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For Gonzalez, Fenway right spot to hit left

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 7, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The heights Fred Lynn’s career would have reached had he never left Fenway Park? It’s a discussion that’s into its fourth decade.

Lynn has said he believes that Hall of Fame consideration wouldn’t have been out of the question had he remained with the Red Sox. That’s what being a lefthanded hitter at Fenway meant to him.

Lynn’s story is the perfect segue to the 2011 tale of Adrian Gonzalez, and the lefthanded-hitting legacy he may forge in the years to come.

Whereas Lynn left the Sox in a trade to the Angels after the 1980 season, Gonzalez, acquired by the Sox from the Padres in the offseason, is coming to Fenway in the prime of his career. What could that mean in terms of home runs, doubles off the Wall, and other mind-boggling numbers? It’s an interesting subject, as old as the Wall itself.

Wade Boggs’s .369 average is the highest of any lefthanded Red Sox hitter at Fenway, among players with 1,000 or more at-bats, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He is followed by Ted Williams (.361), Tris Speaker and Lynn (.347), and Pete Runnels (.332).

Fenway has been romanticized as a righthanded power hitter’s dream: Pull the ball with some loft and you’ll hit 50 or 60 homers. But other than Jimmie Foxx’s 1938 season, when he hit 35 of his 50 homers at Fenway and drove in 101 of his 175 runs, while hitting .405 with a 1.399 OPS, it hasn’t always worked out that way for righty hitters. But lefthanded hitters such as Boggs, Lynn, Runnels, Carl Yastrzemski, and Mo Vaughn often went the opposite way, hitting the ball off or over the Wall.

Lefthanded pull hitters such as Mike Greenwell, Trot Nixon, J.D. Drew, David Ortiz, and yes, even Williams, probably wish they had peppered that side of the field a bit more.

Johnny Pesky, who played with Williams, coached and managed Yaz, and coached Lynn and Boggs, said, “Williams was the greatest hitter ever. He could hit it anywhere he wanted. Yaz tried to go the other way. Lynn was good at it. Boggs made his living over there, and Mo was pretty damn good trying to steer the ball there. Runnels hit to all fields.’’

Change for the better Lynn’s story is among the more interesting.

“I was a dead pull hitter in college [Southern Cal],’’ he recalled. “The ballpark was a flip-flop of Fenway in that we had a deep left field and a short right field with a 30-foot chain link fence, so I pulled everything. When I got to Fenway, I looked over to left and I just told myself, ‘I’ve got to make this work for me.’ There was no padding on the walls out there and I’d notice that opposing players would be a little shy going after balls. It was clear this was a good place to hit. So I played with my swing and made adjustments.

“I don’t know why, but I was able to stay inside the ball and was able to get the barrel of the bat to point toward left field. If they busted me inside I was able to fight it off and still shoot the ball to left-center and I had enough power to get the ball on the Wall. I know Yaz did the same thing I did as a young player and then he got away from it and went back to it late in his career.’’

Lynn is being modest when he says he doesn’t know how he did it. He did it because he was one of the most immensely talented athletes who ever wore a Red Sox uniform. As graceful a fielder as one will ever see, and with a picture-perfect swing, the young Lynn and Jim Rice were called the Gold Dust Twins in their time with the Sox. Lynn had a very good 17-year career with five teams, ending with a .283 average, 306 homers, 1,111 RBIs, and an .845 OPS.

As a 23-year-old in 1975, Lynn was the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player with one of those seasons you just don’t forget. He hit .331 with 21 homers and 105 RBIs, and had a league-best 47 doubles.

He actually topped that in 1979, winning a batting title with a .333 average, with 39 homers, 122 RBIs, and a whopping 1.059 OPS. In ’79 he hit .386 with 28 homers and 83 RBIs at Fenway. But after the 1980 season, Lynn was gone to the Angels after a contract snafu.

“It would have put 20 points on my average if I had been able to stay in Boston for a good 15 years of my career,’’ said Lynn. “But the other issue was me staying healthy and on the field. I ran into too many walls.’’

Lynn, who lives in the San Diego area, believes Gonzalez and Fenway could be a special match.

“He’s a big, strong guy,’’ Lynn said. “At Petco Park, right and right-center is deep, so in order to get any power numbers you have to hit to left, left-center. Adrian is strong enough to be able to generate power that way. I know you can pencil in at least 40 doubles and home runs.’’

Various statistical sites have charted Gonzalez’s hit trends at spacious Petco and projected them at Fenway. According to Major League Baseball computations, last season Gonzalez hit 15 fly outs at Petco that could have had a different result at Fenway. If those become hits at Fenway, that would produce a significant increase in batting average and OPS.

What comes naturally Unlike Lynn, Boggs never had to adjust his swing to Fenway. He went the other way naturally, very much like Gonzalez.

“It’s a lefthanded hitter’s dream if you utilize it,’’ said Boggs. “I never understood hitters who didn’t utilize it. You’ve got that safety net out there that gets you on base if you use it. If you pull the ball at Fenway as a lefthanded hitter, you’re hitting into a very deep area. When the wind is swirling or blowing in, you can hit a ball on the money and it gets caught.’’

