As the Red Sox and Yankees renew their rivalry with tonight's first meeting of 2009, Boston fans have been preparing their wrath for New York's third baseman.
Cody Ransom, ready thyself.
Alas, it's the other third baseman Boston was expecting to rudely welcome, in what would have been, if not for a hip injury, the first appearance of Alex Rodriguez at Fenway Park since the original SI.com report about his failed steroid test in 2003. Coincidentally, that news broke less than two hours before Sox-Yankees tickets went on sale to the public, giving the particularly hearty fans the opportunity to be present for the first matchup.
Of course, A-Rod is not the only notable absentee, as the power and swagger of Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz has been missing in Boston's first 15 games. Ortiz, the venerable slugger, was hitting just .170 through Sunday before a 5-for-12 week raised his average 50 points in three games. The lefty is regularly a slow starter -- Ortiz is a lifetime .262 hitter before May 1 -- but this year has been the worse yet, with just one extra-base hit in his first 55 plate appearances and still no home runs in 68 trips to the batter's box.
There is no shortage of good hitters in Boston's lineup, but with Manny Ramirez gone, the onus is on Ortiz to be the middle-of-the-order bopper. So far in this young season, the big fella seems to have corrected flaws in his stance but has work to do on his approach.
Ortiz hasn't looked good at the plate. His front-leg kick is less pronounced than it used to be and, as Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan explained to the Boston Globe, Ortiz's hands have been slow to load into a hitting position. As a result, he's been late on nearly everything, even admitting a difficulty in catching up with high-80s fastballs, nevermind anything in the 90s.
Ortiz attributed the problem to the wrist he hurt last summer. The injury -- a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist that sidelined him for nearly two months last year -- has healed, but Ortiz developed bad habits in compensating for it.
Big Papi started showing signs of life Monday, roping a double and a triple to the opposite field in Boston's 12-1 victory over the Orioles. In a doubleheader sweep of the Twins Wednesday, Ortiz added three more hits, two of them doubles, and all of them still to left field. His swing still may not be fast enough to pull the ball, but as manager Terry Francona said after Monday's game, "Any time hitters hit the ball the other way with authority, something's got to be right."
So the swing is back, but what remains troubling is a change in Ortiz's approach, too. The scouting report is evident: His mechanics are off. Challenge him. So far, it's working.
Thanks to data from baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com and StatsPass, one can see the change. Ortiz has swung at 28.4 percent of pitches thrown outside the strike zone, a career-high rate and four percent above league average. He's making contact on only 73.4 percent of his swings, a career low and seven percent below league average. Overall he's swinging at 50.9 percent of all pitches, another career high and eight percent higher than his personal average of the last four seasons. Ortiz has struck out 16 times, compared to 13 hits. Even though he struck out more than 100 times in his four best seasons (2003-07), his strikeout total has never exceeded his hits.
When he does make contact, Ortiz is getting under the ball more than he ever has with a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 0.42, the lowest of his career and roughly half his career rate (0.81).
With nearly 10 percent of the season in the books, Ortiz is seeing more pitches -- 4.41 per plate appearance, his most since 1999 -- even as pitchers are attacking his strike zone more than ever, throwing 59.4 percent first-pitch strikes, a higher rate than he's seen in the last seven years. In 59 at bats, Ortiz has worked the count to 2-0 only 12 times and not once has it gone to 3-0.
According to Baseball Reference, the three most similar players through age 32 (Ortiz turned 33 in the offseason) are Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado and Mo Vaughn. Giambi and Delgado, of course, are active and still producing in their late 30s, while Vaughn is the worrisome comparison. He didn't play at all as a 33-year-old in 2003 and returned in 2004 for one more full season, batting only .259 with 26 homers, 72 RBIs and a .456 slugging percentage.
The All-Star ballot was released Wednesday and, because the game is being played in St. Louis, a National League park, there is no category for designated hitters. It's symbolic of the times that Kevin Youkilis was listed as Boston's first base representative, rather than the megastar Ortiz. Youkilis, of course, has earned it: he finished third in last year's AL MVP voting and is batting .429 with four homers and 12 RBIs in the young season.
It's understandable if Ortiz starts pressing for his first home run of the season and may wish this weekend's series were in the Bronx, where a short pop-up has a chance to leave the Little League park masquerading as the new Yankee Stadium. Regardless, he knows he's facing the right opponent.
As he told the New York Daily News before the season, "I love playing the Yankees, man. That's how I got famous."