Last season was David Ortiz’s age-38 season, but you certainly wouldn’t have been able to guess that just by looking at his numbers. Over 602 plate appearances in 2014, the slugger hit an impressive .263/.355/.517 with 35 homers and a 135 wRC+. By that last number, he was one of the 25 best hitters in the game, tied with new teammate Hanley Ramirez as well as breakout star Jose Altuve. Even as he nears the end of his career, he’s still one of the more productive offensive players in the game, and figures to be right in the middle of one of the best lineups in baseball in 2015. Still, while it’s clear that he is still a premier hitter, it’s worth pointing out that his wRC+ was his worst since 2010 and his fourth worst in his 12 years with Boston. It’s not something to worry about, but the reason for the decline is certainly something to watch for this spring, and over the first month of the regular season.
What really brought Ortiz’s overall offensive production down was a dip in batting average. The .263 mark was his worst since 2009, when many people were writing him off. Yes, offense is down across the league, but it was his first time hitting under .300 since 2010. He saw a little bit of an uptick in K-rate, but not nearly enough to explain 40+ point drop in average. No, the culprit was his lowest batting average on balls in play in any season in which he appeared in at least 100 games. It’s easy to say that will rebound back to his career norms in 2015, but there’s a little more to it than that.
The first thing I looked at was whether or not he was hitting more ground balls than usual or making weaker contact in general. Per Fangraphs’ batted ball data, his ground ball rate was consistent, but his line drive rate fell. However, the difference between fly balls and line drives can be hard to decipher, and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, isolated power and infield fly ball rate all indicate his authoritative contact didn’t go anywhere. Looking further into things, it appears his problems had far more to do with losing the ability to hit the ball well to anywhere besides right field.
|Year||LF wRC+||CF wRC+||LF ISO||CF ISO|
Numbers from Fangraphs.com
As you can see in the above chart, Ortiz’s numbers took a big drop on balls hit to left and center field. While the infield shift has always been successfully deployed against him, he’s always been able to keep opposing outfields honest with his ability to hit homers and doubles to all fields. Last season, his power numbers hitting the ball the other way left him in a tier that included names like Erik Aybar and Austin Jackson. For another view of this, check out the following spray charts showing where he hit the different batted ball types. The first is from last season, followed by one from 2013.
The chart on the bottom is clearly a much more balanced approach that forces outfielders to stay in their natural positions. That’s going to lead to a lot more hits and, obviously, a higher BABIP and overall AVG.
As mentioned before, he was still a really good hitter last season despite these flaws. The reason, as one could deduce, is because he was an absolute monster when pulling the ball in 2014. Although his opposite field ISO put him in a group with Jackson and Aybar, his 239 wRC+ when pulling the ball had him grouped with Victor Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton and Edwin Escobar. Obviously, if he can keep that up, he’s still going to be a factor. The worry, though, is that defenses will adjust and take deep right field away from him like they’ve taken away short right field. This won’t necessarily be an issue, as long as his drop off in production on balls to left and center field proves to be a blip on the radar rather than a growing trend.
Even with these problems last season, Ortiz was one of the better hitters in the game. It’s a safe bet that he’s going to be a very good hitter once again in 2015. However, the issues illustrated above represent the difference between a very good hitter and an elite one, something that Ortiz was in 2011-2013. The lineup can and should be very good even if they get the 2014 version, but with the question marks on the pitching staff, the more offense the better. Spring training is more about watching trends and getting a feel for players more than actual results, and one thing I’ll be watching for is how often - and how well - David Ortiz hits the ball to left and center field.