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Why is Ortiz slumping?

Posted by David D'Onofrio  August 30, 2013 12:00 PM

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For the first time since his slump began, the case could be made that David Ortiz's struggles hurt the Red Sox. They've still won six of nine since he last recorded a hit -- on Aug. 18, meaning his offense went missing for as long as the suspended Ryan Dempster -- though they lost to the Orioles on Thursday, 3-2, in part because Big Papi couldn't deliver.

Twice he came up with runners in scoring position. Twice he struck out, the second time doing so on four pitches in the eighth inning. He finished his night 0-for-4, which left him hitless in his last 22 at-bats, and with just one walk plus a sacrifice fly to show for his last 24 plate appearances. Meanwhile, his OPS has plummeted 49 points.

Why is that? The Red Sox have said the designated hitter isn't hurt, so taking them at their word it would either mean the reason is that opposing pitchers have identified a way to exploit Ortiz, or it's just that the clean-up hitter has hit a rough spell. With the help of the ever-helpful, here's a look at how Ortiz was being pitched to before this skid, and how he's been pitched since it began (click each image for zoom options):


In terms of location, pitchers have generally tried to pitch Ortiz the way they usually do, with both time periods seeing almost 60 percent of the pitches he's been thrown over the outer third of the plate, or even farther away.

Pitchers have recently been doing a better job of keeping those pitches in the strike zone, as prior to Aug. 19 they were firing strikes on just 29 percent (272 of 950) of their attempts to that part of the plate; since then, Ortiz is seeing strikes on 43 percent (20 of 47) of pitches to that side of the dish.

But the biggest difference appears to be that pitchers are keeping the ball elevated. Prior to the slump, 51.3 percent of the pitches Ortiz saw were on plane with the bottom third of the zone or lower. Over the last six games, only 33.8 percent of the pitches have been that far down.

Now look at the next data set to see what that means.


Of the 25 zones, Ortiz's two most dangerous -- and three of his five best -- are in the lower third of the strike zone. He's hitting .549 when he gets a chance to get extended on that plane, as well as .474 with the ball down and in. It's not depicted here, but we'll also point out that these lower-third areas also account for the DH's ideal location in terms of his slugging percentage and his line drive rate.


Though they're coming less frequently, Ortiz is still doing a good job identifying those pitches that he likes. He's hacked at 41 percent of such offerings since the start of his slide, which is comparable to 43 percent before. And the same is true for pitches inside the strike zone that are middle-out and down; it's 75 percent since, compared with 74 percent prior.

So the identification is there. So is the contact...


... which leads to the conclusion that Ortiz either isn't putting good swings on the ball (a few have been uncommonly ugly) or he's just not getting good results. Either way, it doesn't appear as though pitchers have figured out a new way to attack him, or that he's suddenly looking vulnerable in a particular area.

Nope. They're just doing a slightly better job of staying away from the spots where he can hurt them the most, and he's missing his opportunities when they do arise. It seems more to be about timing, and confidence, and execution. He's straying from the zone and chasing pitching with a bit more frequency (rising slightly from 28 percent to 33 percent over the past six games), and he's also swinging and missing slightly more (21 percent, up from 17 percent), but neither of those differences are significant enough to account for such a slump.

So that's exactly what it is. A slump.

And thus, if they're telling the truth about his health, there's no reason to think it won't reverse itself soon.

Orioles 3, Red Sox 2
8-for-34, 11 K, 2B, HR
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 2-for-4, SB: He notched his third straight multi-hit game, returning to the lineup a night after fouling a ball off his right leg, and subsequently stealing his 50th base. That matches his 2008 total -- in seven fewer attempts (61 to 54).
Shane Victorino, RF 2-for-4, R, RBI, HR: He slugged his fourth homer in four games, another rocket shot that cleared the Green Monster in a hurry. He did miss on an opportunity to advance Ellsbury after the leadoff man reached in the eighth, however.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 0-for-4, K: His nine-game hitting streak came to an end as he hit the ball to the right side three times (two flyouts, one groundout).
David Ortiz, DH 0-for-4, 2 K: Big Papi is now hitting .310 with a .390/.557/.947 slash line for the season.
Daniel Nava, 1B 3-for-4, R, 2 2B, K: He's hitting .467 with seven doubles in 30 at-bats since Aug. 13, lifting his average up to .297 and his OPS to .821.
Jonny Gomes, LF 0-for-4, K: He grounded into a double play after Nava reached as the leadoff man in the ninth, capping a tough night where he stepped in for the scratched Mike Carp (shoulder) and saw only three pitches per plate appearance.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 0-for-4, 2 K: Yours truly wrote about glowingly about him in today's New Hampshire Union Leader, filing the story prior to the game -- so of course the catcher struggled.
Stephen Drew, SS 1-for-3, RBI, K: He knocked a two-out single to plate Nava with the game's first run, moving him up to fifth on the team with 53 RBIs.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B 0-for-3, K: The third baseman has hit something of a snag, now 3-for-18 since the team arrived in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, he still has a .945 OPS since his recall.
9 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, 6 BB, 6 K
Jon Lester, SP 6 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 3 BB, 4 K: It was a grind for Lester, though he got through it by keeping his team in the game. He'll finish August with a 2.97 ERA, even after starting the month by allowing 6 earned runs in 4.1 innings.
Matt Thornton, RP IP, 2 H:: Brought in to face the top of the Baltimore order, he got two quick outs, then ran into trouble -- but escaped by getting the mighty Chris Davis on a fly to shallow center.
Brandon Workman, SP 1.2 IP, 3 BB, 2 K: He now has 36 strikeouts in 32.2 innings, though he also has 11 walks. He can be a great weapon for the Sox this season if he can command.
Craig Breslow, RP 0.1 IP: Two Workman walks necessitated the summoning of the veteran Breslow, though, like Thornton, he escaped trouble by retiring Davis.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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