Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Friday, March 26, 2010
Updated: March 27, 9:47 AM ET
Don't fall for Red Sox hit charade

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- To hear the way people have been talking about them this spring, you'd think the Red Sox had gone out this winter and burned all their bats in a giant bonfire.

That they'd be hard-pressed to score more runs this year than the Chula Vista Little League team.

That they'd set out to be the modern descendants of the 1906 "Hitless Wonders" White Sox.

Well, here's what we have to say about that:

Victor Martinez
Victor Martinez is a .298 career hitter as a left-handed batter and a .299 career hitter as a right-handed batter.

Is anybody actually paying attention out there?

True, the 2010 Red Sox might be the most improved defensive team in baseball. And true, their most prominent additions of the offseason were a big-time starter (John Lackey) and a bunch of premium leather workers (particularly Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron). And true, their biggest subtraction happened to be the guy who led the team in home runs (Jason Bay).

But this insanely widespread theory that all the Red Sox care about now is "run prevention," and that they're more offensively challenged than, say, the Sioux Falls Canaries?

Give us a break. Might be baseball's biggest myth since the outside world decided the Twins must have drafted Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior to save money.

Listen, first off, to what the Red Sox opponents say:

"If this is what 'challenged' looks like, I don't feel sorry for them," said Blue Jays coach Nick Leyva.

"The thing people miss about them," said Orioles manager Dave Trembley, "is they don't just beat you with their bats. They can beat you with their legs. They can put pressure on you on the bases. In some ways, they're a lot like the Angels. They go first-to-third. They go second-to-home. That's where Boston has changed their style. They don't just try to outslug you anymore."

"All I know," said Toronto reliever Jason Frasor, "is when you come out of the bullpen, you can't look on deck. You can't look in the hole -- because there's an All-Star coming. They're like the American League All-Star team. So they'll be just fine. And the great thing is, if things aren't fine, they'll go out and get somebody else."

Yeah, no kidding. So now that we have those reviews out of the way, let's take a look at what the numbers say:

Baseball Prospectus' fabled PECOTA system projects that the Red Sox will score 846 runs this season. Is that fewer runs than they scored last year? OK, so it is. Precisely 26 fewer. A run a week.

But now let's shine a little clarity on those numbers. You know how many teams in baseball scored 846 runs last year, not counting the Red Sox themselves? Precisely two -- the Yankees (915) and Angels (883).

So go tell the Royals and Padres how offensively "challenged" the Red Sox are. Almost every team in baseball would love to be this challenged.

"To me, this is coming from people who are a little short-sighted," said hitting coach Dave Magadan. "They see we lose a Jason Bay, and we don't replace him with another guy who's going to hit 35 homers and drive in 120, so they say, 'What are we going to do?' But they lose sight of the fact that … we have nine guys in our every-day lineup who are capable of hitting 15-plus home runs. And not many teams can say that."

Well, the truth is, with Bay gone, this team does go into the season with zero players on the roster who hit 30 home runs last year. And that's really, really un-Red-Sox-like.

Over the past 15 seasons, there have been only two years when this franchise made it through a season without a 30-homer man. (Then again, those seasons were 1999 and 2008, and the Red Sox made it to the ALCS in both of them. So it wasn't exactly a disaster then, either.)

But as my colleague Peter Pascarelli pointed out in his 2010 Red Sox capsule a few weeks ago, this team still employs nine players who have hit at least 25 home runs in a season, more than any other team in the big leagues. It will also start five position players who have made an All-Star team within the past two years. And it has eight one-time All-Star position players on the payroll.

Remember, too, that while the Red Sox have lost offense in the outfield, they figure to have upgraded considerably at shortstop, where Marco Scutaro takes over for a crew that had a combined .297 on-base percentage last year. Ditto at catcher, where a full year of Victor Martinez has to beat the production this club got from Jason Varitek and George Kottaras over the first four months last season.

So that, said David Ortiz pointedly, is why "I don't pay attention to any of that crap people have been talking about." Oh. So that's why.

Well, there's no doubt that the 2010 Red Sox aren't going to score runs the same way the 2004-07 Red Sox scored runs. But then again, how many teams these days do score runs the way the 2004-07 Red Sox scored them?

"I think what people remember," said manager Terry Francona, "is, we had a couple of years of Manny [Ramirez] and David at the very best of their careers. That can't be forever. That just doesn't happen for 20 years."

"They're still going to score runs," said one scout who covered the Red Sox this spring. "I just don't see where they're going to have enough thump to break a game open with back-to-back homers. They don't have that big Manny-Ortiz one-two punch anymore. But as we transition from one era to another, that's really not that unusual. What they've got is a bunch of guys who can keep an inning going, rather than the old kaboom."

Yeah, this will still be a lineup that will have pitchers reaching for an oxygen mask, all right. The likely No. 8 hitter, Cameron, has hit 49 homers in the past two years and saw more pitches per plate appearance (3.96) last year than Albert Pujols. The likely No. 9 hitter, Scutaro, finished 17th in the American League in on-base percentage (.379), ahead of a cast that included Johnny Damon, Dustin Pedroia and Michael Young. So where's the "out" in this lineup, anyway?

