Five years ago, David Ortiz began a path toward becoming a platoon player.
From 2008-2010, he hit .218 with a .383 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers.
The low point? It could have been when he had just four line drives against lefties in all of 2009.
But things got even worse on April 27, 2010. In a tie game in Toronto, the Boston Red Sox had the bases loaded in the eighth inning with Ortiz coming to the plate. Terry Francona opted to pinch-hit for the most clutch hitter in franchise history.
Mike Lowell walked to give the Red Sox 2-1. Soon there would be calls for him to replace Ortiz at DH.
If Ortiz was still going to be with the Red Sox in 2012, at age 36, it would certainly be as a platoon designated hitter.
Then something clicked.
Ortiz hasn’t just improved against lefties. He’s better than ever. Last season, his .329 batting average and .989 OPS were career bests in a full season.
He’s hitting .462 against lefties so far in 2012, with six hits in 13 at-bats. In 2010, he didn’t pick up his sixth hit against a left-hander until mid-May.
It once appeared that Kevin Youkilis, three-and-a-half years younger, would be the heir to DH spot. Thanks in part to his resurgence against lefties, Ortiz just might outlast him on the roster.
"I can't tell if it's a lefty or a righty [facing him],” Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine told WEEI.com. “He has the same at-bat from the first inning to the ninth, regardless of who's throwing, whether it's soft, hard, in or out. It's a determined at-bat.”
So how did Ortiz turn things around? Take a look at three key factors.
* No longer trying to pull everything: Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Ortiz’s resurgence against lefties coincided with the arrival of Adrian Gonzalez, a left-handed hitter with a reputation for going the other way.
Batting from the left side at Fenway requires a willingness to hit to the opposite field. Ortiz needed that reminder after three straight years of struggling against southpaws. In 2010, he went homerless and hit just .205 at home against lefties.
“I’m pretty much a pull hitter, and pulling everything against lefties wasn’t working for me,” he said of that season.
Last season, when Ortiz went to the opposite field against a lefty, he hit .541. When he did so at home, he hit .654.
Indeed, Fenway Park is where Ortiz’s pull-first mentality got him in the most trouble. In 2010, he hit just .205 at home against southpaws. The following year that surged to .378. In fact, among left-handed hitters at home, his .378 batting average against lefties was the highest in the league in 2011.
Ortiz has improved significantly on outside pitches since he stopped trying to pull everything. As the heat maps show, Ortiz could turn on inside pitches even when he was at his worst. Since the start of last season, he’s crushing balls low and away.
Going the other way also helps explain his turnaround against off-speed pitches from southpaws. In 2009-10, he hit .157 on those, including .136 on the curveballs combination. But since the start of last season, he’s hit .289 against the soft stuff from lefties, including .450 on curves.
* Taking his walks: Since 2011, 47 percent of Ortiz’s plate appearances against lefties that went to three balls have resulted in a walk. From 2009-2010, only 33 percent did.
In part, that’s a byproduct of his success rather than a reason for it. When he was struggling against southpaws, they were more likely to challenge him in a hitter’s count. From 2009-10, 63 percent of pitches to Ortiz in three-ball counts were thrown in the strike zone. Since the start of last season, that dropped to 54 percent.
In other words, pitchers are more likely to give Ortiz a free pass than risk giving him something to hit. The percent of fastballs in three ball counts dropped from 67 to 57.
For Ortiz, the key has been a willingness to take these walks. He’s chasing fewer pitches, and forcing better ones to come his way.
* Better with two strikes: Ortiz has become a far better contact hitter against lefties with two strikes.
From 2009 to 2010, he struck out in 44 percent of plate appearances going to two strikes against a lefty. Since the start of last season, that’s plummeted to 31 percent.
Ortiz is swinging and missing far less often with two strikes. From 2009 to 2010, 29 percent of his two-strike swings missed. Since then, it is just 17 percent. And he’s also fouling off more pitches.
Like most hitters, Ortiz continues to be susceptible to pitches low and away. But at least now, he’s forcing pitchers to locate in order to strike him out.
As the heat maps indicate, Ortiz has reclaimed the outer part of the plate and is no longer striking out on belt high pitches on the outside corner.
Quick hits on Ortiz
* In 2010, he hit .173 against lefty relievers. Last season, that jumped to .315.
* In 2010, he had four hits on pitches of 94 miles per hour or faster from a lefty. He already has four such hits in 2012.
* The biggest test for Ortiz’s new approach against lefties is CC Sabathia, whom he will face on Sunday. Over the past two years, he’s struck out seven times in 14 at-bats against Sabathia.