When the calendar turned to June in 2009, Ortiz became a different hitter. He smacked 27 home runs the rest of the season, tied with Adam Lind for most in the American League, and his .548 slugging percentage was tied with teammate J.D. Drew for fourth best in the league.
With a pair of hits on Wednesday, Ortiz raised his average to .200 for the first time this season. In eight games this month, Ortiz is now hitting .310 with a .999 OPS. Since Ortiz has managed to repeat his putrid start, could a duplicate of his torrid finish be on the horizon?
Every hit seemingly announces the return of Big Papi, while each strikeout foreshadows an imminent release. But the truth is one at-bat won't determine his future. However, certain trends key to his 2009 improvement could provide a window into his potential resurgence.
1. Not all awful starts are created equal
While similar on the surface, it would be a mistake to assume Ortiz's slump to start 2010 is identical to that of a year ago. Yes, his batting average is equally low and strikeouts are again unacceptably high, but the underlying causes are not all the same.
Unlike last season, Ortiz has already displayed the power stroke with four home runs in 95 plate appearances. He didn't connect on his first home run of 2009 until May 20 -- in his 164th plate appearance. But perhaps as a byproduct of his slugging, Ortiz has struggled to make contact and is striking out at a much higher rate this season.
However, the biggest difference relates to plate discipline. Last season, Ortiz was clearly pressing early in the season. Over the first two months of 2009, he chased 25.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to Inside Edge. When he turned his season around, that fell to 21.6 percent. A microcosm of this turnaround came on pitches up and in. In 178 at-bats over the first two months, Ortiz struck out eight times while chasing pitches high and tight. That happened only twice in his final 363 at-bats.
This season, the problem hasn't been chasing pitches. Rather, Ortiz just isn't swinging -- at least not as much as he usually does. While he has just a 20.2 chase percentage, that is largely a symptom of fewer swings in general. Consider the following data from Stats LLC:
Ortiz is swinging at only 21.1 percent of first pitches, his lowest rate since 2000 with the Twins. Over his first seven seasons in Boston, he swung at 28.8 percent of first pitches.
He is swinging at only 40.9 percent of pitches, the lowest rate of his career.
Around 28 percent of his strikeouts have been looking, compared to 20 percent over the past seven years.
When he does swing, he isn't connecting. Of his swings, 28.8 percent are swings and misses, easily the highest rate in a career that has averaged around 22 percent.
If plate discipline and pitch recognition helped save Ortiz's 2009 season, a similar remedy may not be in store for 2010. In fact, it turns out there is such a thing as too much patience -- especially when you aren't hitting. Ortiz may rank among league leaders with 4.56 pitches seen per plate appearance, but his biggest struggles have come in high pitch count at-bats. In at-bats lasting five or fewer pitches, he is hitting .263 and has hit all four of his home runs. When an at-bat gets to six pitches or more, Ortiz is hitting .071 with only two hits and 20 strikeouts in 32 plate appearances.
2. Pulling the ball with authority
Ortiz has certainly used the Green Monster to his advantage over the years, poking pitches to the opposite field. However, he is at his best when getting around on pitches and driving the ball to center or right field.
Consider 2006, when only three of his 54 home runs were opposite-field shots.
Early last season, Ortiz simply wasn't pulling the ball with authority. As he struggled through the first two months of the season, nine of his 15 extra-base hits were to left or left-center. When pulling the ball, he hit just .184 with a .283 slugging percentage, according to Inside Edge.
But over the final four months of the season, that rose to .354 with a .722 slugging percentage when pulling the ball. During that span, 20 of his 27 home runs went to center or right.
In other words, Ortiz's resurgence resulted from pulling the ball with authority.
His 2010 start has been more promising in this regard. However, only four of his 10 extra-base hits have been pulled, and none has been driven to center. Thus far, Ortiz is hitting .308 when pulling the ball. That is lower than his average to left or center, which starkly contrasts with his career track record.
However, May has offered hope in that regard. Though a small sample size, Ortiz is hitting .625 to the right side this month. Consistently pulling the ball with authority would be a promising sign for resurgence.
3. Catching up to fastballs
If it seems as though Ortiz is struggling to catch up to fastballs, that's because he is. His inability to get around on heaters is a key reason he isn't pulling the ball more.
It's all part of a clear downward trend for Ortiz. In 2007, he hit .371 against fastballs. That's declined each year since (.297 in 2008, .236 in 2009), and he is currently hitting just .226 in at-bats ending in a fastball.
However, ESPN researcher Katie Sharp notes a far more alarming trend. Against fastballs 92 mph or slower, Ortiz is actually hitting .318 and swings and misses just 15.3 percent of the time. But against fastballs 93 mph or faster, he is hitting just .143 with a 31.0 swing and miss percentage.
Overall, he is putting only 31 percent of fastballs in play, a far cry from the 44 percent league average.
Opponents are clearly taking notice, as Ortiz is seeing more fastballs than ever before. So far in 2010, 67 percent of pitches thrown his way have been heaters. Last season, that was just 62 percent. Back in 2007 when he hit .371 against the fastball, they represented only 56 percent of pitches thrown to him.
This has led to struggles in counts normally favorable to hitters, where fastballs become far more likely. According to Inside Edge, the league average is .342 in at-bats ending in a hitter's count compared to .208 when the hitter is behind. This season, Ortiz is hitting just .250 when ahead in the count compared to .171 when behind.
This too could be a point of emphasis for a turnaround. Last season, Ortiz hit just .179 over the first two months when ahead in the count. Starting in June, he exploded for a .397 average when the count favored him.
As opponents continue to try to overpower Ortiz, a return to form requires that he start getting around on fastballs.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.