Should we worry about David Ortiz's production?

Bob Levey

David Ortiz hasn't been the same hitter this year as in years past. Should we worry about him finally hitting his decline?

With the league about to start its unofficial second half, the Red Sox come out of the All Star break tied for 25th in runs scored. They are 22nd in batting average and 27th in slugging percentage. They are tied for 20th in wRC+. To put it lightly, Boston's offense hasn't lived up to the expectations. With problems this deep, obviously they go much deeper than just one guy. It's been a failure from top to bottom. David Ortiz certainly isn't at the top of the list of those to blame for this season, but he also hasn't lived up to expectations. So, as we start to move our attention towards 2015 and beyond, is it time that we start to finally worry about a steep decline from the designated hitter.

Now, while Ortiz hasn't lived up to our yearly expectations, it's hard to use the word "bad" to describe his season. Through 395 plate appearances, he has hit .255/.357/.487, good enough for a 123 wRC+. In a vacuum, those numbers are actually pretty impressive. In fact, the 38-year-old is actually tied for 18th in the American League by wRC+. Additionally, this line is almost exactly what was projected him by some systems. However, it's also obviously not the kind of season we've come to expect from the face of the franchise. Consider that in his last three years prior to this season, he had a combined slash line of .311/.401/.571 with a 157 wRC+. That is the guy who Red Sox fans expect to see year in and year out, but is the good-not-great Ortiz we've seen thus far in 2014 the one to look for going forward?

451988414.0Photo credit: Jim Rogash

The good news here is that his peripherals haven't changed too much from his peak. He is still walking a ton - 13.4 percent, seventh-best in the American League among qualified hitters - and striking out very rarely for a power hitter with a 15 percent strikeout rate. His plate discipline numbers have remained more-or-less constant with his career, too. He's making a little more contact, he's seeing less strikes, and he's whiffing a bit more, but nothing is too far off from his numbers from the recent past. If his approach at the plate hasn't changed much, what is causing this lower production.

The one thing that jumps off of Ortiz's stat line the most is his batting average on balls in play. Despite the fact that he's one of the slower runners in the game, he's had a BABIP between .300 and .325 every year between 2010 and 2013. In 2014, that number has plummeted down to .253. Yes, some of that is bad luck, but it probably goes deeper than that. For one, we've seen less line drives than normal from the big designated hitter. From 2011 through 2013, 22 percent of his batted balls have been line drives, but that rate has fallen down to 17 percent this season. Instead, he's turned those line drives into fly balls, with that rate increasing from 39 percent to 46 percent. This would explain why his home runs have come as frequently as they have in the past while his batting average has fallen so swiftly. With that being said, his power has still dropped, with his isolated power a full 30 points lower in 2014 than it was from 2011 through 2013. Luckily, looking at his 2014 spray chart versus his 2013 spray chart, there isn't too much difference, with the main problem being that he's hitting in right up the middle less than normal, but it's nothing major.

In the end, it's safe to say that a fair portion of Ortiz's relative struggles have been due to some bad batted ball luck. In fact, if I were a gambling man I'd put some real money on him bouncing back in the second half with a much better line than the first. With that being said, I wouldn't expect him to get back to his peak levels. For someone of his age, of course, it's to be expected. Still, it's not something to completely ignore. Despite his age, Ortiz is still going to be a big part of the lineup for the next couple years. He's the big power bat that can be written into the middle of the lineup every day. So when he starts to decline, it becomes something to worry about. Luckily for the Red Sox, that decline looks like it will be a gradual one, and his production won't be falling off a cliff any time soon.

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