How David Ortiz Continues to Improve Despite Increasing Age

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How David Ortiz Continues to Improve Despite Increasing Age
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On May 13 and 14, David Ortiz gave the Minnesota Twins another harsh reminder about one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history: releasing Ortiz after the ​2002 season. Over two games, Ortiz blistered four home runs, bringing his total to 11 on the season, good for second in the American League at the time.

Ortiz is 38 years old and now part of an exclusive group of 13 players who have been able to keep pace with the Red Sox designated hitter's 442 home runs, 1,454 RBI, 528 doubles and 2,069 hits in his career.  

Players with at least 442 HR, 1,454 RBI, 528 2B, 2,069 H in career
Hank Aaron Barry Bonds Lou Gehrig Chipper Jones
Eddie Murray Stan Musial Albert Pujols Rafael Palmeiro
Manny Ramirez Frank Robinson Dave Winfield Carl Yastrzemski
David Ortiz

Baseball Reference.

How has he done it? What is Ortiz doing that keeps him producing at superstar levels?

In short, he has been able to shave his strikeouts and make better contact on pitches outside the strike zone, and he has learned to hit to the opposite field when a left-hander is on the mound. Thanks to Ortiz being smarter in approaching the pitches he's offered, he's building a compelling case to one day be elected to the Hall of Fame.

​The first part of Ortiz's resurgence came by rejuvenating how he approached left-handed pitchers, once the bane of his existence.​ After placing in the top five of AL MVP candidates for five straight years, 2008 saw chinks appear in Big Papi's armor. The vaunted designated hitter was exposed against left-handers, hitting just .218/.291/.383 in 454 at-bats from 2008-2010.

The arrival of Adrian Gonzalez in Boston may have changed everything, as ESPNBoston.com's Jeremy Lundblad notes. Starting in 2011, Gonzalez's first year with the Red Sox, Ortiz started approaching left-handers differently. It's possible that Gonzalez, who is known for going the other way as a hitter, helped influence Ortiz.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Whatever the reason, Ortiz recognized the problem. "I’m pretty much a pull hitter, and pulling everything against lefties wasn’t working for me," he told Lundblad of his 2010 season.

Ortiz started going the other way with outside pitches, content to knock them off the Green Monster instead of trying to yank them into the right-field bleachers. Given left-handed pitchers were trying to get Ortiz out by pitching away from him, this allowed a turnaround.

No longer was Ortiz being fed a steady diet of pitches away from the plate that he could not turn around. Instead, he was content to go with the pitch and slice it into left field. A scouting report filed by a Baseball Prospectus scout (subscription required) in the fall of 2013 noted that Ortiz "has shown the bat control to stay inside the baseball and go the other way vs. LHP at the expense of consistent power."

Since the start of the 2011 season, Ortiz has hit .302/.375/.532 in 547 at-bats against left-handed pitching.

Jim Cowsert/Associated Press

Another reason why Ortiz is hitting better against left-handers—and better overall—comes with an historic improvement in his strikeout rate, which was a major factor in him beginning to fade from superstardom in 2009-10. He struck out in over 21 percent of his at-bats each year, levels he had not seen since 1999, when he had only 111 games of major league experience (10 that season).

After hitting a 23.9 percent strikeout rate in 2010, that fell all the way to 13.7 percent in 2011. Only two other people in major league history can boast of having a similar turnaround when it comes to whiffs: Jeff Burroughs and Mark Belanger, as The Captain's Blog reveals.

Naturally, when one starts striking out a lot less, that means what were swing-and-misses have become contact with the ball. For the first four years of his Red Sox career (2003-2006), Ortiz made contact on pitches outside the strike zone less than half the time, according to FanGraphs. That rose to above 50 percent in 2007, and he started to take a notable step forward in 2010 in this area, making contact 60.5 percent of the time.

But in 2011, when Ortiz broke out (again) as a superstar, that contact percentage on pitches outside the strike zone shot all the way up to 72.9 percent. It went up even further in 2012, to 77.4 percent.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Making contact with more pitches outside the strike zone doesn't necessarily mean the left-hander became more aggressive at the plate. In fact, his overall swing percentage remained relatively stable. By being smarter about which pitches to offer at outside the strike zone, Ortiz has been able to increase the damage he can do with pitches outside the zone and let pitches pass that he would once have swung at and missed.

