Sunday, June 7, 2009

Beware Big Papi

Floating across the interweb today, I came across an interesting comment, thrown into Rob Neyer's SweetSpot (which, quite amazingly, is still free to read. Get in there before they change that, folks).

"wallysb0105: Ortiz is a really interesting case. As mentioned below his BABIP is a ridiculously low .259. His LD% is 24.1%, way up from his recent numbers around 16-18%. His GB% has dropped about 10 point to 26.2%, his FB% is roughly inline with his career norms, his IFFB% is way up too at 12.5%. But the issue is really his 2.5% HR/FB ratio. On top of this his K% is way up about 10 point to 27.3%, and his BB% is down about 4 points to 11%.

So he's not making contact, making a very different kind of contact when he does, and walking less. I'm not sure a change in luck, a return of his BABIP, is all its going to take to "fix" Ortiz. We're through enough of the season, Ortiz has 225 PAs, that many of these numbers are telling, and are not just a product of small sample size. So, it seems likely he's just lost a ton of power, probably from so loss in bat speed (more Ks), and can still make solid contact (as shown by the LD%), but he can't get it over the fence with authority anymore. Ortiz like isn't this bad, but the Ortiz of 03-07 appears to be gone forever. He may just be a victom of those dang "old player skills."

These numbers were so improbable that I was compelled to actually make the journey to, and then (second opinion). And, as posited by Wally, Ortiz is indeed hitting line drives at a 24.1% clip, about 1/3 of the way through the season. Small sample size, sure. But as the ever informative Dave Cameron wrote so effectively, there's small sample size and there's small sample size.

Across the major leagues, the rule of thumb is that BABIP (batting average on balls in play) tends to sit around .120 above LD% (line drive%). BABIP on line drives tends to sit around .700. Yes, 70% of line drives fall in for hits. That is, unless you're David Ortiz this year. At a 24.1% LD%, Ortiz's BABIP ought to be about .361. It's currently at an astounding .259. A startling 10% of his outs in play ought to have fallen in for hits.

I try to keep from falling in love with any one statistic, because in 5 years, the more advanced metrics we're using now will probably be footnotes to the new and improved numbers that are going to be developed by the young and brilliant minds entering the field these days. But I do like the relationship between BABIP and LD%, which is very robust over a large sample of data.

If Ortiz was .030 above or below his expected BABIP, I'd be inclined to view it as mostly statistical noise. .100 is absurd. He's still making contact, and he's putting balls in play, hard.

Now, that's not to suggest that we're going to see the 2006-2007 version of David Ortiz anytime soon. He's seen another vital peripheral statistic drop precipitously--his BB/K (along with an increased strikeout rate). In recent years, Ortiz has walked roughly as often as he's struck out. Not so this year, as he's striking out about twice as often as he garners free passes. A lot of that has to do with pitchers no longer fearing him the way they once did. He's also jumped from his K% of 17.8 last year to 28.3% this year.

A deeper analysis would probably uncover that Ortiz has a bigtime hole in his swing that didn't exist before, that is being exploited by opposing pitchers. But it's bizarre to see a player suddenly hitting a ton more line drives, walking less, and striking out more. I'll leave it to the bigtime Red Sox bloggers out there to move the conversation further.

Long story short: Big Papi is going to stop being the butt of so many jokes before the year is out. We can just hope that by then Jason Varitek and Jason Bay have fallen back to earth.

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