The Anatomy of David Ortiz, Human Wrecking Ball

The prevailing story from the World Series, right now, has to be the dominance and intimidation of David Ortiz. In the first four games of the series, he’s hit 16 times and made just four outs, one of which was a grand slam that Carlos Beltran pulled back. He’s hitting .727/.750/1.364 for the series, and he’s been so thoroughly dominant that, last night, Mike Matheny just gave up and intentionally walked him — even without Yadier Molina actually getting up and holding his glove out — in a situation that moved the go ahead run into scoring position. As Jeff noted this morning, that was probably not the right idea, but it came about as a result of Ortiz’s total destruction of Cardinals pitchers in this series. Ortiz, as they say, is “locked in”, and Mike Matheny had no interest in pitching to him in a critical situation.

Ortiz is, of course, a great hitter so we shouldn’t be too surprised that St. Louis is having problems getting him out. And, when we look at where St. Louis is actually pitching him, perhaps we should be even less surprised.

From Brooks Baseball, here is a plot of all the pitches Ortiz has been thrown in the World Series so far.


The plan has clearly been to pitch him down and away. 24 of the 55 pitches he’s been thrown are represented in the four boxes that make up the purple/red L on the outer half of the plate, from the middle down. This goes along with how Major League pitchers have attacked Ortiz all year, going down and away in hopes of neutralizing his power. For reference, here’s the same chart, just for the entire 2013 season.


During the regular season, 32% of the pitches Ortiz was thrown were in those same four boxes, while the Cardinals are at 44% in the World Series. The plan seems pretty clear: stay down and stay away. But the plan is also pretty clearly not working, because down-and-away works best if you’re not just going so far down and so far away that Ortiz has little incentive to chase. Instead of just looking at locations of pitches seen, let’s look at the locations of where Ortiz is swinging at pitches. World Series data first.


And now the entire season.


During the regular season, Ortiz chased pitches in those areas about 30% of the time; in the World Series, he’s chased pitches in those areas just 21% of the time. The Cardinals are attacking Ortiz out of the strike zone more often, and he’s swinging at them less often, leading to more balls and fewer strikes. You’ll perhaps note that the Cardinals pitchers have been awful at hitting the low-and-away part of the strike zone, so Ortiz has basically been able to lay off everything in that general area without much worry that it would be called a strike.

So, a significant part of the Cardinals plan has been to attack Ortiz down and away, but it hasn’t worked because they’re missing too far down or too far away and he’s not chasing. That forces the Cardinals pitchers to come over the plate in the at-bats where they’re not just putting him on first base on purpose, and they’ve also been kind of terrible at that.

From Texas Leaguers, here’s a plot of the four seam fastballs that Ortiz has swung at in the World Series. OrtizWSFBswings

I probably don’t have to tell you that middle-middle is not a very good place to pitch, especially for a bunch of right-handers facing a monstrous lefty who crushes right-handed pitching. Of the 15 four seam fastballs that PITCHF/x has classified, five of the six he has swung at were right down the heart of the plate. Not surprisingly, David Ortiz is crushing fastballs in this series. He’s not chasing pitches down and away, and when the Cardinals decide to come into the strike zone, they’ve come into the very heart of the strike zone.

This is, in both ways, the essence of poor location. The Cardinals have attacked Ortiz out of the zone, and then he hasn’t swung at those poor pitches, they’ve attacked him over the heart of the plate. In the four boxes that represent the corners of the strike zone — up and away, up and in, down away, down and in — we find a grand total of four pitches in the entire series, or just 7% of the total he’s been thrown by St. Louis pitchers. In the regular season, 12% of his total pitches seen were in those corners.

This hasn’t just been a case of poor pitching. Ortiz has hit some really tough pitches in this series as well, as four of his eight hits have come on pitches in that down-and-away L part of the zone that STL has been attacking. This isn’t to take away credit from Ortiz, who has done a great job of hitting in this series. But, as we head into Game 5, perhaps it’s time for the Cardinals to come up with a new plan of attack. Maybe try getting him to chase fastballs up, which was his biggest area of weakness this season.

