Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Should the Red Sox Sit Ortiz Against Lefties?

In Peter Abraham's latest post for Extra Bases at the Boston Globe, he took a look at whether the Red Sox should play or sit Ortiz against left-handed pitching in 2011.
When the Sox picked up their option on Ortiz a few months ago, Theo Epstein addressed the struggles against lefties and the idea that Ortiz shouldn't react badly (as was the case last season) if he's out of the lineup against certain pitchers.
“That’s something we wanted to make sure everybody’s on the same page about as we head into next year, that there’s comfort in the contract, comfort with the role, comfort with the manager,” Epstein said. “Certainly Tito and David are absolutely on the same page, on great terms, and it shouldn’t be an issue going into next year.”
Francona spoke about the issue last night before the Town Hall.
“For David to be successful — and I see his numbers against lefties, believe me, I do — you can’t just sit him because I don’t know if he’d have as much success against righties. I know we believe that,” Francona said. “I think there are times where it’ll do him good to maybe give him a break against somebody he struggles with. That wasn’t necessarily the case (last) April. He was struggling against everybody and we were struggling to win.”
I'm not sure what all of the fuss is about.  Anyone with a pair of eyes or access to the internet could tell you that Ortiz has struggled against left-handed pitching over the past few seasons.  Last season, it got so bad that the Red Sox finally made the decision to do what was once unthinkable--sit Big Papi against certain tough lefties.  How bad did it get?  Just for fun, let's take a look at some of Ortiz's key indicators against LHP and RHP over the past three seasons. 

                            PA     wOBA   wRAA     BB     K      LD%     GB%      FB%      
2008 v LHP        121       .321      -0.7         14     19     17.2       36.8       46.0
2008 v RHP        370       .388      18.3        56     55     19.4       36.4       44.2

2009 v LHP        188      .310       -2.9         19    44      10.6       43.9       45.4
2009 v RHP        439      .356        9.9         55    90      20.3       27.1       52.6

2010 v LHP        200      .268       -8.5         13    57      18.0       46.1       35.9
2010 v RHP        406      .439       38.4        69    88      17.0       33.6       49.4

Right off of the bat, two things pop out at me.  One, while Ortiz's ability to control the strike zone has regressed overall, it's much more pronounced against lefties than it is against righties.  In 2008, the first year of Ortiz's struggles, he produced an acceptable 14/19 BB/K ratio in 121 plate appearances against lefties.  Last season, his plate discipline against lefties all but disappeared as he posted an abysmal 13/57 BB/K ratio in 200 plate appearances. 

So what happened to Ortiz's plate discipline?  In all likelihood, a combination of age related regression and slowing bat speed are the primary culprits.  Typically, a left-handed hitter facing a right-handed pitcher will pick up the ball coming out of his hand a little more quickly than when he's facing a pitcher of the same handedness.  This gives the hitter a little more time to not only recognize the pitch, but also decide whether not he should swing.  Against a left-handed pitcher, that hitter picks up the ball a fraction of a second later and therefore, has less time with which to make the same decision.  When it comes to younger hitters, the platoon splits aren't as dramatic because the player's bat speed and natural abilities are able to compensate.  With an older player like Ortiz, his slowed bat speed keeps him from making the necessary adjustments.  So what does he do?  He cheats by starting his swing a little earlier.  In most cases, this leads not only to higher contact rates with pitches out of the zone (O-Swing and O-Contact), but also higher strikeout and lower walk rates.  Not surprisingly, this is exactly what's happening with Ortiz.

Secondly, over the past few years, Ortiz has shown a greater tendency to hit ground balls against left-handed pitching than against right-handed pitching.  As a result, his fly ball rate has dropped accordingly.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or at least, it shouldn't) to figure out that it's really difficult to hit a home run when you're constantly hitting the ball on the ground.  In fact, it's impossible unless you happen to hit an inside the park job.  With Ortiz's speed, that ain't happening any time soon.

So why is Ortiz hitting more grounders against lefties?  Well, it's pretty much the same reason that his BB/K ratio against lefties is so bad:  he's cheating.  When he does swing, he gets so far out in front of the ball, he pulls it to the right side of the field.  Once pitchers and pitching coaches noticed this tendency, they started to exploit his weakness by throwing him a steady diet of low and away fastballs in hopes of inducing more weak ground balls to the right side.*  When he's facing right-handed pitching, the effect is mostly lost because he's afforded the extra fraction of a second in which he can not only recognize, but also decide to lay off of the pitch.  Against lefties though, he can't lay off, and plays right into their game plan.

Another tactic managers started using as a result of Ortiz's struggles is the "Williams Shift."  This shift puts a third infielder on the right side of the field with the third baseman shifting over to the shortstop position.  By throwing pitches that are more likely to induce weak ground balls, opposing teams are able to not only create more outs, but also minimize the impact of David Ortiz's presence in the lineup.

To me, it's a cut and dry case.  Ortiz should be benched against lefties.  If this was based on a single year's sample, I could toss the numbers out as a possible aberration, but it's not.  This is three years worth of data showing that not only does Ortiz struggles against lefties, but he's actually getting worse.  And not just a little worse, but a lot worse.  While I understand that Terry Francona feels uncomfortable with telling Ortiz that he's being relegated to a platoon situation, it's his job to make those uncomfortable decisions.  Honestly, if we were talking about any other player (for example, J.D. Drew), we wouldn't even be having this discussion. 

The problem is that David Ortiz has not only been one of the most important and well respected players within the organization for eight seasons, but also provided a number of memorable clutch moments.  In a way, Ortiz has become an institution in Boston.  The Red Sox have gone out of their way to not rock the boat when it comes to Ortiz.  (Hence, picking up his $12.5M option for 2011 when he likely would've gotten $5-7 on the free agent market.)  Unfortunately, this line of thinking isn't helping the team; it's hurting them.  Francona and the front office need to make a united decision based on the cold hard fact that Ortiz can't hit lefties anymore.  This shouldn't be seen as an insult to Big Papi, but as recognition that he's not the same player he was between 2003-2007.  Ortiz can still be an effective player on the Boston Red Sox--just not against lefties.

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