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Evolution an essential aspect of Papi's career

At age 37, Red Sox slugger has spent prime finding ways to get better

ST. LOUIS -- We are living in an era of great hitting baseball players. Consider that we're watching hitters like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutchen.

Right up with those booming bats is David Ortiz. Big Papi.

With the game on the line, how would you like to face Ortiz? Not many pitchers are eager for that task.

The story of Ortiz is testament to the fact player development is an art more than a science. There is no perfect way to project a player's ultimate value. Every organization can boast of successes. Every organization can lament the ones that got away.

Ortiz has gotten away twice.

The Seattle Mariners signed Ortiz as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic in 1992. He was known as David Arias at the time, using the name of his mother. He played three seasons with Seattle, from ages 18 to 20. After a season hitting .320 at Wisconsin in the Class A Midwest League, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins as the player to be named in a deal for corner infielder David Hollins. So Ortiz could have been with the Mariners today.

It was with the Twins that he indicated he would prefer to be known as David Ortiz, using the Spanish naming custom by assuming the last name of his father.

At age 21, Ortiz made his Major League debut with the Twins in September 1997. He played in 15 games and went to the plate 51 times, hitting .327.

Ortiz spent time between Triple-A Salt Lake and Minnesota the following two seasons. But in 2000, Ortiz made the Twins' roster and got 478 plate appearances. He hit .282 with 10 homers and 63 RBIs. Ortiz had served notice that he had the power to change games.

The rest is history. In December 2002, the Twins released Ortiz. He signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox. Ortiz could have been with the Twins today.

The Red Sox got Ortiz at age 27, right at the heart of his baseball prime.

Papi provides the pop
Highest slugging percentage in World Series history
Rank Player PA SLG
1. Barry Bonds 30 1.294
2. Willie Aikens 26 1.100
3. Amos Otis 26 .957
4. Troy Glaus 30 .846
5. (tie) David Ortiz 50 .795
5. (tie) Chase Utley 49 .795
7. Reggie Jackson 116 .755
8. Hideki Matsui 41 .750
9. Babe Ruth 167 .744
10. Lou Gehrig 150 .731

Ortiz, who will turn 38 in November, is coming off a season in which he hit 30 homers and drove in 103 runs on his way to hitting .309. The numbers would be outstanding for a man 10 years younger. But at 37? Incredible. He also hit 38 doubles and chugged out two triples.

Big Papi became Big Papi when he couldn't remember all his teammates names with the Red Sox. He called everyone "Papi." In turn, they named him Big Papi. And Big Papi he is.

Ortiz is bigger than life. But he isn't the jumbo size he was the past couple years, when injuries took their toll in playing and conditioning time.

The 2013 6-foot-4, 250-pound edition of Ortiz is a much leaner, much more conditioned athlete. He lost weight and has gotten into what could be the best shape of his life. Ortiz's energy and agility have allowed him to play first base more often in National League cities, something we haven't seen for some time.

As a left-handed hitter, Ortiz punishes right-handed pitchers with a .339 batting average. He is much improved against southpaws, hitting .260 in 216 plate appearances against lefties. Ortiz is especially dangerous against fastball-pitching left-handers.

In contrast, 10 years ago, Ortiz hit only .216 against left-handed pitching and was usually on the bench when they pitched.

Stepping out of the batter's box and clapping his hands after every pitch, Ortiz is a master at sizing up a pitcher. Ortiz studies what the pitcher is throwing and is one of the best in baseball at anticipating what the pitcher will be using to get him out.

Recently, Ortiz's swing has become a bit less aggressive, although he still gets his strong lower body and quick hands into every swing. While he's lethal against the fastball, he is beyond belief on pitches inside -- especially belt-high inside fastballs.

Where Ortiz becomes a little more vulnerable is the high fastball to the outside. He has been better about passing on that pitch, but he is still tempted at times. It's his weakest hitting zone.

Papi on an October tear
Highest batting average in a World Series
Rank Player Team Year Opp. BA
1. Billy Hatcher Cin. 1990 Oak. .750
2. David Ortiz Bos. 2013 Stl. .727
3. Babe Ruth NYY 1928 Stl. .625
4. Hideki Matsui NYY 2009 Phi. .615
5. Ricky Ledee NYY 1998 S.D. .600
5. Danny Bautista Ari. 2001 NYY .583
7. Ivey Wingo Cin. 1919 CWS .571
8. Chris Sabo Cin. 1990 Oak. .562
9. (tie) Lou Gehrig NYY 1928 Stl. .545
9. (tie) Hank Gowdy Bos. 1914 Phi. .545

Unlike many big power hitters, Ortiz is capable of using the entire field. He can take an outside pitch at the middle of the plate to left field. In fact, he thrives on that middle-away pitch.

So the difference between getting Ortiz out and having him drive the ball to left field is very marginal at best. And that's why he is so good. Ortiz hits pitchers' mistakes. He rarely misses. It's a game of inches.

Ortiz has a slightly hunched over approach at the plate. He holds his hands at his neck/chin level. Ortiz's bat speed, after taking a bit of a dip when he wasn't healthy and was heavier, has rarely been as good as it is now.

While Ortiz can hit pitches at any speed, he might be considered a bit less effective and efficient against offspeed pitches. But pitchers really can't do that too much either, because he'll adjust. Ortiz will look for a difference in arm action and exploit a mistake. Pitchers hanging curveballs up in the zone will be watching the baseball fly out of the park.

When Ortiz lifts his index fingers to the sky after one of his classic home runs, he is honoring his late mother, Angela Rosa Arias.

When all is said and done, there really is only one sure way to handle Ortiz at the plate. Many teams have used the technique. He's so good. Ortiz can beat the opposition in so many ways, they have tried what works the best. They just don't pitch to him.

Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter.
Read More: Boston Red Sox, David Ortiz