Often powerless to stop a slide
Nestled between his 33d and 34th birthdays, David Ortiz has been resting in a power hitter's purgatory. Ortiz has been behind the fastball and in front of the offspeed pitch, inconsistently shifting between his front foot and his back. He is, perhaps, caught in the transition from the prime of his career to the twilight.
Even in the immediate aftermath of his first home run this season, whether Ortiz resurrects himself remains up for debate. More than a few careers have died in those same shadows.
"There's evidence both ways," one longtime major league evaluator said yesterday when asked if Ortiz is in a nosedive that has signaled the demise of many a power hitter. "I think the weight and the coordination that go into the swing, for a player that's pretty heavy, it does make a difference. It was evident with Cecil Fielder and it might be evident with Ortiz."
Indeed, even after hitting his first homer of the year, in the fifth inning last night, Ortiz has been evoking comparisons to Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Jim Rice, and Boog Powell, all power hitters who effectively fell off the diamond. One year they had it, the next it was gone. George Scott, Greg Luzinski, and George Bell also were among those who vanished almost overnight. Many of them, like Ortiz, were big-bodied sluggers whose value plummeted once they lost the ability to drive the ball.
For almost all of them, with astonishing consistency, that metamorphosis took place around the ages of 33 or 34, where Ortiz sits now.
For all of the skills that go into hitting, power hitters can be overly reliable on their strength. With or without performance enhancers, when Sammy Sosa went from 36 home runs in 1997 to 66 in 1998, his batting average similarly jumped from .251 to .308. The latter increase resulted almost exclusively from Sosa's power surge, which is to say that the home runs raised his batting average - and not the other way around.
Yet for every Fielder or Rice, there is a Willie Stargell or Darrell Evans, power hitters who continued to produce into their late 30s, and in some cases early 40s. Willie McCovey hit 28 home runs in 1977, when he was 39. Evans hit 182 home runs after the age of 35. Last year, during a season in which he celebrated his 38th birthday, Jim Thome hit 34 home runs.
Can Ortiz be one of those men? Or is he, too, doomed to all but disappear?
"I think the ability is there," Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said before last night's game, during which Ortiz made him sound like a prophet. "I think the hard part is that because of his personality and the love everybody has for him, everybody is trying to help - players on other teams, coaches on other teams, announcers, bellmen, you name it. And he's so approachable that I think he finds himself [cluttered]. It's just too much information."
That raises the question of whether Ortiz's difficulties are physical or mental, the former of which does not necessarily relate to injury as much as it does to simple erosion of skill, in this case bat speed. Magadan does not believe that to be the case. Magadan cites Ortiz's performance in batting practice as an indication that the player's power is still there, though in games Ortiz clearly has not been getting to pitches he once pounded unfailingly.
At least until last night.
According to the aforementioned evaluator, most every power hitter reaches a point in his career where adjustments are mandatory to continue producing at an acceptable level. In the later stages of his career, for instance, Carl Yastrzemski finally lowered his hands after years of stubborn resistance. Others, like Evans, backed off the plate some. Whether a player is willing to make those adjustments often depends on his willingness to reconstruct what has taken a career to build.
But then, stubbornness, too, is often a key ingredient for success.
"Mo Vaughn was a cinch to not be productive because he hugged the plate," said the evaluator, noting that Vaughn's unwillingness to move away from the plate made him terminally vulnerable to the inside fastball. "He couldn't get the bat through that part of the zone anymore."
And so, as pitchers are perhaps now doing with Ortiz, Vaughn was deconstructed with an old formula: hard in, soft away. He couldn't catch up to the fastball and repeatedly looked off balance against offspeed pitches, a combination that left him defenseless.
Just the same, too much tinkering can be counterproductive. Magadan, for one, acknowledged that Ortiz has tried different bats this season, dropping from a customary 33 1/2-ounce model to a 32-ounce. The results did not change. What Magadan has chose to stress is a return to the mechanics Ortiz demonstrated in 2006 and '07, when he was among the most feared power hitters in the game and perhaps the most destructive offensive force in baseball.
That means breaking bad habits and relearning old ones, which is like starting over.
"A high school player can see you're lunging, but why are you lunging and how do you stop lunging?" Magadan said, focusing on the root of the problem. "[Ortiz] has used a lighter bat, but he doesn't normally use a real heavy bat, anyway. He usually uses a 33 1/2-ounce, but he swung a 32 for a while. I know the easy thing is to say, 'Well, use a 30-ounce bat,' but heck, if you use a 25-ounce bat and your mechanics aren't right, it's not going to work."
For Magadan, Ortiz, and the Red Sox as a whole, the most important questions are obvious: Does the video from 2006 and '07 still apply? Is Ortiz the same man? Or has there been a loss of bat speed necessitating those oft-discussed adjustments? An impassioned Magadan emphasizes that Ortiz is failing to repeat the fundamentals of his swing that are evident during batting practice, making him the hardball equivalent of a golfer who leaves his game on the range.
Whatever the explanation, Ortiz returned to the lineup this week to familiar tactics from the opposition. On Tuesday night, Jays starter Brian Tallet tried to tie up Ortiz up with fastballs, then had him lunging at sliders away or in the dirt. A frustrated Ortiz made things worse for himself and chased in futility. He had one good pitch to hit during the game, fouling back a 2-0 fastball that Tallet left in the middle of the plate in the first inning.
Last night, against harder-throwing Jays lefthander Brett Cecil, Ortiz went hitless in his first two at-bats, during which he saw four pitches. In his second at-bat, he defensively struck out on three pitches. Then came a fifth-inning at-bat and another fastball in the middle of the plate - this one clocked at 91 miles per hour - that Ortiz drove to the camera well above the 379-foot marker in left-center field, the kind of blow Ortiz has delivered countless times during his Red Sox career.
As the ball soared through the night, one still could not help but wonder if the big man was coming out of the shadows.