With spring training right around the corner -- and kudos to the Herald's Michael Silverman for the first on-the-scene story of the spring -- it's worth taking a look at what might be the question that determines the fate of the Red Sox season: Should David Ortiz endure another epic slump in April and May, how long should the Red Sox wait before pulling the plug?
The murmurs won't take long to grow in volume. You'd better believe there will be those ready to storm the streets should CC Sabathia strike him out in the first inning on Opening Day.
Ortiz, for those with short memories, didn't hit his first home run last season until May 20 and took a .188 batting average and .281 on-base percentage into play on June 6, the day on which he hit his first home run and seemed to get his feet under him for the first time. From then on, though, he hit .266 with a .360 on-base percentage and a .557 slugging percentage -- more than respectable, even for Big Papi.
Ortiz might just endure the same type of miserable slump this season as he did last season. Theo Epstein and Terry Francona then would have to make a difficult decision, especially with the potential-laden Jeremy Hermida waiting on the bench: Stick with Big Papi or cut him loose?
Odds are they'll stick with him -- and here are four reasons why:
Kent Hrbek, 1993
A beefy slugger in the Ortiz mold, Hrbek saw his numbers take their first severe downturn in 1992, his OPS falling from .834 to .765 and his home runs falling below 20 for the first time in almost 10 years. The year after that, Hrbek hit .238/.343/.446 in the first half, going into the All-Star break with a sub-.800 OPS for the first time since 1985.
In the second half, Hrbek posted a line of .246/.370/.487 -- including .295/.434/.689 in September.
Mo Vaughn, 2002
Vaughn missed the 2001 season after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his arm, and he got off to a lousy start after being traded to the Mets, hitting .200 with a .304 on-base percentage in the month of May. He hit for next to no power had a line of .248/.340/.399 at the All-Star break, a .739 OPS.
In the second half, Vaughn posted a line of .271/.360/.520 -- including .314/.442/.614 in September.
Carlos Delgado, 2008
Delgado hit just 24 home runs in 2007, his first season with fewer than 30 home runs and a sub-.500 slugging percentage in more than a decade. He then hit .198/.297/.323 in April and .229/.308/.476 in June, going into the All-Star break with a line of .248/.328/.455.
In the second half, Delgado posted a line of .303/.386/.606 -- including .340/.400/.649 in September.
David Ortiz, 2009
Oh, yeah, that. Some might dismiss the strong second half Ortiz enjoyed as a miracle not likely to happen again, but it's all part of the data set. The slugger went into the All-Star break wtih a line of .222/.317/.416 and had almost twice as many strikeouts (78) as walks (40).
In the second half, of course, Ortiz posted a line of .258/.350/.516, boosting his slugging percentage by 100 points. After hitting just one home run in April and May combined, he hit seven home runs apiece in June, July and August and six home runs in September.
What does it all mean? There's no good time to pull the plug on Ortiz unless he's completely and utterly overmatched at the plate. A year ago, he was OBP'ing .290 on April 30 and .284 on May 31 but still had a walk rate of better than 10 percent and still was seeing as many pitches as any player in the patient Red Sox lineup.
He's still a hitter that changes the way pitchers pitch. He's still a hitter who works counts and draws walks and keeps the line moving. He's still a hitter who forces opposing managers to use their lefty specialists.
There's almost no chance the Red Sox pick up their $12.5 million option they hold on Ortiz for 2011.
That, though, doesn't mean the Red Sox are going to give up on Ortiz midseason if he slumps again. There's too much history of sluggers breaking out of slumps in the second half for them just to cut bait and let him walk.