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May 18, 2010


Not-So-Big Papi

by Jay Jaffe

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In Monday night's wild and woolly Yankees-Red Sox game, the Sox clawed their way back from a five-run deficit thanks in small part to David Ortiz's fourth inning solo home run off Phil Hughes. The homer was Ortiz's seventh home run of the year and sixth of the month. Big Papi is back, right?

Not so fast. For starters, Ortiz is still hitting just .235/.301/.500, numbers that come out to a very humdrum .262 True Average, just two points above the league average, and well below what one would expect from a DH. Ortiz's May numbers (.348/.380/.761) certainly reflect better production, but his ugly 17/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those 50 plate appearances is particularly telling. Even amid this month's spree, he's not drawing walks, a reflection of the fact that pitchers are no longer afraid to challenge him.

Ortiz's strikeout-to-walk ratio for the entire year is an abysmal 38/10, and he doesn't have a single intentional walk to his name — numbers way out of line with his time in Boston. Expressing his strikeout, unintentional and intentional walk numbers as percentages of his total plate appearances, and including his True Averages for reference:

Year    K%     UIBB%  IBB%   K/UIBB   TAv
2003   16.3%    9.8%   1.6%   1.43   .304
2004   19.9%   10.0%   1.2%   1.77   .308
2005   17.4%   13.0%   1.3%   1.22   .324
2006   17.1%   14.0%   3.4%   0.98   .325
2007   15.4%   14.8%   1.8%   0.93   .341
2008   15.1%   11.8%   2.4%   1.06   .292
2009   21.4%   11.0%   0.8%   1.81   .266
2010   34.9%    9.2%   0.0%   3.80   .262
03-09  18.0%   12.1%   1.7%   1.49   .311

One of those lines is not like the others... Still, it's fair to point out that Ortiz has just 113 plate appearances thus far this year, and that he did rebound substantially last year after failing to homer through his first 164 PA. But it's also worth noting that through his first 113 PA in 2009, he was only striking out at a 20.4 percent clip and drawing walks at a 10.6 percent clip, for a 1.92 K/UIBB ratio — numbers very close to his year-end rates. Furthermore, it's also worth noting that according to the work of Russell A. Carleton (a.k.a. Pizza Cutter), it only takes 150 plate appearances for strikeout rate to stabilize, and 200 PA for walk rates to do so, whereas OBP and SLG don't stabilize until the 350 PA mark. By Carleton's definition, which refers to the intraclass correlations of equivalent sequences of PA, batting average and BABIP don't stabilize over small enough samples to fit into a typical 650 PA single season.

Back to the point about pitchers unafraid to challenge Ortiz, it's worth noting that just one of his seven homers has come with runners on base, and that most of the damage he's done this year has been in low-leverage situations, i.e., those where the outcome of a given at-bat has relatively little impact on the likelihood of winning based upon the combination of inning, baserunner, out and score margin (here I'm using Tom Tango's measures of leverage and the splits available at Baseball-Reference.com). Monday night's homer, for example, came when the Sox were down 6-1 with two outs and the bases empty in the fourth inning, a point when the Yankees had an estimated 94 percent chance of winning the game. Here's a comparison of Big Papi's Boston-era numbers in high, medium, and low leverage situations:

Years      PA    HR    AVG/OBP/SLG
'03-'08   723    42  .337/.429/.648
'09       119     5  .253/.345/.505
'10        33     0  .194/.212/.258

Years      PA    HR    AVG/OBP/SLG
'03-'08  1392    81  .289/.387/.580
'09       241    13  .255/.344/.500
'10        41     1  .231/.268/.385

Years     PA     HR    AVG/OBP/SLG
'03-'08  1616   108  .286/.394/.593
'09       267    10  .218/.315/.410
'10        39     6  .281/.410/.875

Lumping the 2009 and 2010 numbers together to provide more substantial sample sizes:

Lev       PA   HR    AVG/OBP/SLG
High     152    5  .238/.316/.446
Medium   282   14  .251/.333/.482
Low      306   16  .226/.327/.466

Once upon a time, Ortiz was something of a clutch god, able to produce at Albert Pujols-type levels in high-leverage situations. His numbers in those key situations last year were still slightly better than his overall line (.238/.332/.462), but in the limited sample of this year, they're downright awful, and taken together with last year's showing, they suggest he's become, uh, wicked unclutch. The vast majority of his knocks are coming at times when pitchers need not have The Fear, as they can challenge him with impunity. All of which suggests he'll be hard-pressed even to reach last year's level of production, which is more bad news for the Red Sox and their fans.

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