Or, at the least, when you decide to throw a strike, don’t throw it in the middle of the plate anymore.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

64 Responses to “The Anatomy of David Ortiz, Human Wrecking Ball”

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  1. anonynous says:

    Dude is clearly still on roids. Why are we even talking about him?

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  2. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    I’ll confess I expected this to be about his actual anatomy and how it physically resembles a wrecking ball.

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  3. Los says:

    Troll. Mike Carp could be hitting the Meatballs that Ortiz is getting. Roids don’t help you lay off down and away pitches.

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    • pft says:

      Actually, the confidence they give you may make you more selective, knowing you can hit whatever they throw over the plate. Hitters afraid of hitting with 2 strikes tend to chase the most.

      Not saying Papi is juicing, although he has made a mockery of the typical age related hitting curve the past few years, and he still benches 400 lbs at 37!. Might be just naturally high levels of testosterone like the Babe.

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  4. RC says:

    “As Jeff noted this morning, that was probably not the right idea, but”

    The thing about Jeff’s argument is that its based on career numbers, and there’s no reason to think that Ortiz is going to revert to his career ability over the next 3 games. He’s clearly seeing the ball really well right now.

    So while the 2.000 OPS is not his true talent right now, he’s normally a .950 OPS hitter, and seeing the ball well right now, the hitter you’re facing may actually be a 1.500 OPS hitter.

    Fluctuations in players stats aren’t always BABIP luck. They’re very often just guys being healthy and confident and seeing the ball well.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Sorry, but every piece of research ever done suggests this is completely wrong. Go buy this book.

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      • RC says:

        I own that book, and it does nothing to prove that all variation in hitting stats is random.

        What it does prove is that we don’t know.

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        • williams .482 says:

          It showed that hitters who appear to be “locked in” over a variety of sample sizes hit very slightly better than expected (around 4 points of wOBA), no where near the 550 point OPS jump you seem to be giving Ortiz.

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        • RC says:

          I have suggested no such 550 point OPS jump.

          All I’ve suggested is that Ortiz’s career average may not be indicative of his expected outcome at the moment.

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      • RC says:

        To expand, Tango’s book does a good job of showing that guys eventually fall out of hot streaks… but we know that. It says absolutely nothing convincing about WHY those streaks happen, as to whether they’re simple randomness, or whether there are contributing factors.

        Seriously, this place has gotten so intellectually lazy its ridiculous. The fact that you don’t understand how something works, or haven’t isolated the correct variables doesn’t mean its random.

        Why can’t you people just say “I don’t know” sometimes?

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        • Dave Cameron says:

          You’re the one asserting a thing for which you have no evidence. Deciding that the people who have studied and rejected your claims are lazy for not agreeing with your baseless assertions is a fun trick.

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        • williams .482 says:

          Even if they are 100% not random and the result of a batter seeing the ball really well, if all we have seen for similar players going forward is a short term 4 point jump in wOBA, what difference does it make?

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        • RC says:

          Dave, my claim is that the studies done by Tango don’t have any application to this question, because they’re looking at something completely different.

          He posits that streaks aren’t predictive over a significant amount of at-bats, and I’d agree with him. The thing is, when we’re talking about a couple dozen at-bats, whether streaks are predictive in the long term is irrelevant.

          Anyone who has ever played a sport knows there are days when you’re better and days when you’re worse. Its simple human physiology, and pretending that doesn’t happen is willful ignorance. People aren’t random number generators. Human being’s talent levels fluctuate with health, attitude, etc.

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        • Dave Cameron says:

          You can cite whatever human psychology you want, but it means nothing without evidence. Here’s your burden of proof:

          1. Identify players in the midst of a hot streak, using whatever (consistently applied) methods you would like.

          2. Show that those players you’ve identified continue to play at an elevated level for some period of time in the future — the length of which you can even decide! — after they’ve been identified.

          Until you do that, your claims are useless.

