Hard Hitting Ortiz?

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David Ortiz has had a bad season. He’s struggled primarily against lefties, but some think that he will come around because he’s still hitting the ball hard. Brandon Magee takes a look to see if there’s more behind the numbers on his hard hit balls and whether hard hitting Ortiz foreshadows future success.

David Ortiz is having a terrible season. His overall numbers are the worst of his career, in large part because he has been atrocious against left-handed pitching. Yet, according to exit velocity data compiled by Baseball Savant, Ortiz is hitting the ball as hard as some other sluggers who are not struggling. So, what is wrong with Ortiz?

In an article by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, Speier speculates on some reasons why Ortiz may be struggling. Speier ultimately concludes: “It doesn’t make sense. Ortiz is doing a credible job of getting the bat on the ball, and when he does, he’s hitting it as hard as some of baseball’s elite sluggers, yet his offensive line is terrible.”

But, is there an underlying reason hidden in the data? Looking into the data on Baseball Savant, we can look at each instance to see what types of balls are being hit and are generating the greatest exit velocities. At this point, it should be noted that batted ball velocity is new to us this year, and we don’t have a good understanding of its reliability and consistency. Also, it’s not available for every ball put into play and therefore we have an incomplete data set.

In an article on Hanley Ramirez, Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs.com looked at the data and then looked at video. He found that on many of the ground balls that the data purports to show as coming off the bat at more than 100 mph, the exit speed actually fails the eye test. In other words, the data may not be correct – especially on ground balls. Henry Druschel and others are also skeptical whether the data is even useful.

When looking at Ortiz’s 118 balls in play, we find two trends. The first trend is that many of his balls in play are ground balls – 51 in fact (43%). The other thing we notice is that many of his hardest hit balls are ground balls. Of the 40 balls in play that have an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher, 22 are grounders (55%). However, of his last 22 balls in play with that exit velocity, 18 are grounders (82%). Given Ortiz’s lack of speed, if the ground ball doesn’t get past the infielders (regardless of positioning), Ortiz is likely going to be out.

We also have data from Fangraphs.com with regard to Ortiz’s hitting tendencies. In his career, Ortiz has hit 36% of balls in play on the ground. Over the past few seasons he has been slightly above his career numbers – 36.7% in 2012, 38.7% in 2013 and 36.6% last season. Entering Thursday’s game, Ortiz’s ground ball percentage this season was 45.1%. A 8.5% rise in ground ball percentage from one season to the next is alarming – even this early in the year. 

Of course, the question then becomes, is Ortiz’s trend different from the others around him. As Mike Trout was considered prominently in Speier’s article, it makes sense to look at his data. In Trout’s case, of his 131 balls in play, only 35 are grounders (27%). Trout has 51 balls in play with exit velocities of 100+, only 16 are ground balls (31%).

Albert Pujols has a similar batted ball velocity to Ortiz. In Pujols’ 144 balls in play 66 are grounders (46%). 24 of the 52 balls in play with exit velocities of 100+ were ground balls (46%). In 112 balls in play, Ryan Howard has hit 43 ground balls (38%). Of his 43 balls hit at 100+ miles per hour, only nine were ground balls (21%). 52 of Jose Abreu’s 118 balls in play are grounders (44%). 20 of his 45 balls in play with 100+ mph exit velocities were grounders (44%).

So, a random sampling says that Ortiz’s grounders are not a problem, per se. He is hitting similar amounts of balls on the ground as similar players. But, he is hitting a much higher percentage of his hard hit balls on the ground.

So, the question changes. We know that Ortiz has been hitting a lot of ground balls as of late. The data suggests that many of the ground balls are hit very hard. But if that data is wrong, even by a few miles per hour, then Ortiz is not really hitting the ball as hard as some of his power hitting peers. Which makes his struggles less of a confounding mystery and more academic.

Brandon Magee is our resident expert on the Red Sox minor league affiliates. Check out his weekly minor league report, his look at the travails of travel that minor leaguers endure, and his 2015 draft report.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

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