Closing on 400 homers, Ortiz is more than a slugger

Closing on 400 homers, Ortiz is more than a slugger
June 30, 2012, 4:46 am
Share This Post

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.