WASHINGTON – Over a plate of pulled pork at an event inside MLB’s Play Ball Park for All-Star week, longtime Red Sox slugger turned busy man-about-baseball David Ortiz engaged three reporters in a broad-ranging discussion about his career and his ongoing roles in and around the sport. Fresh off managing the World Team in the annual Futures Game, Ortiz seemed especially impressed with the physicality of some of baseball’s top prospects.
“Players are stronger now than ever,” said Ortiz, who spoke on behalf of Kingsford charcoal. “I was in the clubhouse yesterday, looking at these kids – and I was like, ‘whoa.’ These kids right here, they could be my children, most of them, because they’re 20 and below. But their bodies, man…. These guys’ bodies are unbelievable.
“I felt like I was in an NBA locker room. Everybody is so tall, so well built up. I was looking at my boy (Fernando) Tatis’ son – me and Tatis, we played a lot of winter ball together, so I saw his son when he was a baby. Man, I saw this kid yesterday – it was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a long time. He makes the game look like he’s playing in his backyard.”
With a better understanding of the importance of player development around the league, MLB organizations now emphasize nutrition and training for minor league players more than ever before. Recent seasons have seen a significant shift in the average aging curve of young players, suggesting many top prospects now typically reach the Majors already performing at something close to their peaks in their early 20s.
David Ortiz poses for a selfie at a Kingsford Charcoal event on Monday. (USA TODAY Sports)
Ortiz cited the strength of contemporary ballplayers as a driving force behind certain much-maligned trends in the game – the league-wide explosion in strikeouts and home runs and the decrease in batting average.
“When you’re that big, when you’re that strong, you’re not thinking about getting base hits,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what part of the lineup you’re hitting in…. I don’t worry about baseball players hitting for batting average anymore. That has been taken away. Since you have the shift, you don’t want to ask Bryce Harper to hit .330 anymore. He’s going to be fine hitting home runs, but batting-average wise, you know how many times I’ve seen Harper hit line drives between first and second, or up the middle, that’s an out? That’s supposed to be a hit! That is supposed to be a hit!
“It seems like organizations are teaching kids how to hit homers more than anything else. When you see the tryout – back in the Dominican, when they want to sign the kids at age 16, when they put them on the field for the tryout, the scout wants to watch you, and they want to see how far you can hit the ball. They don’t say, ‘hit the ball opposite field, hit the ball up the middle,’ they say, ‘let me see how far you can hit the ball.’ If at 16 they’re teaching you that, as you get older, what do you think is going to happen? Who’re the guys getting paid? Who’s the guy making big money? The guy hitting homers.”
Where countless contemporary baseball analysts contend that the uptick in strikeouts reflects inferior batting approaches or abilities, Ortiz pointed to the improved quality of big-league pitching.
“The pitching, nowadays, I think is better than ever,” he said. “Players back in the day, from the ’50, ’60s, ’70s, even the ’80s, they want to be like, ‘these guys don’t know what they’re doing.’ (Cow manure). You have guys throwing 100 mph now, throwing 12-6 (curveballs), throwing you changeups 3-2, nasty sliders, good cutters. What else do you want?”
“They’re stronger now. Players are stronger now. There are ways to work out even to grow your nails right now.”