Thursday, June 2, 2011

David Ortiz beats Jack Sparrow to the Fountain of Youth

Big Papi is rooting for the Mavericks and so should you!!!
It was a rough 4 days for the Boston Red Sox. After digging out of a massive hole to start the season to climb all the way to the top of the AL East, the team dropped 4 straight games, including a 3 game sweep at home to the scuffling Chicago White Sox, and now find themselves 2 games behind the Yankees. Not a whole lot went right for the team in this stretch, save for the performance of the man they call Big Papi, David Ortiz.

From 2003-2008, Ortiz was the anchor of the Red Sox offense. As part of the most dangerous duo since Ruth and Gehrig, Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were a terror on opposing pitchers. In this time, Big Papi was dubbed the most clutch player in Red Sox history, helped deliver 2 World Series championships, set the Red Sox record for home runs in a season with 54, went to 5 All Star games and finished in the top 5 in MVP voting 5 times, a record number for a DH (only 7 other players have landed in the top 5 in MVP voting while primarily playing DH and only Frank Thomas and Paul Molitor have done this multiple times with 3 and 2, respectively).

Then in 2009 the wheels came off. A torn tendon sheath in his wrist in 2008 caused Ortiz to have the least productive season of his Red Sox career, missing the magical 30 HR, 100 RBI plateau for the first time since leaving the Twins. The next season he got off to an incredibly slow start, not hitting his first HR until his 36th game and posting a triple slash line of .185/.284/.287 through the first two months. Dumb people credited this to the fact that Ramirez was traded the previous July and Ortiz missed his buddy and lineup protection. A strong June got his season back on track slightly, but it all came crashing down at the end of July when it was leaked that Ortiz was on a list of 103 players who failed an anonymous steroids test in 2003. Despite his denials, Ortiz was now branded as a former steroid user amidst the worst season of his career. This gave those same dumb people even more ammunition as to why Ortiz was done. Rather than looking at his recent wrist injury and the fact that players with his body type tend to decline in their mid-30s, “experts” claimed that since he was no longer on the juice and didn’t have his goofy buddy around to watch his back, he was forever finished.

A weak end to 2009 and another slow April in 2010 (1 HR and a .524 On Base Plus Slugging (OPS)) only stoked the flames higher. It even led Terry Francona, Big Papi’s strongest advocate, to drop Ortiz in the lineup and give him far more days off than he ever had. Then on May 1st that year, Ortiz launched 2 HR against the Orioles and his season took a dramatic turn. From that point to the end of the year, Ortiz hit 31 HR with 98 RBI and a triple slash line of .286/.385/.558, numbers almost identical to his career averages (36 HR, 118 RBI, .282/.377/.545). The slow start depressed his numbers some, but Ortiz went from being barely an average hitter in 2009 to the best DH in baseball again. However, with the narrative of the slow starts and the typical aging curve of sluggers like Ortiz (Mo Vaughn, Albert Belle, Kent Hrbek), most people expected Ortiz to perform closer to his 2009 form in 2011.

With the massive additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to the home grown core of Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, Ortiz was expected to be a complimentary piece this year. There were also talks that he would be a platoon candidate as even with the strong overall numbers in 2010, he was only able to muster a .599 OPS against lefties. Francona also opened the year with Ortiz in a lower spot in the order (6th) than his more usual 3rd spot, though he’s since been moved to 5th. However, looking to put the issues of the past 2 seasons behind him, Ortiz hit a home run in each of the first 2 games. Those would be his only two of the first month, but with 15 walks he was able to remain a productive hitter as the entire team slumped. Then May hit and so did Ortiz. From May 1 to June 1, Big Papi has hit 11 HR and .348/.390/.772 for a 1.112 OPS. His hot May has raised his OPS to .964 which places him 4th in the AL, 2 spots ahead of his equally hot teammate Gonzalez.

So is Ortiz back? The simple answer to that question is no. The Ortiz from 2003-2008 was one of the best hitters in baseball and had very few weaknesses. That Ortiz is never coming back for a full season. With hitting depressed over the entire league and the natural decline due to age, he will just never be able to return to that level of play. In addition, as good as his May was, he topped it last May with a 1.260 OPS and then came back to his more normal performance. The better question, and the one we need to look at, is can he continue to be the player he was in the second half last year and has been so far this year, which is a really good hitter but not quite elite?

The best way to see if a hitter can sustain a certain level of performance is to look at his batted ball numbers, so let’s turn to Fangraphs for the info. The easiest stat to look at to see if a hitter is getting lucky is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is a hitter’s batting average on all plate appearances that don’t end in a strike out, walk or home run. This is a good way to see if a hitter is getting a lot of lucky hits (hitting ‘em where they ain’t). League wide, hitters get hits on about 30% of balls put in play, but some hitters with different skill sets can vary from this. Career, Ortiz gets a hit on 30.1% of balls put in play. This year? 30.1% exactly. The types of hits (line drives, grounders, fly balls) he is getting are all reasonably in line with what he has done over the last 8 years so we can infer that he is not getting lucky when he makes contact.

After looking at what happens when he makes contact, it is good to take a look at a hitter’s approach. This is where we see some huge changes in Ortiz. So far this year, he has walked in 10.2% of his plate appearances, the lowest rate in his Boston career (the next lowest was 11.2% in 2004). Usually a drop in walk rate is accompanied by an increase in strike out rate because the hitter is either being thrown more strikes or they are chasing more pitches and missing, but Ortiz is striking out nearly half as often as he has in his entire career (11.4% this year against 21.6% career). So how is someone who used to walk and strikeout like a classic power hitter posting discipline numbers along the lines of high contact hitters like Pedroia? 

Basically he is chasing pitches outside the zone but he isn’t missing. This year he has increased the number of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone for the 8th year in a row, but he is also making contact 77% of the time on these pitches (his career average is 51%). Pitchers have definitely noticed his new tendency to chase pitches as he is seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone too. The crazy thing about this is that making contact on pitches outside the zone is usually not a blueprint for success unless you are Pedroia or Vladimir Guerrero. Usually when a hitter hits something outside the zone, it leads to weak and unproductive contact. But as we saw a couple paragraphs prior, when Ortiz makes contact he is doing as well as he has always done.

So what do we make of all this? His batted ball numbers indicate that what he is doing is sustainable, but his approach says otherwise. Swinging at bad pitches and making contact is not a great way to succeed in this league. Few hitters have been able to make careers this way and I don’t think Ortiz has all of a sudden morphed into Vlad. I would expect his numbers to come back to Earth for the rest of the year if he continues to swing at so many pitches outside the zone. Hopefully there will only be a slight correction and he ends up this year with similar numbers to last year, but my gut says he will drop a little lower than last year as hitters tend to do at this age. The other thing we need to keep our eye on is his miraculous ability to all of a sudden hit lefty pitching. This year, Big Papi is hitting .286/.394/.500 against lefties, while over his career he has hit .259/.333/.466. I expect he returns to this level and his numbers overall take a tumble. For now though, enjoy watching Ortiz dip his toes in the Fountain of Youth and revel in the fact that, unlike late season resurgences in recent years, he is probably clean as a whistle.

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