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BOB RYAN

Law of averages doesn't apply here

There was a time -- and it was not so very long ago -- when a man hitting .185 was, well, a man to be scorned.

Batting average was a very significant measure of all batters. It's the way we were all raised. I remember feeling very sad for Mickey Mantle, because his last miserable year with the Yankees cost him his coveted status as a lifetime .300 hitter. Jim Rice likewise finished at .298, which seemed like a damn shame.

Batting average, and, of course, home runs and RBIs were the Holy Trinity of offensive stats. Even slugging percentage was relatively esoteric. Batting average, home runs, and runs batted in were all that mattered.

That game, and those days, are gone. People now realize there is such a thing as being a hollow .300 hitter. People now realize you can drive in 100 and still wind up with a very sub-standard year if the truth is you had the opportunity to drive in 200. People now realize that certain things are contextual, and that there are better ways to evaluate the offensive worth of a player. All of this is a very good thing for Mark Bellhorn, because he's hitting .185. And are you ready for this? Before last night's game was rained out, he was to start at second base and bat sixth.

That .185 business didn't faze Terry Francona, no sir. What did matter was the number .400. That was Mark Bellhorn's on-base percentage.

The question for Mr. Francona prior to the postponement wasn't, "Why is Bellhorn hitting sixth?" The proper question was, "Skip, why isn't Bellhorn leading off?" After all, a leadoff man's job is to get on base, and Bellhorn was certainly doing that. The man may be batting .185 (10 for 54), but he leads the league in walks with 19. Not so surprisingly, he was second on this team with 11 runs scored (to Bill Mueller's 13). No one is alarmed that he's hitting .185. He's helping the team win games, isn't he?

Mark Bellhorn, the 2004 Eddie Yost. Who knew?

"His concept of the strike zone has always been really good," said Francona. "But he's kind of off the charts a little bit with these walks right now. I don't know if anyone can keep that up. But we knew coming in he could work the pitcher and run up counts."

Bellhorn has been like this before, only not often. Once upon a time, when he was still in the Oakland organization, he led the Pacific Coast League with 94 walks. Not so coincidentally, he also led the league in runs with 111 in 117 games. That was in 2000. He had a .399 on-base percentage, and he also slugged .521. That's a good offensive season, especially when you consider he is a classic multi-positional player.

He flashed that switch-hitting power again two years ago, knocking out 27 homers for the Cubs. He also walked 76 times en route to a .374 on-base percentage. You can bet that Theo Epstein and his staff were armed with those numbers when the Red Sox acquired him last December from Colorado in exchange for the proverbial player to be named.

But that doesn't mean anyone expected him to start out like this.

"It's definitely beneficial," he said. "Any time you're doing something like getting walks, the way I'm doing, the organization is going to like it."

The long-range trick, of course, will be to augment those bases on balls with a few more hits. As Francona noted, no one maintains this kind of walking pace. No one not named Barry Bonds, anyway.

A closer look at his record reveals that one of his problems at the plate is that he has been far more effective lefthanded than righthanded. That's a polite way of saying he's 0 for 12 from the right side. Switch hitting is an asset, but only if you really can hit from both sides.

He did say that his lefthand stroke was coming around. "I've been feeling pretty decent, starting with the [first] Yankee series," he declared. One problem I found is that you don't want to be too patient."

There is, obviously, a fine line between working the count and watching quite hittable pitches sail by in hitter's counts. Bellhorn never before has regarded himself as a watcher. This is a man with two career two-homer games, both of which have been lefty-righty affairs. The second one was particularly noteworthy since they came in the midst of a 10-run inning against the Brewers Aug. 29, 2002. Bellhorn is the only National League player who has ever done this. (Carlos Baerga is the only American Leaguer).

He was brought here as part of the post-Todd Walker second base puzzle. Pokey Reese was clearly the first option, but when Nomar Garciaparra went down, Reese became the starting shortstop and Bellhorn became the most logical choice to play second. When Nomar returns, Bellhorn will return to the bench, where his versatility quickly will become a trump card. During the course of his major league career, he has played every position but pitcher and catcher. He once played all four infield positions for the Cubs during the same game.

He is a useful player; make no mistake about that. "I fell into a trap we all do with a veteran player," said Francona, "making too quick a judgment in the first two weeks of spring training [when Bellhorn was off to a rough start]. The closer we got to the start of the season, I knew he was a good player."

"He's a lot better than I thought he was," acknowledged Johnny Pesky, the supreme judge of infield talent. "He's no easy out at the plate. Look at all those walks. And he's got more power than I thought. I can say I'm impressed."

When Johnny Pesky played, a manager would see that .185 and put another name down in the lineup. No one even thought about the .400 figure that has made Mark Bellhorn an important part of the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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