Performance Analysis

It might seem as if David Ortiz has been struggling forever at this point of the year, but it’s worth remembering that just last April, he hit .198/.300/.375 over 96 at-bats, and fans worried then that something was wrong with the big guy. Those fears were quickly assuaged once May got rolling, as Big Papi hit .318/.409/.617 before injuring the tendon sheath in his left wrist at the end of the month. When he returned to action, at first it didn’t look like the injury had any long-term effects-he still produced, with a line of .277/.385/.529.

A closer look revealed a few troubling signs. Ortiz was whiffing at pitches he previously crushed, or he could not get the right timing on some mistakes out over the plate, hitting lazy fly balls instead of the bombs that we were used to seeing come off of his bat. He was also laying off of many pitches, becoming passive in some at-bats as he attempted to get on base however he could. The problem was especially obvious in the two post-season series that the Sox played in last fall, as Ortiz struggled to amass any kind of power-in 43 postseason at-bats he had just four extra-base hits, only one of them a homer, and he struck out in one-quarter of his plate appearances.

Those October struggles have spilled over into the 2009 season. Despite claims that his wrist is healthy from both Ortiz and his hitting coach, Dave Magadan, the Dominican has amassed a paltry .221/.333/.319 line over his first 138 plate appearances. Magadan stated that Ortiz had his hands up too high before swinging, which lengthened his swing; this has come with some serious side effects, reducing his bat speed while making some otherwise unimpressive fastballs look like they are coming out of David Price‘s hand. Though Magadan publicly diagnosed this issue on April 20, Ortiz hasn’t seen much improvement since, hitting .241/.370/.362 in 58 at-bats.

You can see the results in his numbers beyond the slash stats. Despite hitting more fly balls and liners than in previous years, Ortiz hasn’t had the timing to make solid contact, and has instead hit just .221 while popping out on over 16 percent of his fly balls. He has yet to homer, even though we are approaching mid-May, in a year where the long ball is flying out of parks left and right. He hasn’t been able to hit the ball the other way and take advantage of the Green Monster for wall balls and towering homers either, because pitchers are challenging him inside, knowing that he’s having trouble catching up. Not only that, but they are challenging him earlier in the count; Ortiz is seeing first-pitch strikes 58 percent of the time, right at the league average and well above the rates he has seen the past few seasons, when he was one of the dominant sluggers in the game.

As a result, though Ortiz is seeing more pitches per plate appearance, he isn’t seeing better pitches to hit. He’s chasing more balls out of the zone, and though he’s been able to catch up to them and hit them at the same rate as in previous years, he’s not making good contact on them; the old Ortiz would have sat on those pitches and forced a pitcher to go back in the zone, but with more pitchers putting him in the hole early, he hasn’t been able to control the count.

All told, this means that the league is less afraid of David Ortiz than it used to be, and that’s not a good sign for either Ortiz or the Red Sox. If you listen to Dave Magadan talk about where the bat-speed issues are coming from, then Ortiz should still be able to make the league pay for this indiscretion once he sorts himself out, but the longer it takes to get to that point, the more likely it is that his bat speed has truly diminished.-Marc Normandin

Health Report

As mentioned above, Ortiz missed time in 2008 with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist. While the specific injury cleared up, wrist injuries tend to linger. The problem most often seen is a reduction in power, though this is a bit of a red herring when dealing with Ortiz and this specific case-most of these power reductions come with fractured wrists, a far different matter than the sheath issue he’s dealing with. While Ortiz’s problem is not singular-Nick Johnson had to deal with something similar-there aren’t really any comparable players who have suffered this type of injury. That said, rather than a new injury, what we have is a very specific diagnosis that is the result of new imaging technologies. Most of the research on tendon sheaths has been done with horses, where it is a common racing injury. Ortiz and Mine That Bird don’t have much in common, however.

While it’s possible to say that Ortiz’s hitting troubles, specifically his lack of power, come from the tendon issue, it’s not clear that this is such a tidy case of cause and effect. The sheath is healed, leaving many to wonder if the psychological impact is as much to blame as any lingering pain. One physician I spoke with thinks that the “feel” may indeed be a major factor. “Tendons follow specific paths inside the body,” he told me. “When they get out of groove or swell, that’s a noticeable feeling even in non-athletes.” Changing one seemingly small thing can completely change a hitter.

