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How a Hitting Coach and Little League Saved Ortiz’ Season

10.22.09 at 4:39 am ET
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The task of hitting coaches is at times complex. They need to be detail oriented, observing their players’ swing paths, contact points, pre-swing set-up, hand position, foot position and bat speed, among several other factors.

Yet sometimes, hitting coaches’ most important observations have less to do with the technical details of hitting than they do with the psychology of hitting. The 2009 season represented a case study in that notion for Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and hitting coach Dave Magadan.

Ortiz had a startling tale of two seasons. Through the end of May, he was hitting just .185 with one homer, a .284 OBP and .570 slugging mark, statistics more befitting a pitcher than a player with a reputation as one of the most feared sluggers in the game. Many were inclined to suggest Ortiz was done, and it would have been difficult to dismiss such gloomy forecasts.

Starting in June, however, Ortiz hit .264 with a .356 OBP and .904 OPS, blasting 27 homers and driving in 81 runs in the process. It was not quite vintage Ortiz, but it was not far off.

Ortiz insists that the hairpin turn that he achieved in 2009 was almost entirely about a changed mental approach to the game. And for that, he suggested, Magadan had helped immensely.

“I said, ‘[Expletive] it – I’m going to play like it’s Little League.” I’m serious about this. One day, I woke up and I went, ‘Okay, I guess I’ve got nothing to lose anymore. I’m way behind what I’m normally used to. I’ll go to the field today, and not do [expletive]. I’m just going to act like I’m in Little League,’” Ortiz said late in the regular season.

“I really got that, I guess, one day from Magadan. He told me one day, ‘You’re listening to everybody. Any time you have a bad swing or had a bad game.’ He said, ‘We know more about your swing than anyone else. We watch you take 3,000 swings a day. Just stay away from everything. Just go and see the ball and hit it.’”

Magadan had spent ample time dissecting Ortiz’ slump, and saw that the Sox designated hitter simply wasn’t himself. There was a great deal of guesswork at the plate, as Ortiz seemed to be anticipating off-speed pitches – a fear that may have been the byproduct of Manny Ramirez’ departure, with Ortiz left to worry that opposing pitchers wouldn’t throw him anything to hit.

Ortiz spent the first couple of months of the season lost at the plate. It was obvious in both his approach and statistics.

“He dug a big hole for himself at the beginning of the year,” said Magadan in late-September. “A lot of people were writing him off. We all still felt that he had a lot left in the tank.”

And so, Magadan tried to engage Ortiz in a fashion that would allow the slugger’s natural talents to come to the fore. That is where the conversation about Little League became not merely useful but essential.

Magadan did not recall the precise date of the conversation with Ortiz. But he did recall that the moment came in the deepest throes of the two-month, season-opening slump.

“It was probably when he was in the midst of his one homer, hitting a buck-eighty time,” said the Red Sox hitting coach. “He was beating himself up. Sometimes you have to just say, ‘Hey – go out there and have fun. Don’t try to force the issue.’ Simplify the game. Don’t try to make it more difficult than it is. Have fun. Just go up there trying to hit a ball hard.”

By and large, Ortiz was able to do that over the final four months of the 2009 regular season. He had worked with Magadan to make subtle technical adjustments in the past, but in this instance, his job had far less to do with the details of a swing than with the thought process that entered into one. Ortiz’ season was salvaged, in no trivial part by a bit of perspective offered from his hitting coach.

Dave Magadan will visit the WEEI.com Virtual Press Box on Thursday, Oct. 22, at noon. For details of his chat, visit the Full Count Blog.

Read More: Dave Magadan, David Ortiz,
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