- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
You probably know how good St. Louis Cardinals first baseman/outfielder Lance Berkman has been this season. Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko was awesome in 2010, and he has been even better this season. But check out the ESPN Player Rater and you'll see Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who has destroyed New York Yankees pitching this week, right there with these guys as a top-20 hitter. Ladies and gentlemen, these are the top three DH-eligible hitters in baseball, and while you might have guessed all three could have big seasons, I'm sure you didn't think they'd be top-20 hitters!
Ortiz is hitting .323 with 15 home runs and 34 RBIs, a tasty pace for 40 long balls and 90 RBIs. Only one time in his career has Big Papi hit better than .301, and he last hit 40 home runs in 2006. And looking closer at his numbers, this doesn't look fluky or unsustainable. Ortiz hit 60 home runs the two previous seasons. His main problems appeared to be awful slow starts to the season and an inability to be competitive at the plate against left-handed pitching. Well, Ortiz did struggle this March/April, but not like previous seasons; he hit .267, drew plenty of walks and hit a few home runs. It could have been worse. In the first month of 2010, he hit .143, and fantasy owners were ready to give up on him.
Against southpaw pitching, Ortiz is doing strong work this season, though 63 at-bats isn't enough of a sample size to call him safe. Ortiz is hitting .349 with a 1.026 OPS against lefties, including home runs in the late innings of games against the threesome of Darren Oliver, Hisanori Takahashi and Will Ohman. Also, a third of Ortiz's home runs have gone somewhere other than right field, which is another nice sign that he's not trying to pull everything. I would stop short of saying Ortiz is a new hitter, but he's certainly not regressing.
Fantasy owners made Ortiz a 13th-round pick in ESPN average live drafts, the No. 2 pure designated hitter, just a few spots after Toronto Blue Jays lefty Adam Lind (who's now first base-eligible). I admit that in the past I tried to shy away from DH-only types early in drafts, which in Ortiz's case would be roughly the back end of the top 100 overall, but with offense down all over the place, I no longer view things that way. If I can get 30 home runs from my utility guy, so be it, even if it's earlier than I might want. It's better than sticking Emilio Bonifacio in that slot, even if it gives my team versatility or free-agent choices.
That said, the way Ortiz has looked this season -- he certainly appears to be motivated to wrangle one last good contract from either the Red Sox or another American League team -- I'm not selling high. This is legit, even for a 35-year-old fellow with, um, ample size. I'll say a 35-homer season could absolutely happen. Ortiz doesn't have a crazy batting average on balls in play (it's .309), and this isn't all home-generated. His bat isn't slowing down, and he's torching fastballs at an even better rate than in his prime. Ortiz is slugging .807 against fastballs this season, second in the majors to Alfonso Soriano of the Chicago Cubs. In 2010, Ortiz was 23rd in slugging fastballs; in 2009, he was 129th. In general, older players struggle to keep up with faster pitches, but not Ortiz. The bat speed remains.
Few fantasy owners would choose to use Berkman, Konerko, Carlos Quentin or Lind -- the rest of the top five DH-eligibles on the Rater -- at that spot, but in Ortiz's case, you don't have a choice. He played the field in a few games last season, and I suspect he will again this season (which helps those of you with a one- or five-game eligibility threshold) with interleague road games in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Houston. It doesn't matter. A guy on pace for 40 home runs, legitimately, must be coveted in fantasy baseball and viewed as a potential top-50 player for the duration of the season. Enjoy this.