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        • RC says:

          On the flip side, do you guys really think that Stephen Drew’s issues at the plate in this series and the previous ones are just random noise? Do you think the fact that he’s struck out in more than 35% of his plate appearances, and walked once, is completely random?

          For a guy who struck out 25% of the time in the regular season and walked more than 10% of the time?

          Because watching how many bad pitches hes swinging at, and how over-matched he looks, I can’t believe that.

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        • RMD says:

          @señor Cameron

          Over the past three seasons, Ortiz has a wOBA of .409. Cabrera’s is .436. If your life depended on, who would you you rather have up there? A healthy Ortiz or a healthy Cabrera?

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        • Eric M. Van says:

          The obvious caveat of a study like Tango’s is that the examined sample is probably largely composed of players who achieved their apparent hotness by luck, and had no reasonable expectation of performing better afterwards. That the group at large had a 4 point wOBA increase probably indicates a much, much larger increase for the small percentage of players who were actually “locked in.”

          How large that increase might be I don’t know, but if only one in twelve of the sample were truly “hot,” it’s on the order of 50 points, which is not trivial.

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        • Dave, I trust you already know but temporarily forgot that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

          RC and you agree Ortiz has been awesome, but your model only says “how” awesome while RC wants to argue “why” awesome. Your response to RC’s argument is basically that your preferred models have no explanation for Ortiz’s outsized performance and therefore none can be had.

          Think about a reverse platoon split pitcher- your model, based aggregated statistics, doesn’t offer individualized evidence; e.g., why that lefty’s pitch gets righties out but not lefties. Do we give up, or do we investigate with a more individualized approach?

          Next, you seem to not understand what “evidence” means. It’s just a component of an argument, the reference in the rhetoric. Tango refers to mathematical models for his assertions, but each model derives from his personal judgement for inclusion/exclusion, which variance to smooth & equalize and which to retain, the accuracy of inputs, the suitability of conversions/formulas, and the useful application of all that to a particular assertion. Tango’s judgement, wisdom and logic are inseparable parts of his “evidence”.

          RC and you agree that people perform better or worse under particular circumstances. Your model– along with history, literature, common sense, etc, confirms variance (“how”) but has little to say about the individualized “why”. But history, literature, common sense, etc. say lots about how and why- character, experience, pressure, fear, greed, competition, inertia. An acute mind can make a convincing claim built on references to that body of knowledge (“evidence”) that Arod fails under pressure becasue like the The Good Soldier Švejk, he doesn’t want to be in danger of embarrassment. And an acute mind can assess that argument without relying on a crude appeal to Tango’s mathematical authority.

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        • Eric Feczko says:

          @Eric Van:

          I was going to make a Julio Lugo joke here, but I decided against it.

          Eric, you are correct. However, unless you have a way of knowing (from the data itself) whether a player was truly “locked in” or not, and knowing the length of the “locked in” state, this information is fairly trivial. While it is certainly likely that some players generated a hot/streak through some skill, it is a) an unsustainable streak, and b) an unpredictable one. Therefore, the degree to which a player is “hot” bears little on subsequent play.

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  5. RC says:

    Dave, that’s trivially easy, and really stupid. David Ortiz in the 2 games in Fenway, followed by David Ortiz in the two games in STL. 1.600 OPS, followed by 1.400 OPS.

    Tiny sample, but its what you asked for.

    Tango’s argument is exactly the same thing as the argument that pitchers have no control over their BABIP. We take a huge sample, see regression to the mean, and assume that nothing is going on because we’re too lazy to actually check to see if there are other variables adding a lot of noise, or if the skill is isolated in the sample. (which is why we get the “unless you’re a knuckleballer, or matt cain” exclusions) We KNOW some pitchers can influence BABIP to some extent.

    Its essentially a study with no controls.

    We KNOW that differing amounts of sleep reliably affect human performance.
    We KNOW that caffeine, nutrition, blood sugar levels, and a whole host of other things reliably affect human performance.
    We KNOW that stress levels reliably affect human performance.

