Big Papi enjoying a big renaissance
Turnaround against lefties leading to season like he used to have
ST. PETERSBURG -- Take a glance at the American League's leaderboard and your first instinct might be to think you'd stumbled upon an outdated version from, say, 2006 or 2007. For there is David Ortiz's name, listed in nearly every relevant offensive category.
Entering Thursday night's game against the Rays, Ortiz ranked sixth in batting average (.317), fourth in homers (17), second in OPS (.997), second in slugging percentage (.609), eighth in runs (42), seventh in doubles (18), seventh in hits (77), sixth in on-base percentage (.388), 10th in RBIs (43) and third in multi-hit games (26).
So in a season that started with plenty of hype over newly acquired left-handed hitters Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, Ortiz has bashed his way back to the forefront.
Make no mistake about it: Big Papi is having a big renaissance.
"I don't know, I'm just playing the game, having fun," Ortiz said. "I feel like I want to kick [butt] every day."
In truth, reports of his demise had been a little exaggerated. It's just that the level at which he hit from 2003-07 was the top one. When he couldn't sustain that, the slip seemed to be more dramatic than it really was.
First there was 2008, when problems with his left wrist hampered him, limiting his season to 109 games.
Though his final production numbers were nothing to sneeze at in both 2009 (28 homers, 99 RBIs) and 2010 (32, 102), what stopped him from putting up elite numbers across the board those two years was simple. In both seasons he got off to horrific starts, and in both seasons, he struggled mightily against left-handed pitching.
This season, though, he had a decent April, hitting .267 with two home runs and 11 RBIs. So when he started raking in May and June, the overall numbers were better than they were in the previous two years.
His resurgence against lefties has been, dramatic. In 2009, Ortiz hit .212 against southpaws, with six homers, 29 RBIs and a .418 slugging percentage. Last year he was held to .222 with two homers, 24 RBIs and a .324 slugging percentage.
Then there is this year, which has seen Big Papi feast off lefties to the tune of .343, three homers, 11 RBIs and a .571 slugging percentage.
"He's hitting the ball to left field for the most part, especially against left-handers," said manager Terry Francona. "He's staying on the ball. He's swinging at strikes. Back [from 2004-06], when he was really [putting up] the awesome numbers, he was banging the ball to left-center field. He's doing that again. With two strikes, he's shortening up. He's not striking out. You throw him that ball in, and he turns on it. He's been big for us, especially against left-handers. That's where he really had his struggles last year, and he's been such a presence."
Ortiz's return to dominance has been particularly gratifying for hitting coach Dave Magadan, who has watched all of the behind-the-scenes work in the cage.
"He's not a one-dimensional hitter as far as just [hitting them] from second base over," Magadan said. "He's banging balls off the Monster. He's driving balls into left-center. It's causing him to swing at more strikes. When you're swinging at strikes, you're going to walk more, and you're going to hit the ball harder on a more consistent basis. All those things kind of go hand in hand."
Ortiz's return to the all-field approach has been a particular benefit against lefties.
"[Against] the lefties that kind of pull guys hard in, and try and speed them up, and throw the offspeed [pitch] down and away, he hasn't gone up there looking for that pitch that's in on him," Magadan said. "Because most of the time, it's a ball. Most lefties don't pitch in there for strikes, anyway. He's taking that pitch, and he's looking more for the ball out over the plate and using the field. When he's doing that, he's dangerous."
Though it is Magadan's job to pay attention to every nuance of Ortiz's swing, the slugger himself is doing his best not to clutter his mind with all of those things when he goes to the plate. As long as he's hitting, he doesn't need to.
"I'm not thinking about anything right now," Ortiz said. "I'm trying to keep my mind clean -- just come the next day and play. I don't want to think about anything that gets stuck in my head; then you're out of your rhythm. Right now I'm a mind freak out there -- just seeing the ball and swinging at it."
Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Ortiz has had such a dramatic rebound in the same season he has joined forces with Gonzalez, perhaps the purest left-handed run producer in the game.
"Of course, you watch Gonzalez, and you see his ideas and his approach, you know it's something that you don't get every day," Ortiz said. "In this organization we work as a group. Whatever we can do, we try to help each other. You definitely want to listen to what he has to say and his approach. Look at his numbers."
Those numbers look a lot like Ortiz's back in the day. Or a lot like Ortiz in 2011.
"The season he's putting together reminds me of '07," said Dustin Pedroia. "Every ball he hits is on the barrel the other way. Then he's turning on balls. He's a force, man. He's not just a home-run hitter, he's a hitter. I think he knows how that makes our team go."
How much longer will Ortiz help make the Red Sox go?
The 35-year-old is in the final year of his contract. The Red Sox picked up his $12.5 million player option in November, and Ortiz was frank in saying that he wanted a multi-year extension instead. Afterward he kept his head down and didn't complain. The noise has been coming from his bat.
Any thoughts on the contract these days?
"I don't know. I don't think about it," Ortiz said. "I will at one point -- trust me."
In the meantime, Ortiz will enjoy a throwback season, and the Red Sox -- who have the best record in the American League -- will gladly go along for the ride.