Closing on 400 homers, Ortiz is more than a slugger

797962.jpg

Closing on 400 homers, Ortiz is more than a slugger

SEATTLE -- As the Red Sox took on the Seattle Mariners Friday night at Safeco Field, David Ortiz was in the hunt for his 400th career homer, something only seven other active hitters had accomplished and 48 in the history of the game have managed to hit.

The pending feat has served to humble Ortiz, who freely admits to taking note of the members of the exclusive club, and moreover, of those who haven't gained admittance.

For instance, two recent Red Sox legends -- Hall of Famer Jim Rice and outfielder Dwight Evans -- fell short of the plateau.

Since 2003, among all lefthanded hitters, only Adam Dunn has hit more homers.

But there's a danger in focusing squarely on Ortiz's ability to hit the long ball. Such an approach obscures Ortiz's ability as a pure hitter.

He entered Friday's action with a lifetime average of .289, far higher than many swing-for-the-fences sluggers. His lifetime on-base percentage of .388 is evidence of his selectivity at the plate.

"David's one of the finest hitters I've ever been around,'' said Bobby Valentine. "He works real hard at his profession. He studies the opposition. He takes every at-bat very personally. He really enjoys the competition. He's having as good a year as anyone I've been around.''

Still, as Ortiz approaches his latest milestone, there's a general perception that he doesn't quite get the respect he deserves for being a pure hitter.

There's more to Ortiz than tape-measure shots and big blasts over the fence.

"That could very well be the case,'' said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "I think the people who get exposed to him on a day-in, day-out basis know what type of hitter he is. He's a guy who still continues to hit for average and takes his walks. He's a force in the middle of the lineup, but he can hurt you in a lot of different ways. He hits doubles. I think it's appreciated by guys who see him a lot, but maybe people on the West Coast, or media who don't see him all the time, think of him as just a home run hitter.''

When Magadan joined the Red Sox coaching staff, he heard from then-manager Terry Francona and former bench coach Brad Mills about Ortiz's dedication to his craft.

The homers aren't the result of just brute strength and all those base hits (1,844 and counting) aren't by accident.

"All you have to do is look at the fact that he has great hands, great body control at the plate,'' said Magadan. "There's no reason why he shouldn't hit for a high average because the tools are there for him to do it, even at 36.''

Indeed, this year and last, Ortiz has enjoyed something of a late-career renaissance. After beginning both 2008 and 2009 with long slumps -- to the point where the Red Sox seriously contemplated his release -- Ortiz has been more consistent overall, and more specifically, more productive against lefties.

In 2008 and 2009, he combined to hit .254 while striking out an average of almost 140 times per season. Since the start of 2011, however, Ortiz has boosted his batting average by more than 50 points to .308 and dramatically cut down his strikeouts to about 80 per season.

"I think he's kind of reinvented himself,'' said Magadan. "He's changed his body. He eats the right things, he doesn't drink anymore. He takes care of himself. He wants to continue playing this game and he realizes that he's got to do the kind of things he needs to stay out there. He probably feels better than he ever has physically.''

But beyond being in better shape and being more healthy in his lifestyle choices, Magadan sees another reason for Ortiz's resurgence.

"Like a lot of people,'' said Magadan, "he enjoys proving people wrong. For the naysayers who thought he was done two or three years ago, or the ones who thought last year was a fluke, he enjoys proving people wrong.''

Those close to Ortiz insist he's partly fueled by the Red Sox' refusal to grant him a multi-year extension, and similarly motivated to show other American League teams who didn't bid on him last winter how wrong they were in their evaluation.

Magadan said the 2012 version of Ortiz is similar to the Ortiz of 2007. His slumps are shorter and his hot streaks seem to last longer.

"That's rare for older guys,'' Magadan notes. "Usually, the hot streaks get cut in half. Instead of being hot for two weeks, you're hot for five or six days. But the ability to lengthen out the good times and shorten up the bad ones and understand why he's swinging the bat good and what's causing him to square a lot of balls up and use the whole field, to swing at strikes -- he's done a great job with all of that.''

Meanwhile, the homers come almost as an afterthought -- the result of Ortiz's hard work, but by no means his only talent.

Three things we learned from the Red Sox’ 11-9 loss to the Twins

price_what_we_learned-overlay-master.png

Three things we learned from the Red Sox’ 11-9 loss to the Twins

Three things we learned from the Boston Red Sox’ 11-9 loss to the Minnesota Twins . . .

1) David Price isn’t having fun

Boston’s $217 million-dollar arm had another rough outing -- this time against a team that already has 60 losses.

Those are the team’s he’s supposed to dominate.

“It’s been terrible,” Price said on how his season has gone following the loss. “Just awful.”

Price’s mistakes have often been credited to mechanical mishaps this year. Farrell mentioned that following his start in New York, Price spent time working on getting more of a downhill trajectory on his pitches.

But Price doesn’t think his issue is physical.

So it must be mental -- but he doesn’t feel that’s the case either.

