Coming into the season, it was clear that the pitching staff had the potential to be a weakness on this roster. Nothing that has happened in the first month of the year has changed that. In fact, the perception may have only gotten worse. The rotation has been an absolute mess and no one has been able to string together a group of solid starts. The bullpen has had a couple good individual performances, but it hasn’t formed a dominant unit to this point.
The offense, on the other hand, was supposed to be a juggernaut. It was supposed to carry this team while the pitching sorted itself out. Sure, there have been flashes greatness, but for the most part it has been incredibly average outside of Hanley Ramirez. Boston currently has a 95 wRC+ which puts them exactly in the middle of the pack, placing 15th out of 30. The group has looked especially weak over the last week or so. There is little reason to think it will stay this way, but it’s still valuable to look at reasons why it’s been so lackluster. Part of the issue has been the offense’s de facto leader, David Ortiz.
It would be unfair to say that Ortiz has been anything close to a black hole in this lineup. The issue is he’s been merely okay instead of showing the greatness we’re accustomed to. Through his first 103 plate appearances of the year, the 39-year-old is hitting .250/.336/.435, good for a good-not-great 108 wRC+. Of course it’s still early in the year, but this is still not the David Ortiz we are used to. So, what gives?
Well, the peripherals don’t look overly alarming here. He’s still walking over 12 percent of the time, essentially keeping the same walk-rate as the last two years. His 17.8 percent strikeout rate is slightly higher than the last few seasons, but it’s not alarmingly high. He’s swinging and missing a bit more than usual, but again, it’s not like he’s Adam Dunn all of a sudden.
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What’s really hurt Ortiz so far in 2015 has been his power and just good contact in general. While he typically sits with an Isolated Power around of above .250, he’s currently sitting at just .185. On top of that, he’s struggling with batting average on balls in play issues for the second year in a row. As of this writing, he is sporting a ..268 BABIP. The good news is, according to Baseball Savant, Ortiz currently ranks 29th in baseball in exit velocity. The bad news is, according the Baseball Heat Maps, his average fly ball distance of 282 feet is down 15 feet from a year ago and ranks 101st in the game. On top of that, Fangraphs’ new metric that measures how often players make hard contact says that Ortiz is making less solid contact than he has in each of the last two years. These are all relatively new statistics being used in small sample sizes, so multiple grains of salt should be taken, but the data isn’t overly encouraging here.
The easy assumption to make is that Ortiz’s bat is slowing down as he enters the last stage of his career. So, with that in mind I headed over the Brooks Baseball to see how he performed against fastballs and hard pitches in general. Compared to last season, he actually is swinging and missing less often against fastballs, but he is hitting these pitches into the ground much more often than he has in the past. With his swing, this is leading to a lot more balls hit into the shift. Looking just at hard pitches (as categorized by Brooks Baseball), the picture becomes much more bleak. After hitting .290 with a .277 ISO against hard pitches last seen, he’s gotten off to a .193/.175 start in 2015. There’s still plenty of time to buck this trend, but for the moment it’s something to watch for in his at bats.
One last thing I want to look at is Ortiz’s performance against left-handed pitching. Unlike many other left-handed hitters, the Red Sox DH has never really had any significant struggles against southpaws. Over his long career, he’s put up a respectable 111 wRC+ against lefties. Strangely enough, his 142 wRC+ against lefties in 2014 was actually better than the 131 mark he put up against righties. This year, however, he’s been brutal in his first 27 plate appearances against southpaws. We’re dealing with a tiny sample, of course, but he’s had just two hits versus left-handed pitching with six strikeouts and a -30 wRC+. As with the performance against hard pitches, the sample is too small to take as gospel, but it’s certainly something to watch moving forward.
If the Red Sox offense is going to start performing like we all expect them to, it’s going to have to start with David Ortiz. This is especially true now that Hanley Ramirez is dealing with shoulder issues. It’s been a relatively rough year for Ortiz thus far, as he’s struggling a bit with hard contact, fast pitches and left-handed pitching. Luckily, there is enough time left and enough of a track record to be confident in a bounce-back, though the troubling trends are something to keep an eye on as the year moves on.