Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Good game, Big Papi -- now keep it up

Everything's OK now, right?

David Ortiz went 2-for-4 with a double, a triple and two RBI against the Orioles on Monday. His batting average jumped from .170 to .196, its highest point in exactly a week. His slugging percentage jumped from .191 to .275, its highest point in almost two weeks.

Even better, with the way he hit the ball the other way with authority, he showed plenty of signs that he's emerging from the slump in which he was mired for the season's first 12 games.

Everything's OK now, right?

Well, um, not necessarily. A few reasons why:

1. It was one game.
Everything the Red Sox kept saying about Ortiz's slow start can be turned on its head to explain why you can't get too excited about a 2-for-4 game.

"It's 12 games," hitting coach Dave Magadan said. "We play 162 games. Obviously, you don't want anybody to struggle. But for me, a bad start is 120 at-bats or 150 at-bats and not 40 at-bats. When you can change your season around in two games, your batting average and all those things, it's not a start. It takes some time."

"It's a long year," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "He's got 600 more at-bats left. The season's not 50 at-bats."

Very true. But while it's premature to make any "Ortiz is finished!" pronouncements after 12 or 13 games, it's also premature to make any "Ortiz is back!" pronouncements after one 2-for-4 afternoon.

2. It was Mark Hendrickson.
Yes, Hendrickson is a lefty. Yes, Ortiz was hitting .211 off the guy in his career coming into the game. (That was a sample size of 19 at-bats, so take it for what it's worth.)

But Hendrickson wasn't throwing the high, hard stuff with which David Ortiz has had trouble this year. In the first inning, Hendrickson missed the strike zone twice before grooving a "fastball" at 87 miles an hour. Ortiz bounced it off the Green Monster.

That's not unusual. Ortiz has 10 hits this season; two of those have come on curveballs, and eight have come on fastballs. Here's how those fastballs break down:

86-89 mph: 4 hits (including Monday's double, 87)
90-93 mph: 4 hits (including Monday's triple, 91)
94-98 mph: 0 hits

In other words -- Ortiz's words, in fact -- he's hitting pitches any major leaguer should hit if he wants to stay in the major leagues.

"If you as a hitter slow down with 88 miles an hour, that means you've got to go," he said. "But it's crazy how you can, after you get beat by 88, come and hit 94. That means it's not that youv'e got to go; it means you've got to pull yourself together to keep working."

That may be true. It's tough to know. He hasn't hit a pitch clocked at 94 yet this season.

3. It stayed in the ballpark
Home runs, of course, are the ultimate small sample size. But the fact that Jason Varitek has gone deep three times has to be encouraging; no matter what your batting average is, you've still got some bat speed left if you can hit three home runs in the span of a couple of weeks. It's so encouraging, in fact, that Varitek's performance at the plate is attracting exactly zero attention so far this season.

Ortiz, on the other hand, still has yet to go deep.

Even with his slow starts in previous years, he found a way to go deep at least once or twice in the season's opening week. The only times he's gone 40 at-bats without a home run to open the season, in fact, were in 2003 (when he was breaking in with the Red Sox and only playing part-time) and in 2000 (when he was breaking in with the Twins and only playing part-time).

4. But it's still too early to tell
We can examine the pitches and the at-bats and the numbers all we want. Nothing this early is going to tell us if Ortiz still can be productive as a No. 3 hitter for a World Series-caliber team.

Check back around Memorial Day. We -- and Terry Francona -- ought to have a pretty good idea at that point whether Ortiz still is a guy who can anchor the middle of the Red Sox lineup.

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