Between fourth grade and eighth, we’re all at least once where the Cardinals are. There are 10 of us on the field or the court, and as we’re dividing up into two teams we’re all too aware that one of the 10 is so much better than the rest that the game is settled as soon as he is chosen with the first pick. He’s six feet; we’re four. He’s shaving; we still secretly have a teddy bear. He’s on a traveling team; we’re on our church choir. He will never, ever lose.
That doesn’t happen in the majors, where the difference between Pete Kozma and Miguel Cabrera is relatively small, but it’s happening to the Cardinals right now. Take out each team’s best hitter so far—David Ortiz and Matt Holliday, probably—and the Red Sox would be hitting .151/.209/.267, a bit worse than Jeff Mathis’ worst season. The Cardinals aren’t all that much better, but their .208/.266/.243 line without Holliday is certainly a step up.
So how have the Cardinals tried to get Ortiz out so far, and how has it changed as each plan has failed? A quick tour.
“That’s what American League pitchers and National League pitchers try to do with David Ortiz, is elevate,” Tim McCarver said, in case you were wondering what American League pitchers try to do and what National League pitchers try to do with David Ortiz. In Game One, bases loaded, one out, already trailing by four, Wainwright fell behind with a curve, got away with a fastball down the gut, then elevated on Ortiz:
Interestingly, the league doesn’t throw that pitch to Ortiz as often as it used to, back when Ortiz’s bat was supposed to be slowing down. Looking at all fastballs thrown to Ortiz, here’s how many have been in the top third of the zone or higher, and over the plate:
- 2013: 16 percent
- 2012: 18 percent
- 2011: 20 percent
- 2010: 20 percent
- 2009: 23 percent
Maybe McCarver’s got an old scouting report. Wainwright gets the pitch past Ortiz. He throws it again, an inch or two lower,
and this time Ortiz hits it over the wall, for a very deep sacrifice fly.
In the series: The Cardinals have thrown him seven high fastballs, out of 69 total pitches. They got one swinging strike, the one you saw. They allowed a home run, a line drive single, and that sacrifice fly.
“There’s really no place in the strike zone that you feel comfortable with him not hitting the ball hard,” is a sort of a sentence that McCarver says, before Lance Lynn tries to get Ortiz on low fastballs. The first one is nearly hit out:
That’s not a place many teams try to pitch Ortiz, for what turn out to be obvious reasons: Over the past two seasons, Ortiz is hitting .496, and slugging .904, on fastballs in the lower third of the strike zone. Even if you extend that group to include fastballs over the plate but out of the zone low, he’s hitting .434 and slugging .792 on low fastballs, in roughly 200 balls put in play.
(Incidentally, when you hear baseball people talk about holes in players swings that are only as big as a pint of milk, think of this graph:
Throw Ortiz a fastball just low and on the inner half, and he’ll whiff at it a fifth of the time he swings. Throw it three inches higher, and he’ll virtually never whiff on it, and he'll slug 1.250 when he connects. That’s the margin.)
On 2-1, Lynn tries again, and this one hits the target on the outside corner, right on the edge of the strike zone.
Ortiz hammers it to right-center for a double.
In the series: The Cardinals have thrown him 10 fastballs over the plate but low, or in the lower third of the zone. Of the 10, Ortiz took three for balls, took or fouled off three for strikes, and put four in play: three singles, one double.
McCarver: "The one thing the Cardinals have done to get David Ortiz out is throw him curveballs. David Ortiz used to be a very good offspeed hitter but he has adjusted. He’s very smart. Adjusted. He’s a different hitter now."
When McCarver said that, midway through Game Four, the Cardinals had actually thrown Ortiz only eight breaking balls all series. Six were out of the strike zone, and of those five were taken for balls. Of the remaining four, one was lined for a single. So they had thrown him nine breaking balls, for a 33 percent strike rate, and a .500 hit rate. They hadn't really come after him aggressively with breaking balls until Monday, when Wainwright threw him four in a single at-bat.
That at-bat was notable not just for the curves—which, incidentally, ended with a hard-hit liner to the center fielder—but because Wainwright was tweaking his whole delivery. As noted by McCarver and Joe Buck, he added an unnatural pause in his windup, twice. "Hitter with a leg kick- your timing mechanism is largely dependent on the consistent rhythm of the pitcher," Gabe Kapler tweeted. "Early or late a tad matters." McCarver also said Wainwright was taking longer to deliver after he got the sign, further messing with Ortiz's timing, though I wasn't totally convinced this happened. And Rick Sutcliffe, on the international broadcast, noted that Wainwright had moved from the far left of the pitching rubber (where he normally stands) to the far right.
What it ultimately comes down to, from the Cardinals' perspective, is how seriously to take Ortiz's performance thus far. It has put the Red Sox up in the series, to be sure, but is it a real phenomenon that should change the way the Cardinals approach him? Presumably, Wainwright prefers to be on the left side of the rubber, with his usual fluid windup; is it overreacting to an illusory hot streak to change his best practices now? Is it self-defeating paranoia that leads the Cardinals to pitch around him,
or to avoid challenging him by throwing 3-0 changeups,
or to change the pitchers they use against him late in games because of two first-pitch hits
or to change the target, from inside
or from fastballs
Nothing has worked so far, because nothing has worked so far. In the next two games, the crucial decision for the Cardinals is whether to treat Red Hot David Ortiz as a real thing and refuse to let him beat them; or whether to treat him as the same hitter that thousands of previous plate appearances (and scores of Cardinal-scouted plate appearances) told them he was, and stick to the scouting report and the plan that they came in with. If they do the former, they're likely to beat themselves. If they do the latter, God help 'em.