In other words, there’s a lot going on out there, reminiscent of the mound conference in Bull Durham, and we can only hope that there’s as easy and quick a solution as candlesticks for Ortiz and the Red Sox.-Will Carroll

Scouting Report

As Will stated, wrist injuries tend to linger (the same goes for hands), and that might be an understatement. On a player development level, prospects are often given a year-long mulligan for their performances, especially in terms of their power hitting, as they recover from such issues. To once again dovetail the scouting into the medical report, most believe that there is a psychological issue to this.

When a player hits a baseball, the first place that he feels it is in his hands. The hands and wrists absorb that initial impact of hard ball hitting a hard bat at high velocity, and if the player has soreness in the hands or wrists, it can create a certain kind of apprehension in one’s swing. That kind of apprehension is often visible in Ortiz’ swing this season. Note the less aggrandized leg kick, creating less leverage in his swing, and notice how often his left hand (the injured one) is coming off of the bat before contact to avoid any impact at all on his wrist.

Prospects have the low pressure of the minor leagues, and they have youth on their side. For Papi, with the pressure of playing in Boston as well as the generally declining skills that come with approaching his mid-30s, it’s hard to say exactly when-or if-he will return to form.-Kevin Goldstein

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Great piece guys!

At one point does it become ok to speculate on possible steroid use as a cause for decline?

I'm thinking back to the days when Big Frank Thomas was slumping back in 1998. It was reported that his slump was related to marital problems, thus affecting his focus at the plate. He later acknowledged this as true.

It might not be exactly apples to apples, but at what point does an off-field problem get brought into advanced analysis like this? .....especially when we are trying to discern future performance....Whether speculating on possible marital or steroidal problems, given the timing of this profile with regards to the Manny news of last week, I'm just curious where the line is drawn at steroid speculation in an advanced analysis. Is that line moving at all with each new failed test, governmental leak/report or league suspension?

second line should have read 'At what point'

Any chance we can have the ability to edit our own posts without writing new ones?
Oh, it's not steroids, for crying out loud. Performance analysts were predicting his big breakout if the Twins ever gave him consistent playing time.

He's just got Mo Vaughn disease. Steroids should be the explanation of last resort, not the first.
I didn't say he took or takes steriods, I asked about when speculation on such actvities should become relevant to prognostications such as these. I think blindly ignoring them is foolish.
I wonder why he isn't recovering as quickly? Manny took his connections with him to LAX.
"notice how often his left hand (the injured one) is coming off of the bat before contact"

Methinks this could be issue number 1. It seems like a simple test could be done to see how much power is lost when your top hand comes off the bat before contact. Anyone know of such a test being done?
I don't know of any study, but it is quite a bit I would imagine. Ask anyone who has gone through learning to switch hit about the effects on power and the top hand.

Qualitative of course, but I'd imagine it would reveal what you are wanting to understand.
I kept him on a fantasy team that I inherited last year thinking I could deal him early on this season. I knew a decline was coming just not this fast. Hopefully it's not all decline and will be fixed soon.
Anyone who doesnt want to consider steroids as an explanation has blindfolds on.
I like the way the three of you guys put your different stamps of expertise on this issue, fellas! Great one of these week if you can...
Thanks for a good analysis, and pardon my weighing in a day late.

Two points:

1) David Ortiz has been having trouble hitting at night this year. Over his career his OPS has been only six points by day, but this year, despite a higher BABIP at night, his OPS is 87 points higher in the daytime. If that were to continue, I'd suspect vision problems.

2) Over his career, Big Papi's SLG and OPS have been highest, by far, when he's pulled the ball. This year a majority of his balls in play have been up the middle, where he's slugging just .300 (remember, this doesn't count strikeouts or foul outs, so that's even worse than it sounds), and ten of his other fifteen hits have been to the opposite field. Almost a quarter of the way through the 2009 season, Ortiz has only five hits pulled to right field. Two years ago fans would have expected twice that many home runs to right field by now, as well as a dozen or more doubles into the corner and a few assorted singles through the shift. Big Papi ha a lifetime SLG of .958 on balls pulled to right field. This year he's slugging just .471 on balls pulled to right.

My suspicion as a fan watching games on TV is that normal aging and wrist injury challenges are being exacerbated by vision trouble. I'm not a pro scout, nor am I a BP-caliber analyst, and I've heard neither group mention vision issues, but my suspicions remain.
We are also all assuming that David Ortiz is really his stated age, 33. As a hypothetical, if he were 35, how would that change our outlook?