A lower strikeout rate and a higher contact rate is all great in theory—the more one makes contact, the greater their chance of getting a hit. But Ortiz also changed what type of contact he was making.

From 2006 to 2010, the designated hitter's line-drive percentage generally stayed in the 17 percent area, peaking at 18.6 in 2008. That changed in 2011, going up to 21.4 percent. He continued the trend in 2012 and 2013.

Hitting line drives is fantastic. As the name suggests, line drives are hit hard and often go for extra bases. According to The Hardball Times, in 2013, line drives gave all batters an OPS of 1.568, by far the best among batted-ball types. Fly balls had a much higher ISO percentage than liners, which makes sense—fly balls are generally the ones that turn into home runs. But fly balls also have a lower margin for error, as it's easier to catch a fly ball than it is a ground ball or line drive, due to the amount of time a fielder has to make the play.

That's why fly balls, despite their strong slugging percentage (.621), recorded the lowest on-base percentage of the three batted-ball types at .213. Ground balls, meanwhile, registered a .232 OBP.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Ortiz doesn't hit as many home runs as he used to, and his decline in fly balls is a large reason for that. But that's come with an increase in batting average, which is much easier to sustain with ground balls and line drives than it is with fly balls, and Ortiz hasn't had any problems keeping up his gap power thanks to those line drives racking up doubles.

All these factors play a large part in how Ortiz has been able to improve despite his age. And lest it sound easy, it's not. Being able to dramatically change how one attacks left-handed pitching and succeed at it is hard to do. Being able to improve a discerning eye and increase contact numbers is difficult, especially when one is in their late 30s. Changing the type of hits from fly balls to line drives is impressive.

As baseball players age into their late 30s, they tend to stick with what worked for them their entire lives. Why would someone change what made them a draft pick, got them to the major leagues, onto All-Star teams and in the MVP conversation? Somehow, Ortiz was able to recognize that he needed to change and was successful in working to change it.

Ortiz also undertook personal changes that have improved his health. As ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes writes, Ortiz dropped 20 pounds before the start of the 2012 season.

Winslow Townson/Getty Images

"I feel great," he said. "I can feel the difference when I swing the bat, and when I work out, I don't get as tired."

Ortiz's resurgence had already started by the time he got on a new diet, but any attempt to eat better is certainly going to help improve health, which can extend a career. Further, as Ortiz anecdotally notes, he's not as easily fatigued as he used to be.

There's no doubt that being a full-time DH has also helped alleviate potential health problems, as Ortiz doesn't have to subject himself to the demands of playing defense. Not having the extra complication of getting injured or fatigued in the field allows Ortiz to focus all his energy on being an effective DH.

Between the diet and not being subject to the rigors of playing defense, Ortiz's health is arguably in peak condition for a player his age.

The other factor that contributes to Ortiz's production, even at 38 years old, is talent. Ortiz deserves all the credit for working hard his entire career to get to where he is. If it weren't for his work ethic and dietary choices, Big Papi wouldn't have the career he's currently enjoying.

But everyone is subject to genetics, and some people can simply last longer. Some people can stave off the advances of time with good genes. Randy Johnson was able to pitch 22 seasons and retire at the age of 46. Pedro Martinez only lasted 18 years, bowing out at age 37. Why was Johnson able to pitch so much longer? Physical durability and genetics certainly played a part.

Is David Ortiz worthy of being in the Hall of Fame?

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Ortiz's ability to adjust as he ages is the biggest reason why he's been able to dominate this late in his career. Changing his eating habits, learning to go the opposite way with pitches and becoming more particular about which pitches to swing at have all helped Ortiz become one of the best age-35-and-over hitters, as CBSSports.com's Dayn Perry notes. Ortiz's OPS+ (OPS on a ballpark-adjusted scale) of 159 is the fifth best for any player aged 35 or older.

This kind of late-career dominance has put Ortiz in a strong position to be the first designated hitter in history to enter the Hall of Fame.

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