    There’s a whole host of possible explanations beyond “It’s random”

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      All this shows is that you don’t actually understand how to study the issue.

      Here’s what you have to do, again, if you want to actually prove your point.

      Find a large number of players who have performed in a certain way, which you would use to identify them as being in the midst of a hot streak.

      Look at the overall performance of all players who met that criteria after they were identified.

      Compare that with their expected performance.

      If you decide that the selection criteria is OPS > 1.500 after two games of the World Series, find ~30 or 40 players who met that criteria over the last 20 years, and then look at what they all did in WS games 3+. Feel free to report back when you’ve done the work and found that a 1.500 OPS over two games means nothing.

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      • RC says:

        Again, Dave, what you’re suggesting has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m saying.

        Stop spouting the same shit over and over again and actually read the posts you’re replying to.

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        • The Royal We? says:

          Amen to that. Cameron sounds like any other ignorant fool who repeats the same idiotic trope over and over at increasing volume. He really needs to have a job that doesn’t require any kind of human interaction. This is bad enough, but putting him on TV should be a fireable offense.

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        • brendan says:

          maybe it’s helpful to restate what is known:
          1. hot and cold streaks happen
          2. there is no known way to predict when hot/cold streaks begin or end.

          Given these, hot/cold streaks are not that useful for forward-looking projections, correct?

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        • RC says:

          Brendan, thats pretty much exactly what I’m saying, except rather than Cameron’s take, which is

          “we don’t know, so we’ll assume they’re meaningless”.

          I’m saying

          “we don’t know, so we should be careful assuming they’re meaningless”

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        • Simon says:

          So we’ve looked at people who have had similar performances to Ortiz, and concluded that this has minimal if any impact on their future performance, and that their future performance is distributed much as expected (i.e. there aren’t an abnormal subgroup of people who perform unexpectedly well). Your conclusion appears to be that there’s still likely to be something going on because Ortiz looks very good at hitting right now.

          It seems to me that the current situation is that there is no evidence to support the idea that Ortiz is likely to continue to perform above whatever level he would be expected to perform at pre-Series, and quite a lot to suggest that his performance to date is meaningless. That doesn’t mean that nobody could ever identify a group of hitters who are on a hot streak and will continue to perform better than previously expected, but there is no reason, at present, to think Ortiz is atypical.

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        • NS says:

          You have actually said several times that they are in fact meaningful.

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      • That makes no sense, Dave. A+B=X does not mean C+B=X.

        I say, “moist eyes + grooving to Miley Cyrus pre-game = David Ortiz on fire”. It is illogical to reject that assertion because I haven’t shown you that most players with moist eyes and Wrecking Ball on track carry 2.000 OPSes. No, you reject that argument because it doesn’t make sense to your brain.

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        • Jim Lahey says:

          Couldn’t we reasonably expect that Ortiz’ true talent level against 4 seam fastballs from RHP down the middle is 1.500 OPS? It’s clearly better than his career OPS, since his career OPS includes swinging sometimes at crap pitches. It’s not predictive though; because the pitchers are not going to keep throwing the ball there.

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  6. matt says:

    Dave – you get abrasive when you’re overly sensitive and defensive.

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    • Anatoly says:

      Yeah, his orthodoxy is showing

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    • Travis L says:

      I think it’s more that he’s annoyed at having a conversation on FG with the commenter equivalent of Tim McCarver or Murray Chass.

      Now, if RC could look at Ortiz’s mechanics or something else in his process, without citing results, I would be more apt to listen.

      Sure, when I played competitive sports there were times I felt locked in. However, much of this was because the results said I was better, not because of anything in the process.

      If you’re promoting the predictive power of results from a 5, 7, or even 15 game stretch, you’re flat out doing it wrong.

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      • RC says:

        I’m not promoting the predictive power of anything Travis.

        What I’m saying is that there’s a good chance that David Ortiz’s ‘true talent’ at the current moment is not the same as his ‘career talent’ and that using career splits for lack of better data is dangerous.

