox down 5–1 in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against Detroit, that scientific approach was on full display. Instead of getting caught up in the moment, Ortiz got inside Benoit’s head. To that point, in the midst of a series in which he would finish a woeful 2 for 22, Ortiz was 0 for 6 with four strikeouts. As a team, the Sox had struck out a preposterous 31 times in 55 at-bats. In Ortiz’s 26 career trips to the plate against Benoit, he had failed to hit a single home run, and the lone regular-season confrontation between the two this year had resulted in a strikeout.

And yet as Ortiz calmly strode to the plate, the hype and anticipation—no, the tension—came from everywhere else. It was reminiscent of one of his career highlights: a game back in 2005, also against the Tigers. In that tilt, Ortiz stepped to the plate with one out and the bases empty in the ninth inning, with the Red Sox trailing 3–2. The Detroit pitcher then was right-hander Fernando Rodney, now the Tampa Bay closer and, stylistically, a Benoit clone. Like Benoit, Rodney features a blazing fastball to go along with a crippling off-speed pitch—a changeup in Rodney’s case, a split-fingered fastball in Benoit’s. The two pitches give them both a potent, often overwhelming blend of power and finesse.

During that at-bat against Rodney in 2005, Ortiz worked the count to three balls and one strike. Under the circumstances, conventional baseball thinking demanded that Rodney throw a fastball. Respecting Ortiz’s ability, Rodney opted for the unpredictability of a changeup—except Ortiz anticipated the adjustment and bashed the pitch out of the ballpark to tie the score. An inning later, Papi hit another home run—a three-run blast—to carry the Red Sox to a 10–7 win.

And so against Benoit this October, all of that—along with countless other reference points from countless other games—must have given Ortiz a calming sensation of baseball déjà vu. To that point in the series, particularly against Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, indisputably the two most gifted hitters on the Red Sox roster, Detroit pitchers had worked the Red Sox counterintuitively, throwing off-speed pitches when the situation called for fastballs, and vice versa. Baseball at its basest is this kind of guessing game, a high-stakes version of rock-paper-scissors.

Amid the nervous buzz that enveloped Fenway Park, with the season seemingly on the line, Ortiz settled into his stance and essentially stepped into the body of Benoit. “I know they’re not going to let me beat them with a fastball in that situation,” Ortiz said after the game. “Plus I know that my boy, Benoit, he has a good splitter. And I take my chances in the situation.”

Benoit threw a splitter on the first pitch, and Ortiz swung as if he knew exactly what was coming. And he did. All that was left to do was watch the ball sail over Detroit right fielder Torii Hunter’s upturned body and into the bullpen, tying the game and jolting the Red Sox’s season back to life. In October, after all, love and fear—or, more fittingly, respect—are always one mighty swing away.