FORT MYERS, Fla. — The numbers are impossible to ignore. For his career, Jonny Gomes has hit .223 against righthanded pitchers.
In the last eight seasons, Gomes has had more than 400 plate appearances three times. He was essentially a regular with the Tampa Bay Rays early in his career and again for the Cincinnati Reds in 2010.
Beyond that, Gomes has been wedged into a role he finds uncomfortable, that of a platoon player.
“I played every day when I was in the minors, no problem,’’ said Gomes. “Then when the Rays called me up, I used to get a lot of spot starts against lefties and I hit them.
“Randy Johnson, whack! Andy Pettitte, whack! Remember B.J. Ryan? Whack! Then it became, ‘Hey, this guy can hit lefties.’ I honestly didn’t know there was a difference.
“Next thing I knew, I was locked in this box. I was a platoon guy.’’
The Red Sox offered Gomes a key in December, promising him a chance to face righthanders and play — if not every day, then more than he had grudgingly become accustomed to.
“My agent said, ‘Where do you want to go? Where do you want to end up?’ I said I could narrow it down: I would go to any of the 30 teams that wanted me,’’ Gomes said. “The Red Sox wanted me.’’
A two-year, $10 million contract was evidence of just how much general manager Ben Cherington desired Gomes. Part of the story was that the Sox valued his presence as a good leader in the clubhouse. Gomes has one of the best reputations in the game in that regard.
But no team drops $10 million for an outgoing personality.
The Sox really do believe Gomes is more than he has shown as a player.
Because Gomes is a righthanded pull hitter, Fenway Park should prove to be a benefit. They also have faith that, if given an opportunity, Gomes can improve on his career averages.
“What that total number of at-bats becomes against righthanders for Jonny remains to be seen,’’ said manager John Farrell. “More importantly, we just don’t want to go in and say we’re closing the door on him facing any righthanders.’’
To hear Gomes tell the story, opportunity is all that is missing.
“Everyone looks at the numbers,’’ he said. “No one wants to look really into the game.
“Let’s pick any profession out there. Let’s pick painting. People will succeed and get to the higher level because they do a lot of it. It’s their passion; they do it every single day.
“If I told you this one guy works at painting six times a month, are you going with him or the guy who does it every single day?
“Hitting is timing, all timing. There have been times I’ve probably gone 10 days between facing righties. This game is 162 games; it’s not 16. You need those repetitions.’’
Gomes got 375 plate appearances against righthanders with the Reds in 2010. He hit .257 with a low .709 OPS. But for the season he had 18 home runs and 86 RBIs, helping Cincinnati to 91 wins and an unexpected division title.
“Dusty Baker played the hot hand,’’ Gomes said. “I knew I was going to play against lefties. But if I was hot, I stayed in there. I prepare myself to play every day, all 162 games. For one, I think that’s professional. I also think that will help the longevity of my career.’’
At 32, Gomes is still young enough to reinvent himself. But even if he cannot take that leap, his value to the Sox can be significant.
Gomes is a career .284 hitter against lefthanders with an .895 OPS. With so many good lefthanded starters in the American League, and particularly the American League East, he could have a prominent role even with 400 or fewer plate appearances.
His playing time could hinge on the lefthanded alternatives the
Sox could use in left field.
Daniel Nava, a switch hitter, has been far more effective from the left side in his brief time in the major leagues, hitting .261 with a .768 OPS over 374 plate appearances. When Ryan Kalish, another lefthanded hitter, was lost to shoulder surgery, the Sox quickly signed Ryan Sweeney to a minor league contract.
Sweeney hit .260 with little power for the Sox last season, and was lost for the year July 30 when he broke a knuckle on his left hand punching a metal door in frustration after making an out.
But Sweeney is a career .293 hitter against righthanders with a .749 OPS. He could be a serviceable platoon partner for Gomes.
“When they signed me over here, it was more so my job to lose,’’ said Sweeney. “I just have to come in and do what I normally do in spring training and let everything take care of itself.
“Usually in spring training you want to feel good at the end going into the season. Maybe in this situation, you’ve got to start feeling good a little bit earlier to make the team.’’
Ideally, the Sox hope to find a lefthanded hitter off the bench who could play first base and left field. Nava is working out at first base with that in mind. The idea was discussed with Sweeney, but will not be put into action.
“For now, we’re focused on him in the outfield,’’ Cherington said.
The Sox will spend a lot of time in spring training determining their options. Adding a player via trade is a possibility.
As for Gomes, he’ll be busy painting.
“I don’t want to guess if I’m playing,’’ he said. “I want to show them I should be playing every day.’’