        I mean, Cameron goes through a handful of paragraphs showing that Ortiz is not swinging at Balls that he was swinging at during the regular season, and then completely disregards that. Changes in approach happen, and while players usually regress eventually, it often takes time for pitchers to figure those things out.

        As long as Cardinals pitchers continue to throw him pitches off the plate low, and he keeps not swinging at them, hes going to be in really beneficial counts, and hes going to get meatballs to swing at.

        Ortiz is one of the better hitters in the game at pre-game prep work. He does a good amount of studying, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s doing a lot more of it in the post-season than in the regular season. You’re going to see a lot more, in a lot shorter time period, of any given pitcher than during a 7 game series, and this would maximize the value of prep work.

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        • Anatoly says:

          As if on cue, indignant righteous defense of orthodoxy to cast thee out, heathen, and compare thee to Murray Chass.


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        • RC says:

          I’m not defending orthodoxy. In fact, I’m doing the opposite. I’m saying our current sabermetricians are lazy, don’t go nearly far enough, and have accepted work thats not complete as orthodoxy.

          Nice try though, and nice ad-hominems.

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        • Anatoly says:

          RC You missed my comment up-thread. I was with you.

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        • Simon says:

          So far you haen’t come up with much that couldn’t be applied to any streaking hitter though.

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      • Alejandro says:

        I’ve looked at his mechanics and they are rather shitty and not optimal for launching the ball far as possible. A lot of his ability to get in front of the pitch comes from working the count and knowing when to cheat a little.

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    • cass says:

      Dave’s right, though.

      This dude keeps asserting that X must be true because of Y, despite the fact that we have mountains of evidence than X isn’t true. It’s basically Young Earth Creationist logic.


      “I know that the Earth is 6000 years old because the Bible says so therefore all the actual data that shows the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old must be wrong.”

      “I know that humans perform better over some periods of time so a baseball player who has been hitting well must be likely to continue to do so. The actual fact that baseball players have not done so must be wrong.”

      I don’t think arguing with someone who is exhibiting that sort of irrational thinking is going to help much. Dave deserves credit for trying, though.

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      • RC says:

        Cass, can you please quote where I said that David Ortiz will continue to perform like this, because I’m pretty sure I never did.


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        • Matt says:

          By saying he should be treated as a true talent 1.500 OPS player at this moment (or last night, or whatever), you are implicitly arguing that we should have some expectation that he’ll continue to perform at an elevated level because he has over the past very small number of at bats.

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        • RC says:

          “By saying he should be treated as a true talent 1.500 OPS player at this moment”

          Jesus Christ.

          I’m not saying he should be treated as a true talent 1.500 OPS player.

          I’m saying that we shouldn’t assume his career numbers are an accurate approximation at the moment, nothing more.

          What’s with the strawmen?

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        • nada says:

          “So while the 2.000 OPS is not his true talent right now, he’s normally a .950 OPS hitter, and seeing the ball well right now, the hitter you’re facing may actually be a 1.500 OPS hitter.”
          -RC, earlier in this thread.

          Whereas the evidence shows that batters might get better by on average 4 points of wOBA.

          I won’t argue that clutch doesn’t exist. But I will say that we don’t have evidence to support a clutch effect nearly as significant as what you are, at least, posing as a possibility.

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        • RC says:

          The operative word there is “might”.

          Also, read Eric Van’s post above. The fact that you see a 4 point OPS jump in players after some selection of plate appearances doesn’t mean that the player in question falls at the center of the distribution.

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        • RC says:

          sorry, “may”.

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        • nada says:

          Sure, you can weasel out of it with subjunctive. But at a certain point, you’re going to have to actually estimate what you think the real “hot” / “clutch” effect is.

          Even if we’re very, very generous, it’s probably no more than a few dozen points of wOBA, because if it was, we would be able to easily detect it. Which is a lot, granted, but it doesn’t taken D. Ortiz from being good to launching home runs every at bat or something.

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        • @nada- You say, “Whereas the evidence shows that batters might get better by on average 4 points of wOBA.”