When Tony Oliva, who has one of the highest lefthanded-hitting opponent’s batting averages at Fenway with his .376 mark, was a hitting coach with the Twins, he marveled at how Boggs could take any pitch and hit it to the opposite field.

“We’d come in and we told our pitchers to throw fastballs inside,’’ Oliva said. “But time after time he’d take that fastball and put an inside-outside swing on it and hit it to left field. So I said, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ’’

Not that one could do much to get Boggs out.

The Wall was friendly to him, and he’d watch so many righthanded hitters get psyched out by the Wall, trying to pull every pitch and messing up their swings. The key for Boggs was what Oliva said: He could take any pitch, even the inside fastball, and send it to the opposite field. That’s how great a swing he had, how quick his hands were, and how strong he became.

Certainly pitchers will try to throw fastballs inside to Gonzalez once the season starts, but his response is, “They’ve been doing that to me for years anyway. I’ve always been able to inside-out it the other way.’’

Boggs, still a student of hitters, has noticed that Gonzalez has the same skills as he did in being able to direct the ball. But that’s not to say Gonzalez can’t pull the ball if he has to. Stroking a homer to right won’t be much of an issue for someone with his power.

“People always told me I’ll like hitting at Fenway,’’ said Gonzalez, who spent the last five seasons hitting at Petco. “I have a natural stroke to left-center, so what that translates into, who knows? I don’t know until I’m there hitting the baseball to see how it travels. It looks like it should be a special place for me.’’

Gonzalez can pull when he needs to. In fact, in 626 at-bats when he’s pulled the ball, he’s hit .393 with 54 homers, 156 RBIs, and a 1.129 OPS. In 467 at-bats when he’s hit the ball to left field, he’s hit .421 with a 1.210 OPS. It was just a matter of finding the right venue for him to play in, and now he seems to have found it.

“I hit that way before I came to Fenway,’’ Boggs said. “The only thing I had to do is get stronger, and I did. I never tried to pull the ball. It didn’t matter how they threw me, and they would throw me fastballs inside, but I always went the other way no matter what they tried to get me to do.’’

Boggs’s career road numbers were a far cry from his Fenway ones, but he still hit .302 on the road.

“I never changed my swing on the road because if I had I would have messed up my Fenway swing,’’ he said. “Obviously I didn’t have quite the numbers on the road, but I’d try to hit the ball to the gap or over the left fielder’s head, or try to dump a ball into left.’’

Different strokes Drew is one player who hasn’t seemed to take full advantage of left field at Fenway.

“I’ve always been a hit-it-where-they-pitch-it type hitter, so at Fenway I get pitched inside a lot,’’ he said. “It’s a long way to right field and some nights when the wind isn’t blowing out you [have to] crush it to get it out. I’ve hit balls as good as I can hit them and they stay in the ballpark.’’

Greenwell tried to pull everything. “Greenie was very stubborn about not changing his swing,’’ said Boggs.

Greenwell was a career .303 hitter in 12 seasons with the Red Sox, but the feeling is he might have hit 20 points higher had he adapted to the park.

Nixon, who hit .281 at Fenway, was another dead pull hitter who didn’t utilize the Wall, but he had the power to pull it out of the yard.

Hall of Famer Rice believes Fenway was a big advantage for lefthanded hitters, with this twist: “When some of the bigger lefthanded hitters like Big Papi got into a slump, they’d start rolling over, and the way they got out of it was by hitting the ball the other way. Now you have a chance to break out of a slump.’’

Williams was a dead pull hitter, which is why it was thought he would have been ever better at Yankee Stadium, while it seemed his contemporary, the Yankees’ righthanded-hitting Joe DiMaggio, would have been a better fit at Fenway Park. Williams’s 1.148 OPS at Fenway was off the charts, but he didn’t often utilize the Wall.

Runnels, who won batting titles in 1960 and 1962, hit the ball all over, but often would pepper doubles off the Wall.

Vaughn hit .326 and banged out 119 homers at Fenway and learned early on under hitting coach Mike Easler that going the other way gave him the best chance of putting up big numbers in the park.

Easler mastered the Wall himself in a very strong season for the Red Sox in 1984, when he hit .375 at Fenway with 16 of his 27 homers there. When Easler became a hitting coach, he found Vaughn the perfect candidate to adopt a Fenway stroke, and the Hit Dog sure did. Vaughn amassed a .993 career OPS at Fenway.

“Mo was perfect for Fenway,’’ said Easler, “and he knew it. Mo could hit it anywhere, any time, but when he went the other way at Fenway, good things happened.’’

Yaz came up in 1961 and wound up hitting .306 with 237 homers and 1,063 RBIs at Fenway in his long Hall of Fame career with the Red Sox, generally using all fields.

“Yaz was really the guy that some of the lefthanded hitters like Freddy tried to be like,’’ Rice said. “Yaz would inside-out that swing. He had bat control and he’d hit that wall all the time.’’

Scouts believe the other major Red Sox newcomer besides Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, also will find the Wall more inviting the more he plays at Fenway.

Crawford is not a pull hitter, but he can hit the gaps in right-center. And the feeling is, according to one American League executive, “He has good enough bat control and enough power that he’s going to send some balls out to left.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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