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The delicate dance with David

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  February 1, 2011 01:33 AM

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Here are David Ortiz's statistics against lefthanders the last four seasons:

2007: 210 plate appearances, .308/.390/.462 with 5 HR

2008: 121 plate appearance, .221/.308/.433 with 5 HR

2009: 188 plate appearances, .212/.298/.418 with 6 HR

2010: 200 plate appearances, .222/.275/.324 with 2 HR

You don't need to be Bill James to figure that out. His OPS against lefties has plunged from .852 to .599. That's not a trend, that's falling off a cliff.

When the Sox picked up their option on Ortiz a few months ago, Theo Epstein addressed the struggles against lefties and the idea that Ortiz shouldn't react badly (as was the case last season) if he's out of the lineup against certain pitchers.

“That’s something we wanted to make sure everybody’s on the same page about as we head into next year, that there’s comfort in the contract, comfort with the role, comfort with the manager,” Epstein said. “Certainly Tito and David are absolutely on the same page, on great terms, and it shouldn’t be an issue going into next year.”

Francona spoke about the issue last night before the Town Hall.

“For David to be successful — and I see his numbers against lefties, believe me, I do — you can’t just sit him because I don’t know if he’d have as much success against righties. I know we believe that,” Francona said. “I think there are times where it’ll do him good to maybe give him a break against somebody he struggles with. That wasn’t necessarily the case (last) April. He was struggling against everybody and we were struggling to win.”

With Adrian Gonzalez around and everybody back healthy, Ortiz will probably hit sixth on a lot of nights, if not most of them. That alone could take some getting used to for him. In the eight years he has been with the Red Sox, Ortiz has hit third, fourth or fifth in the lineup all but 54 times. It would be doubly difficult to sit him against lefties, too.

Managers are far more sensitive about these sort of things than are general managers. From a number standpoint, it makes perfect sense to replace Ortiz against lefties. But you can't risk that affecting him against righthanders. Ortiz is not a guy who's there for the ride. He is who he is and his personality reaches all corners of the clubhouse.

With Mike Cameron on the bench, the Red Sox have a viable option for DH or RF. Heck, Francona could use Cameron and Darnell McDonald and sit Ortiz and J.D. Drew if he wants. The numbers against certain lefties will support that.

The easy solution, of course, is for Ortiz to hit lefties from the start and take the issue out of Francona's hands. Problem solved. But if that doesn't happen, it will be interesting to see how the manager balances David's ego with the team's need to balance the lineup against lefties.

That's the daily dilemma for a manager, making out the right lineup for today without screwing up tomorrow.

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Best of luck to Rob Neyer, who is leaving ESPN.com after many years as a baseball blogger. Rob's stuff was always smart, fun and had the right tone. Here's hoping we'll be reading him again soon.

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