5.3.03 - Does anyone remember the old Nomar?

The bigger the situation, the harder he'd hit the ball. Everything was a rope. Or a bomb. Remember those two playoff series against the Indians? Or the ALCS against the Yankees? In 54 postseason plate appearances he has an impossible 1.399 OPS with a .383 BA, .463 OBP and a .936 slugging percentage. These numbers just don't happen in October.

During his back-to-back batting title seasons of 1999 and 2000 I'm sure Nomar popped weakly to the right side on a pitch out of the strike zone a couple of times. I just can't remember it. Now it seems to happen every time he comes to the plate with a runner in scoring position.

What changed?

Can it all be traced to Sept. 25, 1999 when Baltimore's Al Reyes dotted Nomar on the longitudinal tendon? Nomar played the entire 2000 season with the tendon fraying, hit .372 and, most encouragingly, drew a career high 61 walks. But then the dam burst, the tendon split and all the progress he had made in raising his OBP from .345 his rookie year to .439 in year four was seemingly wiped away.  When he came back, he was jumping at the ball, swinging at everything and resolutely refusing to draw a walk as he posted a .352 OBP in 21 games.

But 21 post-surgery games was hardly a fair sample to gauge just how much Nomar had regressed in his hitting approach. So we all waited with bated breath for 2002. He had almost 700 plate appearances last year and walked 41 times, repeating the .352 OBP he had put up in his abbreviated 2001 season. The strength certainly seemed to have returned to his wrist as he piled up 85 extra-base hits, including 24 home runs. But the modicum of patience he was slowly starting to develop over his first four seasons was gone.

Compounding the OBP problem, Nomar was no longer killing first pitches. Why?

I think something else was happening concurrently with Nomar's rehabilitation/
comeback. Word was going around: Do not throw this guy a first pitch strike. He will chase balls up, he will chase balls down, he will chase balls away. So when Nomar returned to full strength, he was facing a completely different league, a league in which the only first-pitch strikes he saw were mistakes. He didn't adjust, hitting .325 on first pitches, down from .432 in 2000. Nomar defenders, indeed Nomar himself, will say, "What's wrong with hitting .325?" Well, while .325 is an excellent batting average, it is a lousy on-base percentage, and no one ever drew a walk by putting the first pitch in play. Furthermore, giving pitchers one-pitch outs 67.5 percent of the time is no way to get into the opposition bullpen. So far this year, Nomar seems to have regressed even more with a .323 OBP in the reasonable sample of 140 plate appearances. Apparently someone didn't get the memo about building pitch counts because he's walked only six times, on pace for a 715-AB, 34-walk season.

Particularly distressing has been Nomar's inability to hit with men in scoring position. It's not just the outs, it's the kind of outs. It has become all too familiar.  The Sox arduously load the bases (often through steely patience), the crowd rises in expectation, the opposing pitcher is hanging by a thread. And Nomar pops up the first pitch, deflating the team, the crowd and his OBP and BA with RISP. 

Pitchers are naturally more cautious with runners in scoring position (particularly if first base is open), meaning hitters should be more selective, but Nomar becomes completely incontinent in these situations, often lunging at first pitches as if he were saddled with an 0-2 count and forced to protect the plate. So far this season he is 6-for-39 with RISP, a .154 batting average. He should bat behind Manny for two reasons: one, because he has a much lower OBP, and, two, so that he could watch from the proximity of the on-deck circle a professional hitter who understands the value of getting his pitch.

But on a deeper, more philosophical level, why do you suppose Nomar is such an undisciplined, impatient hitter? I would argue that he is medically incapable of patience. Stay with me here.

In case you haven't noticed, Nomar Garciaparra has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The batting gloves, the spikes, the dugout steps. He is ticking at a different RPM. I'll bet he's not real good at sitting in traffic either. All the ticks, the tugs, the tap dancing down the steps would be merely quirky and endearing if he could then slow himself down when the pitcher comes to the set. Relax, pick out a zone and a pitch and work the at-bat until you get that pitch you can drive. Manny is so relaxed at the plate he looks like he could nod off in the wind-up and awake in time to hit yet another rocket. The difference: Manny needs to be convinced to swing by the attractiveness of the pitch; Nomar needs to be convinced not to swing by the unreachability of a pitch.

But wait, you say, Nomar had OCD when he was winning batting titles and getting on base over 40% of the time. True, but for some reason pitchers were throwing him strikes. The coiled snake, high-strung nervous energy of OCD is probably a good thing when pitchers are throwing cookies. Combine the new book on Nomar with his old habits, however, and you get too many easy outs and an unacceptably low OBP for such a gifted hitter.

Even when pitchers do throw him first pitch strikes with men in scoring position, it's often a breaking ball, like the hanging curve he belted from Roy Halliday to double home the tying run before hitting his solo walk-off shot two innings later. 

The solution? Nomar should approach first pitches like most hitters view 3-1 pitches. If it's not a fatty in his happy zone, he should take it. He'll find he's up in the count 1-0 an awful lot. At 1-0, narrow the happy zone even further. Once he starts getting ahead 2-0 and 3-1, he'll have a month where he hits .400 and word will get out that Nomar is no longer expanding the zone on first pitches and we'll see a return to those 1999 and 2000 numbers.

If Nomar develops some peace and stillness at the plate, watch out. Cure the OCD and you'll cure the OBP.

Take a pitch, buddy.

BDD is a feature of Boston.com. All posts are by Steve Silva unless otherwise indicated.

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