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David Ortiz’s Plate Discipline Decline

As the Red Sox stocked up on defensive players and pitching this winter a common question has been, “Do the Sox have enough offense to beat the Yankees?” As we have talked about here, this question is wrongheaded. Teams do not need a baseline level of offense (or defense or pitching). They simply need to score more runs then they give up. A run saved is just as valuable as a run scored.

That is not to say that the Red Sox would not like to score a ton of runs. And one place they will hope to get more production from this year is the DH and David Ortiz. Ortiz had a down year in 2009: a wRC+ of 104 just doesn’t cut it from a DH. People have focused on Ortiz’s power drop, but equally troubling were his lowest walk rate since 2004 and highest strikeout rate since 1998. Those lead to his pedestrian .332 OBP, taking away a huge chunk of his offensive value.

The problem is that Ortiz has been swinging at an increasing percentage of pitches out of the zone. In 2004 he swung at a very low 15.2% of such pitches. But it has increased every year since to 22.6% in 2009. (Average is 25%, so he is still better than average but closing in). Using the swing and contact contours from my Marco Scutaro post we can see where those extra swings have been.

This shows a big increase to swing rate on up-and-in pitches. Although he made slightly more contact on these pitches in 2009 than 2007-2008, these are still pitches that he whiffs at a high rate. In addition, the region where he makes contact 90% or more of the time was much smaller in 2009. Swinging at more pitches out of the zone (up-and-in pitches) and making less contact on pitches in the heart of the plate resulted in Ortiz’s poorer strikeout and walk numbers.