No knee to worry: Papi is back

The start of the 2008 season was one that David Ortiz would likely want to forget. He began it mired in one of his worst slumps ever. He started the season 3-for-43 (.070), with only 3 RBI before April 16—a span of 14 games.

There has been plenty of talk that his right knee, which had been operated on in early November 2007 following the World Series—was bothering him. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. During the slump, when he was asked about the knee, he said it was “fine,” and that the problem, more than anything, was mental.

I believed him. Anyone who watched those early Red Sox games this season could tell that something was not right with Big Papi. He did not have the same confident, focused, “I’m going to kill the best pitch you offer me” look that he normally has.

His stance in the batter’s box did seem different, however: He was maintaining a more upright posture. More than likely, this was happening subconsciously as a result of the surgery. The body has the ability to create altered movement patterns to compensate and protect itself against injury—in this case, preventing him from pivoting over the surgically repaired meniscus. He was not wincing or grimacing in pain, so I felt he was just lost at the plate, both mentally and mechanically.

On Sunday, April 13, Terry Francona made a great (and underrated, in my opinion) call—he benched Ortiz in a game versus the Yankees.

Said Francona, “I just think it’s the right thing to do…He came in today with kind of a little bounce to his step, a little more light-hearted than he’s been. He’ll have a good work day and then he can take a little bit of a mental (day off). I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s building, where he needed a break. That’s the best way to put it.

“I think he woke up this morning knowing he wasn’t going to play and he can go get his work done. It’s never a lot of fun to not have his presence in the lineup, but I think it’s the best thing to do.”

Ortiz then went to work with hitting coach Dave Magadan to iron out problems with his mechanics. The day off apparently was just what Ortiz needed to get himself on track. What has ensued has been pure greatness—vintage Papi.

The day following his day off was against Cleveland, and he had a multi-hit game, just his second of the season. He hit safely in both games against Cleveland, and did manage a hit against the Yankees his next time out to put together a modest three-game hitting streak. A home series against Texas finally saw Ortiz flashing his skills and power, with a homer and five RBI. On the home stand, he hit safely in seven straight games, with three homers and 16 RBI.

He has not stopped hitting since. Since the day off in mid-April, he is hitting .307 with nine homers and 34 RBI, raising his average to .247.

Derek Carty provided me some great statistics to further demonstrate Ortiz’ resurgence (note that this is a small sample size):

Slump (43 AB): 77% CR, 0.90 BB/K, 17% BB%, 0.063 BABIP, 9% LD%, 42% FB%, 48% GB%, 7% HR/FB, 43 AB/HR, 43 AB/XBH

Post-Slump (127 AB): 86% CR, 1.06 BB/K, 13% BB%, 0.300 BABIP, 17% LD%, 44% FB%, 39% GB%, 19% HR/FB, 14 AB/HR, 7 AB/XBH

In summary, he started hitting the ball harder—doubled his line drives put in play, and his power numbers escalated dramatically. The weak fly balls that were not leaving the yard during his slump were now finding their way to the outfield seats with much greater frequency.

Smart hitters usually find a way out of their slumps, though it is not always easy. Sometimes, a great managerial decision and some help from the hitting coach can go a long way in helping the process. I’m sure Ortiz would agree.

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