David Ortiz
David Ortiz has watched his OPS fall from a career high (1.066) in '07 to a career low (.794) in '09.

"When you face these guys," Frasor said, "there's never a first-pitch-fastball groundout to short. You know what I mean? They always seem to work the count, foul off pitches. And there's no breaks."

So there will be plenty of length to this nine-deep lineup. And outside of Beltre, who walked 19 times in 477 plate appearances last year, there will be a ridiculous abundance of plate discipline. But that doesn't mean there aren't questions.

And the most important question of them all revolves around the last every-day holdover from the 2004 curse-busters -- Big Papi.

"David needs to hit," said Francona, flatly. "He's our full-time DH. I'm not trying to put pressure on him … but if he's our full-time DH, he needs to hit."

But even as Francona says that, he also has to know deep down that the Big Papi of 2004-07 probably doesn't exist anymore. That's not criticism. That's just reality. The Ortiz of those four years averaged 44 homers, 135 RBIs, 88 extra-base hits and a .616 slugging percentage per season. There hasn't been a single AL player who matched those numbers in even one season since -- let alone averaged them over multiple seasons.

But when we asked Ortiz how different he thought he was now than in, say, 2005, he let out a laugh so loud you probably could have heard it in Boston's Kenmore Square.

"The main difference between me now and 2005 is, I was younger then -- but I'm better-looking now," he said, still chuckling uproariously. "I had hair like Manny back then. That was not good."

But in 2010, the question is not how good he'll look in the mirror. He's 34 now. It's the last guaranteed year of his contract. And it's never been tougher to know what to make of him.

Ortiz hit .238 with a .332 on-base percentage last year, both his worst numbers ever since he became a full-time player. But do those numbers paint an accurate picture of what he was, and what he is? We'd vote no.

From Opening Day through June 5, he had the worst batting average (.188) of any regular player in baseball, hit one home run and slugged an almost incomprehensible .288. From that day on, though, he was just about the most impactful offensive force in the American League.

He might not have been the Big Papi of yesteryear. But if you just compare him to the rest of his league -- as opposed to his own self -- you find a guy who led the league in homers (27), tied for the league lead in RBIs (78) and was third in slugging (.557) from June 6 on. So before anybody pronounces him all done, here's our advice: Re-read that last sentence 10 times.

"Here's the way I look at it," Ortiz said. "I can't have a worse two months than I had last year. Those were the worst two months of my career, and I've been playing baseball since I was 10."

Uh, hold on a second. He was a better hitter when he was 10 than he was last April and May?

"Oh yeah," he said. "Big-time.

People will always talk, but I don't believe in talk. I believe in what is. So here's what I believe: Let's see what the results are at the end of the season. And then we can talk all we want.

-- David Ortiz

"But this game is not about how you start," he said. "It's how you finish. If you told me the season was over after the first two months, I'd understand why they're asking these questions. But I kept going. And I did pretty damn good."

Then came October, though, when Ortiz went 1-for-12, with no extra-base hits, in the ALDS. So the questions welled up again. And they're still welling.

Ortiz started off his spring by going 1-for-19. But then the whispers stopped when he ripped off an imposing 7-for-10 streak that included two prodigious homers. And then, just when it seemed he was back, he U-turned again to go 1-for-13 with five strikeouts over the last week. So good luck trying to figure this out.

"My belief," said Magadan, "is that the guy we had in 2007 -- who hit .332 and drove in 117 runs and hit 35 home runs -- I think it's still in there. But I think his mind's got to allow what's in there to come out.

"The key is to do it over the course of a 162-game season. So if it's in there in spurts, with his work ethic and strength of mind I think he can at least approach those numbers. People probably would say I'm crazy. But to me, he hasn't lost bat speed. So when you see flashes, the only thing that keeps it from showing up on a daily basis is between the ears."

But Ortiz talks like a man in a spectacular frame of mind. He's healthier than he was a year ago. He's fitter than he was a year ago. So if people want to cast this as the most pivotal year of his career, he says: Bring it on.

"This ain't my first year in baseball," he said. "It ain't gonna be my last year in baseball. So I don't have to pay attention to any of that. … If things don't work out for me this year, they can talk about anything they want. But I doubt it -- 'cause I feel great."

If Ortiz feels as great as he says he does and has the year he thinks he'll have, we'd bet that nobody will have to worry about whether this team will score enough. And besides, if the calculations of "The Fielding Bible" author John Dewan are right -- and this team's pitching and defense upgrades really do improve its runs saved total by a stunning 87 runs -- it won't need to score 900 runs in the first place.

So is there reason to wonder if these Red Sox have enough offense? Sure. Knock yourself out. But is there really enough reason to justify all the talk about the offensive demise of this juggernaut? Not from this scenic overlook, there isn't.

"People will always talk, but I don't believe in talk," Ortiz said. "I believe in what is. So here's what I believe: Let's see what the results are at the end of the season. And then we can talk all we want."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.