- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- David Ortiz has had to do more than his share of sitting in recent weeks. There was his enforced exile last month when the Boston Red Sox couldn't use a DH on a nine-game swing through National League parks, last week was the All-Star break, and then this week he served a three-game suspension for taking a roundhouse swipe at Baltimore Orioles closer Kevin Gregg back in Boston.
Ortiz had just one hit in 13 at-bats against the Tampa Bay Rays last weekend in the Trop, so he'll be looking to make up for some lost time beginning Friday night in Fenway Park, where the Red Sox begin a seven-game homestand against the Seattle Mariners.
The Mariners come into town losers of 12 in a row, though they'll have their ace, Felix Hernandez, facing John Lackey in the series opener. In his past five starts against the Sox, dating back to June 6, 2008, Hernandez has a 2.16 ERA (eight earned runs in 33 1/3 innings), but has only a win and four no-decisions to show for his efforts.
Ortiz has held his own against King Felix, batting .263 (5-for-19) with a double, home run and three walks. But all this unwanted idleness has not done Ortiz any favors at the plate. In 18 games since June 18, when the Sox left for Pittsburgh on the start of their interleague trip, Ortiz has hit just .188 (9-for-48) with a couple of home runs and 10 RBIs, his overall average dropping from .313 to .294.
What has been noticeably absent while he has cooled off, however, has been the type of debate that raged at the start of each of the past two seasons, when Ortiz's abysmal starts had people both in and out of the game openly questioning whether his career had gone into irreversible decline, declaring that Big Papi's bat had grown old and slow.
Tommy Harper, the former Red Sox first-base coach and longtime Expos hitting coach who now serves the club as a consultant, never believed that was the case with Ortiz. Harper is only occasionally at Fenway now, but he watches plenty on TV, and in a recent conversation he shared a few of his observations:
1) The presence of Adrian Gonzalez has had a positive effect on Ortiz, reminding him that when he's at his best, he's hitting to the opposite field, the way Gonzalez has with great success this season.
"When Gonzalez got here,'' Harper said, "he's hitting the ball off that wall and that's what David's doing. That's what he used to do.''
2) Ortiz has not lost his physical skills, and certainly not his quickness and his hand speed. "If he had,'' Harper said, "he would have lost it this year, too.
"David hasn't lost it. He's not physically hurt, he's still quick, and he's in decent shape for a big guy. It's all technique.
"David's not leaking anymore, he's not thinking 'pull.' When you're thinking 'pull,' you start messing up your fundamentals. It's up here [Harper points to his head]. The answer is thinking up the middle again and using that Big Monster again, take that outside pitch and flip that ball off the Monster.
"And then you know what happens? Pitchers get tired of you doing that, then come inside a little more and give you your pitch. Now you get your pitch, you don't open your hips, you stay the same way and pull it.''
The problem for a left-handed hitter in Fenway, Harper said, is that when you pull a ball and it's caught in the deep right-field expanses, you feel like you have to hit the next one harder. "Instead,'' Harper said, "you should say 'I'm going to use the short part of the field, take aim at that Monster.' "
3) During Ortiz's miserable starts, he complained that pitchers were pounding him inside. Harper, invoking the old Ted Williams technique of imagining the strike zone as a grid made up of baseball-width zones, said what happened is that Ortiz stopped laying off the two "baseballs" farthest inside, and was jamming himself. Once he got back to taking those pitches, Harper said, and focused on the "baseballs" farther away from him, he became a much tougher out again.
Harper also noted how Ortiz is making much better contact by hitting to the opposite field. Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of his performance this season may be the dramatic reduction in his strikeouts. Last season, Ortiz struck out 145 times, a career-worst once every 3.6 at-bats.
This season, Ortiz has whiffed just 46 times, or once every 6.9 at-bats. At that rate, he would finish the season with 77, by far the lowest number he has had in a full season.
According to FanGraphs, the biggest drop in strikeout percentage since 2000 (minimum 500 plate appearances) was by Manny Ramirez, who went from 23.7 percent to 16.4 percent in 2002. Well, if Ortiz maintains his current rate, he'll go from 23.9 percent in 2010 to just 12.7 percent this season, a drop of 11.2 percent, compared with 7.3 percent for Ramirez. And Manny was just getting back to his normal strikeout levels; this is foreign territory for Ortiz.
"Hitting is a fascinating thing,'' Harper said. "You try to simplify it. But it's never that easy.''
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
Sox hitting consultant Tommy Harper says Big Papi is back on track this year.