“Honestly I don’t think it’s either one of those,” Price said when asked which he thought was a factor. “It’s me going out there and making pitches. “

But when it comes down to the barebones, pitching -- much like anything else -- is a physical and mental act.

So when he says it’s neither, that’s almost impossible. It could be both, but it has to be one.

His mind could be racing out on the mound from a manifestation of the issues he’s had throughout the season.

Or it could just be that his fastball isn’t changing planes consistently, like Farrell mentioned.

Both could be possible too, but it takes a certain type of physical approach and mental approach to pitch -- and Price needs to figure out which one is the issue, or how to address both. 

2) Sandy Leon might be coming back to Earth

Over his last five games, Boston’s new leading catcher is hitting .176 (3-for-17), dropping his average to .395.

A couple things have to be understood. His average is still impressive. In the five games prior to this dry spell, Leon went 7-for-19 (.368) But -- much like Jackie Bradley Jr. -- Leon hasn’t been known for his offensive output throughout his career. So dry spells are always tests of how he can respond to adversity and make necessary adjustments quickly.

Furthermore, if he’s not so much falling into a funk as opposed to becoming the real Sandy Leon -- what is Boston getting?

Is his run going to be remembered as an exciting run that lasted much longer than anyone expected? Or if he going to show he’s a legitimate hitter that can hit at least -.260 to .280 with a little pop from the bottom of the line-up?

What’s more, if he turns back into the Sandy Leon he’s been throughout his career, the Red Sox will have an interesting dilemma on how to handle the catching situation once again.

3) Heath Hembree has lost the momentum he gained after being called up.

Following Saturday’s contest, the right-hander was demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket after an outing where he went 1/3 of an inning, giving up a run on three hits -- and allowing some inherited runners to score.

Hembree at one point was the savior of the bullpen, stretching his arm out over three innings at a time to bail out the scuffling Red Sox starting rotation that abused it’s bullpen.

His ERA is still only 2.41 -- and this has been the most he’s ever pitched that big league level -- but the Red Sox have seen a change in him since the All-Star break.

Which makes sense, given that hitters have seven hits and two walks against him in his 1.1 innings of work -- spanning four games since the break.

“He’s not confident pitcher right now,” John Farrell said about Hembree before announcing his demotion. “As good as Heath has been for the vast majority of this year -- and really in the whole first half -- the four times out since the break have been the other side of that.”

Joe Kelly will be the pitcher to replace Hembree and Farrell hopes to be able to stretch him out over multiple innings at a time, as well.

Quotes, notes and stars: Price says season has been "terrible"

Quotes, notes and stars: Price says season has been "terrible"

Quotes, notes and stars from the Boston Red Sox’ 11-9 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

QUOTES

* “It’s been terrible . . . Just awful.” Price on how his season has gone.

* “Tough night from the mound -- obviously.” John Farrell on Red Sox pitching in the loss.

* “Honestly I don’t think it’s either one of those. It’s me going out there and making pitches. It’s what I’ve done for a long time now -- and I haven’t done this year. That’s why this year’s been the way it has been.” Price said when he was asked if he felt his problems boiled down to physical or mental issues.

* “Given that [we] had to stay away from [Matt] Barnes and [Junichi] Tazawa today, [Clay Buchholz] was a guy that was going to be needed to hopefully multiple inning to bridge us to where were able to match up a little bit more in the eighth inning to get to Ziegler. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.” Farrell said on why he turned to Buchholz -- not Barnes – despite having the lead.

* “It was crazy. When the fly ball [went] into the sky it turned into like a twister of some sort and you didn’t know where the ball was going to fall. I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Michael Martinez on dealing with the howling wind in right field.

* “It wasn’t much wind. I went and looked at it, definitely should have made the play. Just running at it full speed -- it was one of those things I didn’t know how close I was getting to the wall so I went into a slide. And it was an early slide, so it kind of threw me off a little bit . . . Just thought I was closer to the wall than I really was.” Brock Holt on the fly ball he misplayed.

NOTES

* Jackie Bradley Jr. knocked in two runs, becoming the fourth Red Sox hitter to reach the 60 RBI mark this season -- the most in the MLB. Bradley also had a double, marking is 46th extra-base hit of the season -- with 99 hits overall.

* Dustin Pedroia reached base for the 26th consecutive game with his double in the second inning. He has a .402 OBP during this stretch and a .311 average.

* The Red Sox have lost consecutive games for the first time in nearly a month (6/26-27). Both losses were comeback victories for Minnesota. Boston’s record drops to 3-3 against the 37-60 Twins this season.

STARS

1) Eddie Rosario

Rosario finished 4-for-4 with an RBI and three runs scored, bumping his average from .244 to .262.

2) David Ortiz

Ortiz finished 3-for-3 with a walk, double, two RBI and two runs scored -- giving Boston just about as much offense as anyone can hope for.

3) Miguel Sano

The burly Twins third baseman finished 3-for-5 with a long ball, two runs scored, a walk and an RBI in Minnesota’s win.

Nick Friar can be followed on Twitter: @ngfriar