For a hot minute, used to be the story of the World Series was wacky finishes. More generally, it was overall wackiness, taking into account some defensive blunders. But then we were treated to a more or less clean and conventional Game 5, and now the clear story is David Ortiz, and how he’s presently un-get-outtable. I mean, I guess the real story is how the Red Sox are on the verge of another championship, but as far as players are concerned, Ortiz is the guy. He’s the main guy on the Red Sox, and he’s thought to be the main focus of the Cardinals.
In case you haven’t heard, so far Ortiz has had one of the most productive World Series of all time. He’s got 11 hits in 15 at-bats, and that doesn’t include a grand slam he had taken away by Carlos Beltran, which left him with a meager sacrifice fly. Always a presence, right now Ortiz feels like either a dream or a nightmare, depending on your loyalty. The sense is that he’s seeing the ball better than ever, and hitting the ball better than ever, and as a consequence, if you look around the Internet you’ll recognize the familiar debate about the nature and very existence of hot streaks. They say David Ortiz is locked in. It’s an easy thing to believe. It’s a more difficult thing to prove.
Nobody disagrees that David Ortiz has been hot, if you define hotness by the statistics. The statistics are white-hot. Ouch!! The disagreement is in the interpretation. Some people say that, going forward, Ortiz is just himself, and should be expected to hit like he’d normally hit. Other people say that Ortiz is just in the zone, and therefore at least his short-term expected numbers should be terrific. At the extreme, there are people who think the Cardinals should just put Ortiz on base instead of pitch to him. Pitch to Ortiz and you might give up a dinger. Put him on and you can take your chances with the next guy.
We’ve all been involved in this kind of conversation before. Many of us have observed it take place with people much smarter. The familiar faces in sabermetric research have attempted to identify meaningful hot streaks, and nothing’s really turned up. The conclusion, therefore, is that hot streaks are just blips, ending as quickly as they begin. Then there are players and coaches, and people who believe players and coaches, and that argument is that a hitter can most definitely get in the zone for a stretch. What player in baseball doesn’t believe in the existence and significance of a hot streak? Who are we to disagree with baseball players?
I don’t have anything really deep and meaningful to add. I just figured I’d go back through Ortiz’s own personal game logs. What might we find when we examine his history of hot streaks? What has he gone on to do next? It’s tricky, of course, to identify a hot streak in a number or two. But so far in this World Series, Ortiz has started five times, and he’s slugged at least .500 in all five games. I thought what I’d do is examine Ortiz’s history for streaks of 5+ games in which he slugged at least .500. It’s not perfect — it could never be perfect — but it’s something.
I was left with a total of 20 streaks, the first in 2000, the most recent coming this season (excluding the current World Series). I collected Ortiz’s numbers from his sixth start after the beginning of the streak. So, we have streaks of at least five games, and then we’re going to look at the numbers from the sixth game, regardless of whether or not the streak continued on. In all that means we’re dealing with a sample size of just 88 plate appearances, but, whatever, it’s better than nothing and we might as well see what they say.
Following streak: .315/.432/.589
Overall (weighted): .290/.382/.560
Just taking the numbers straight, we see improvements in all three, and especially in OBP. We don’t see a completely different hitter, and for a sense of the effect of the small sample size, one of the streaks led into the All-Star break. In the first game after the break, Ortiz homered, but that was several days later. Would he have still been in the zone? Should that game be eliminated? If you eliminate it, Ortiz’s slugging percentage following the streaks drops to .549. You always have to think about the error bars.
And there are some other considerations. All these streaks came in the regular season, and if Ortiz hit really well for a stretch, you figure that’s probably selective for inferior pitching staffs. Which means Ortiz could’ve been facing inferior staffs in start no. 6. You don’t want to dig too deep into any sample of 88 plate appearances, so I’ll quit it. The general point: when Ortiz has been locked in before, by the above criteria, he’s subsequently hit like a slightly better version of himself, and those numbers come with big error bars.
And this is the crux of the sabermetric argument: streaks aren’t predictive. Streaks exist, statistically, but if they reflect some change in true talent, that doesn’t show up. In this World Series, Ortiz has 11 hits on 30 swings. He had one grand slam taken away, but then he also turned one weak grounder into an infield single. During the regular season, Ortiz turned just under 5% of his swings into hits. The difference between a swing-hit and a swing-non-hit is extremely small, and Ortiz has missed or mis-hit a few pitches this past week. He’s just done it less often, but that doesn’t mean it’s all been because of Ortiz. There’s an element of chance involved, and there could be an element of the Cardinals just throwing him some more hittable pitches, mostly by accident.
Just thinking about it, it’s hard to explain why a hot streak might exist. Cold streaks are easier. A hitter might be hurt, or he might have his mechanics out of whack. A hitter can’t be more healthy than healthy, and he can’t have his mechanics any better than fine. Maybe, inexplicably, someone can just see the ball better for a little while, perhaps driven by confidence or clarity of mind, but this, like a good or bad mood, is presumably ephemeral. Something inexplicable can’t be counted on to repeat the next day, or two days later. And there’s nothing a hitter can do to make sure he’s better than he usually is. If there were, he’d always be better than he usually is, such that he’d never really be better than he usually is.
Two additional and opposing points: Ortiz hasn’t struck out since the second game of the ALCS. He’s gone 38 consecutive plate appearances without going down on strikes. What that suggests is that Ortiz has been locked in. On the other hand, in the ALCS, Ortiz had two hits in 22 at-bats. He had a .427 OPS. Instantly, he went from cold to hot, which should indicate to you something about the likelihood of going in the opposite direction.
And as one last somewhat throwaway point, the Tigers and Cardinals have both been starting all right-handers. Ortiz, then, has been facing more righties than usual, and Ortiz hits righties better than lefties, so we should expect him to have a good amount of success. That’s the thing about David Ortiz: hot streak or no hot streak, he’s still David Ortiz. He’s still one of the best hitters in baseball.
But if you’re Mike Matheny and the Cardinals, you have to see Ortiz as himself. You can’t see him as more than himself, because then you’re going to be going against the actual odds. There are cases, certainly, where Ortiz should just be walked. In all cases, Ortiz should be pitched carefully, and he should always be treated like he’s awesome. But the overwhelming likelihood is that Ortiz isn’t on some new and much higher level. It’s so easy to be biased by recent results. It’s so wrong to make decisions based on those results. It’s less risky from a PR perspective, but it isn’t less risky from a win-the-baseball-games perspective. David Ortiz has been awesome, and right now he’s the probable World Series MVP. He could win the damned thing tonight. But David Ortiz can be pitched to. All you need to do is make sure the pitches aren’t bad.
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