Share

Extra Bases

Pitching around David Ortiz? Mike Napoli will make you pay

Before the details of his new contract extension had been finalized, David Ortiz last month lamented what he perceived to be a lack of protection in the lineup during an interview with WEEI. Openly wishing that the team would “sign a couple of studs, middle-of-the-order guys,” the designated hitter pointed out that in comparison to other stars he faced undo pressure at the heart of the Red Sox lineup because “I'm 38 years old and they're acting like they don't want to pitch to me at this age.”

It’s debatable whether Ortiz is properly insulated in the Red Sox lineup. In Dustin Pedroia, there’s a perennial MVP candidate hitting directly ahead of him, and no offense scored more than Boston’s did in 2013. That doesn’t happen without quality hitters up and down the order, particularly in the run-producing roles in the middle – but there is some truth to what Ortiz was saying about the reluctance of opponents to come after him.

In 2013, Ortiz was intentionally walked a major league-high 27 times during the regular season, when no other hitter in all of baseball received more than the 19 granted Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto. Only nine hitters in the American League were intentionally walked as many as 10 times, with Pedroia’s four freebies making him the only Red Sox batter with more than three.

Continue Reading Below

(Mike Wass/AP)

OK, walk Big Papi if you want, but how's that working out for you?

Before the details of his new contract extension had been finalized, David Ortiz last month lamented what he perceived to be a lack of protection in the lineup during an interview with WEEI. Openly wishing that the team would “sign a couple of studs, middle-of-the-order guys,” the designated hitter pointed out that in comparison to other stars he faced undo pressure at the heart of the Red Sox lineup because “I'm 38 years old and they're acting like they don't want to pitch to me at this age.”

It’s debatable whether Ortiz is properly insulated in the Red Sox lineup. In Dustin Pedroia there’s a perennial MVP candidate hitting directly ahead of him, and no offense scored more than Boston’s did in 2013. That doesn’t happen without quality hitters up and down the order, particularly in the run-producing roles in the middle – but there is some truth to what Ortiz was saying about the reluctance of opponents to come after him.

In 2013, Ortiz was intentionally walked a major league-high 27 times during the regular season, when no other hitter in all of baseball received more than the 19 granted Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, and Joey Votto. Only nine hitters in the American League were intentionally walked as many as 10 times, with Pedroia’s four freebies making him the only Red Sox batter with more than three.

But if Ortiz is hoping to be worked around less often and see more to hit in 2014, rather than wishing his own team can find a way to acquire more young power, he might be better off hoping other teams start noticing the way Mike Napoli is punishing them when they choose to pitch to him instead.

The bearded first baseman did it again Wednesday, following up a free pass to Ortiz with a laser beam single to left that plated a pair, gave him his third and fourth RBIs of the night after hammering a two-run homer earlier, and accounted for the final tallies in a 6-2 Red Sox win. But it was hardly the first time he’s made an opposing manager pay for bypassing Ortiz since coming to Boston at the beginning of last season.

Highlighted by a grand slam against the Yankees, and another three-run blast, Napoli went 6-for-13 (.462) with 13 runs batted in when directly following an intentional walk of Ortiz during the regular season. Adding in four walks and a double, his on-base percentage in those 17 opportunities was .588, and he slugged 1.000, which renders a rather impressive OPS of 1.588.

Napoli also batted behind Ortiz all three times the Cardinals opted not to deal with Ortiz in Game 6 of the World Series, and though he struck out twice, he sandwiched a gap-widening RBI single between those two whiffs.

After Wednesday, the Sox are now 22-4 since the start of last season in games that Ortiz has been walked intentionally, suggesting that the strategy worked about as well for Buck Showalter as it has for the majority of managers who’ve employed it over the past 12 months. And with Napoli, in particular, looking as dangerous as he has of late, it’s a course of action opponents might be leery of using at all at the moment.

As he showed last season, Napoli can be streaky. (Remember, he had 13 doubles in April, then 15 over the next three months; he hit .208 in August, then followed it by hitting .333 in September.) But right now, he looks like he’s in the midst of a surge. In his first nine plate appearances he’s reached base five times, he has a couple of extra-base hits, and he’s struck out only once. And this comes on the heels of a spring training that he finished strongly, finishing with a monstrous shot that was his fifth Grapefruit League long ball.

Even more encouraging is that the damage he’s done thus far hasn’t even come with the benefit of batting against a lefty, the likes of which he’s feasted on over the course of his career. He’s likely to finally get his chance Thursday, when the Orioles are slated to send southpaw Wei-Yin Chen to the bump for the rubber match, and Napoli’s got to be salivating. He took Chen deep twice last season. He’s swinging a hot stick.

So best of luck to him should Showalter again dare to so boldly test the depth around Ortiz in the middle of the Boston order.