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Has Father Time Finally Caught Up to David Ortiz?

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Has Father Time Finally Caught Up to David Ortiz?
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

In Boston, David Ortiz's legacy is complete. Regardless of how the rest of his career plays out, one of the most beloved Red Sox of all time will always be remembered fondly at Fenway Park. That will remain true even if decline has set in for the possibly Cooperstown-bound star.

Heading into play on June 20, Ortiz's numbers are down from previous seasons, especially when it comes to slugging percentage. With a .471 mark, the left-handed power hitter has been limited to just 26 extra-base hits. From 2004 to 2013, Ortiz averaged 72 extra-base hits per year, buoying his .546 career slugging percentage.

As the entire Red Sox team struggles to find offense and consistency in the aftermath of a special World Series championship season, Ortiz's struggles have flown under the radar. With 16 home runs, 43 RBI and clutch hits—including game-winning or game-tying long balls against the Tigers and Twins in recent weeks—the most visible star in Boston isn't receiving flak for a slow start.

In fact, Boston's 34-39 record has caused teamwide frustration, possibly leading to players, like Ortiz, attempting to do too much at the plate. That was a recent theory from manager John Farrell, per Jackie MacMullan of ESPNBoston.com:

When we're struggling, the competitor in these guys might force someone to say, 'OK, I want to be the guy in this instance,'...Last year there was such continuity in the lineup that if [a hit] wasn't there, it could pass on to the next guy. Because we have some inconsistency in our lineup, at times, I think maybe there's some more self-induced pressure to be The One in the moment.


So, is Ortiz in decline or trying too hard? The answer is complicated and partially involves luck.

To be clear, Ortiz does look to be in decline. At the age of 38, that's inevitable. With an increasing strikeout rate and declining isolated slugging percentage from last season, Boston's most important hitter is simply not the same game-changing force he was across the 2013 campaign.
 

That being said, this isn't a sharp decline or alarming trend that the Red Sox must be worried about during every Ortiz at-bat this summer. The fall from all-time great slugger to very good hitter is a talking point but not something to cause panic at Fenway Park.

Instead, Ortiz's current issues stem in part from some bad luck on batted balls. Now, as the numbers are explained, it's instructive to consider that Boston's season-long struggle may be factoring in to these numbers. If Farrell is correct, a pressing Ortiz could be the cause for the woes and contributing to the poor luck.

The following chart shows Ortiz's year-by-year slugging percentage marks and batting average on balls in play figures. As you can see, the second-worst slugging year Ortiz has ever experienced as a full-time player has coincided with a drop in BABIP.
 

Power and Luck: Ortiz's SLG and BABIP
Year BABIP SLG AL SLG Rank
2003 .292 .592 3
2004 .322 .603 2
2005 .303 .604 2
2006 .270 .636 2
2007 .355 .621 3
2008 .270 .507 12
2009 .262 .462 37
2010 .313 .529 8
2011 .321 .554 4
2012 .316 .611 1
2013 .321 .554 3
2014 .240 .471 16

FanGraphs/ESPN

Outside of a miserable 2009 season, Ortiz has ranked in the top 12 of slugging percentage leaders every year of his Red Sox career. This year, he's down to 16th. 

Last season, Ortiz walked 12.7 percent of the time. This year, that number is 13.3 percent. While his line-drive percentage is down slightly from last year (22.6 vs. 19.3 percent), those numbers suggest that Ortiz isn't a remarkably different offensive player now than he was when the World Series concluded.

Yet, with a slugging percentage down almost 100 points (.564 to .471), it's natural to look for a reason. 

Is David Ortiz in decline?

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BABIP rates can fluctuate, but league-average marks tend to sit around .290 or .300. At .240, Ortiz is well below that and a candidate for "bad luck" to be used as a legitimate reason for declining numbers this season. While declining line-drive rates and age are certainly part of the equation, it doesn't tell the whole story.

Right now, the Red Sox feel like a talented yet flawed team teetering on an edge. If another hot streak commences, a 6.5-game deficit in the AL East can be made up and Ortiz's clutch bat could take over during a pennant chase.

However, it's clear that Boston isn't the same team it was last year. If struggles and losing baseball continues at Fenway Park, Ortiz won't have the opportunity to mask a down year with season-changing walk-off hits.

It's easy to understand that Ortiz's game reached a late-career apex last season, but watching a slow decline is harder to dissect. For now, chalk this season up to poor luck and possibly too much pressure to carry a mediocre offense.


Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and ESPN unless otherwise noted and valid entering play on June 20.

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