          Do you understand that evidence or are you just reciting its conclusions? Can you tell me where Tango drew lines to divide “locked in” player from not “locked in player” and how many players clumped just on the other side of that line?

          (I have no reason to think Tango fudged this, but defining terms and drawing lines through data is a pretty standard way to get the expected result, just ask Congressional aides in charge of gaming CBO.)

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        • Eric Feczko says:



          The problem is that your argument is circular. You argue that Ortiz is seeing the ball well because of his stats in four games. You then predict that he will hit at the same rate as these past four games because he sees the ball well.

          What you said was that ” there’s no reason to think that Ortiz is going to revert to his career ability over the next 3 games. He’s clearly seeing the ball really well right now.”.

          What evidence, either empirical or anecdotal, do you have to support the assertion that Ortiz is clearly seeing the ball really well right now? The only piece of evidence you cite is this:

          ” David Ortiz in the 2 games in Fenway, followed by David Ortiz in the two games in STL. 1.600 OPS, followed by 1.400 OPS. ”

          Unfortunately, this piece of evidence is not trustworthy. As Tango, and others, have shown, statistical outcomes of at-bats over four games are not predictive. To say that Ortiz is seeing the ball well because he has a 1.5 OPS is a poor interpretation of these statistical outcomes.

          “So while the 2.000 OPS is not his true talent right now, he’s normally a .950 OPS hitter, and seeing the ball well right now, the hitter you’re facing may actually be a 1.500 OPS hitter. ”

          Then you take this assertion to argue that he’s 0.45 OPS points better than he is in his career. Yes, it is possible that he will continue to post a 1.5 OPS over the next two/three games, it is also possible that he’ll post a 0 OPS. He “might” even hit four grand slams. However you cannot predict that from the numbers themselves as much as you cannot predict that from his “eye”.

          If you want to argue that he’s “seeing the ball well” because the sun sets earlier at this time of year giving him a better eye at the plate, that would be a sensible hypothesis. Of course, that hypothesis is contradicted by the evidence that he is a 0.950 OPS hitter in the playoffs.

          “Fluctuations in players stats aren’t always BABIP luck. They’re very often just guys being healthy and confident and seeing the ball well.”

          Of course. Fluctuations in players stats depend on a huge number of factors, typically beyond the control of the player (e.g. weather, health, defense, mental state, park, etc.). Combined, these factors behave in an unpredicted manner. Therefore we treat the combination of these factors as random when interpreting individual at-bats. Therefore, to claim that you know why Ortiz is hitting at a 1.5 OPS pace in the WS requires evidence outside of the outcomes in these at-bats.

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        • Guest says:

          Huh. Looks like RC was able to call a good night for Ortiz on Monday. What about Wednesday? Will he still be locked in?

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        • Simon says:

          Quite likely given the very right-handed nature of the Card’s pitching staff. Also, his performance over one game is obviously meaningless.

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  7. David Ortiz says:

    I came in like a wrecking ball
    I never hit so hard in love
    All I wanted was to break your walls

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  8. Mike Matheny says:

    All you ever did was wreck me
    Yeah, you, you wreck me

    I put you high up in the sky
    And now, you’re not coming down
    It slowly turned, you let me burn
    And now, we’re ashes on the ground

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  9. Don’t you ever say I just walked away
    I will always want you
    I can’t live a lie, running for my life
    I will always want you

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  10. Steve says:

    Why are there no Miley Cyrus references here, what is wrong with all of you. I bet you Miley knows all about plate discipline……

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  11. Pirates Hurdles says:

    Seriously?! Quoting Miley over a much better “Wrecking Ball” by the Boss. Ugh.

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  12. Wreck It Ralph says:


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  13. Lex Logan says:

    What I got out of Jeff’s article was that the Cardinal pitchers have pitched very ineffectively to Ortiz so far in the series — too low, too outside, then down the middle when they get behind in the count. That diagram of the six four-seamers thrown to Ortiz was hilarious. I don’t think we need to asume Ortiz is operating above his normal talent level.

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