While is it no secret that David Ortiz has struggled mightily so far in 2009, there seems to be endless debate about the reason for his struggles, and whether he’s going to turn things around.
I’m not here to speculate about his past performances, but to examine his skills this season to determine whether or not fantasy owners and the Red Sox should reserve a bench spot for the slugger.
In his career, Big Papi has shown a good batting eye, and despite being a power hitter, has typically maintained a decent, if not great, contact percentage, with a career rate of 78 percent (equal to the 2009 percentage of the white-hot Raul Ibanez), has chased, on average 18.4 percent of pitches out of the zone, and swung just under 45 percent of the time.
This season, Ortiz has not been able to maintain this patience and skill at the dish. He is chasing 25 percent of pitches out of the zone, so he is either placing himself in bad counts with swings and misses at balls, or he is making weak contact that results in relatively easy outs. He is also swinging at a career high 76 percent of pitches in the strike zone.
He’s always been aggressive on balls in the strike zone, but this year, the numbers indicate Ortiz is anxious at bat and swinging at too many pitches.
Accordingly, Big Papi’s contact rate on pitches in the zone is at the lowest point of his Red Sox career, 82.1 percent and his overall contact rate is only 74.8 percent, a low since 2002, when these figures became available.
The result of his lack of patience is ugly. David’s striking out 27.2 percent of the time, a career high, and walking 10.7 percent of the time, lowest since 2002.
There is conflicting information in his other statistics, some of which provides indicators that Papi may be due for an upswing in production. On the bright side, he’s hitting a lot of line drives, 23.8 percent, his highest figure since 2003. Interestingly, he’s hitting more fly balls and less grounders.
As a practical matter, this demands that Ortiz is swinging under the baseball more than he has in the past. As a result, he’s popping up more than he ever has before in his career, 12.5 percent compared to a career average of 8.2 percent.
This could (read: heavy speculation) be because he’s still favoring some part of his body, and not driving through the ball properly. It also could be because he cannot see as well as he could in the past (which I mention only because Papi himself recently said he planned to have his eyes checked).
Or it could be a combination of both, that is, he could just be getting too old to play major league ball, and his body is providing him signs that his time has come.
Some more good news comes from the luck department. Even while sporting a hefty line drive percentage, Ortiz’s batting average on balls in play lags at a too-low .254. This is due to rise, and as it does, Ortiz should finally find his average creep above the Mendoza line.
Despite the foregoing, Papi’s power does seem to have disappeared this past offseason. One indicator for power hitters is a stat called .ISO. Calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging, it shows a player’s tendency to hit the ball hard. Generally, a .200 ISO is the cut off for a “power threat.”
In his career, Ortiz has posted individual season .ISOs of .302, .304 (twice) and .349, with a career number of .250. Even in 2007 (.290) and 2008 (.243) Papi was a guy who could leave the yard with regularity. This season, his .099 places him behind Placido Polanco, Denard Span and Dustin Pedroia, two second basemen and a slap hitting OF.
In line with this, the percentage of his fly balls that turn into home runs is a staggeringly low 1.4 percent, especially compared to his epic 26.1 percent showing in 2006.
In sum, David Ortiz’s steep decline has been exaggerated by some bad luck, both in terms of average on balls in play and fly balls staying in the yard, but his skills have deteriorated to such a great extent that no fantasy owner or Red Sox fan can reasonably believe that Big Papi will regain his spot in the third hole in the Red Sox line up.