The Boston Red Sox offense was viewed as the biggest strength of the team going into the season. However, the offense has been a major disappointment, especially their designated hitter. Ian York looks to find out why David Ortiz struggles with fastballs from left handers.
David Ortiz is not having a good year so far. With a .692 OPS, he is .229 points below his career average of .921. He is 39 years old, well past the age when most batters have retired. On the other hand, just a year ago he hit very well with an OPS of .873 (OPS+ of 143). While it is possible that he has abruptly fallen off a cliff, it is also possible that he is mired in a slump that he could break out of as he has in the past. On May 28 and 29, he took a couple of days off, during which he seems to have adjusted his mechanics slightly. We will look at his results before those days off.
His problem this year is that he has been worse than futile against left-handed pitchers. Against right-handed pitchers, Ortiz was hitting a very healthy .394/.495/.889 in 127 AB. Against LHP, he had a mere .103/.158/.261, in 58 AB. That translates to just 6 hits this year against LHP, compared to 28 against RHP.
Here is how those hits break down, in terms of location:
These charts are from the umpires point of view so your left hand side of the chart is away from David Ortiz. The overall distribution of all the pitches from left- and right-handed pitchers is shown as a green contour plot in the background. The de facto strike zone from 2014 (which seems to be very similar to that of 2015) is the grey polygon. Pitches that are not balls (including hits, fouls, called and swinging strikes; in the plots, for brevity, they are called “strikes”) are shown as the outer white circles in each zone, with the size proportional to the number of “strikes” in each zone. The inner circles indicate the hits, with the size proportional to the number of hits, and the color proportional to the number of total bases per hit; red is better, grey is the average across baseball, and blue is lower than the average. As always with PitchF/X-generated data, these are from the viewpoint of the umpire, so Ortiz as a left-handed batter would be standing to the charts’ right.
Compare to 2014, when Ortiz’s profiles against LHP and RHP were similar:
Note that in 2014, very roughly, Ortiz had about a 1:10 hits to “strikes” ratio. That has been typical for him over the years, and it is a useful rule of thumb to see if he hits better or worse than his usual rate.
Why has Ortiz had trouble with LHP this year? We can break the batting map down further by looking at his results against the three major families of pitches – fastballs (including four- and two-seam fastballs, sinkers, cutters, and forkballs); breaking pitches (including curves, sliders, and the rare screwballs); and off-speed pitches (changeups, and occasional other pitches such as the eephus):
In five of the six charts, Ortiz hovers around the 1:10 hit:strike ratio. The major exception, of course, is with fastballs thrown by left-handed pitchers, where Ortiz has only had two hits against the 107 strikes he has seen. Spray charts suggest that Ortiz has not only been unlucky with hit placement (although that may be part of the problem); compared to the last year’s April and May (the top chart), his contact against LHP’s fastballs in 2015 (the bottom chart) have resulted in weaker contact, with balls that only make it to the middle of the outfield.
It is still fairly early in the season, when a small number of hits can make a significant difference to the overall average. In past years, we would expect Ortiz to have around 10 hits against 107 strikes. If we were to add the eight “missing” hits to his numbers this year, even assuming they were all singles, his OPS as of May 27 would have gone from .679 to about .722; still not what we expect of Big Papi, but much more respectable, and in fact better than the baseball-wide average OPS of .710.
This futility against LHP’s fastballs is new. Here are his 2014 charts:
Ortiz has not changed his swing rates; against LHP fastballs, he has swung at about 75% of pitches in the zone, very similar to previous years. Nor is he seeing more fastballs than usual, so far at least:
The fact that Ortiz can still hit pitches from LHP (so long as they are not fastballs) and that he can still hit fastballs (so long as they are not from LHP) suggests, tentatively, that there may be a mechanical issue behind his slow start to the year.
Another reason to believe that Ortiz may not be finished for good is history. In 2009, Ortiz started off with an even worse two months than he has so far in 2015. That year, he finished May with a mere .570 OPS, over .100 points lower than this year to date. He then went on to hit with an OPS of .905 for the rest of the year, and has continued to hit effectively for the five following years.
Here are Ortiz’s charts for his 2009 pre-June slump:
In those two months, he struggled against breaking pitches from LHP and fastballs from RHP, but was still quite competent against LHP’s fastballs. While the details are opposite from 2015, the principle may be the same; an underlying issue leading to a specific hole in his repertoire. His ability to correct whatever issues were plaguing him in that slump gives some optimism for the rest of this year.