Posted October 28, 2013

David Ortiz is owning the Cardinals. Can St. Louis cool him off?

Boston Red Sox, David Ortiz, St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals have yet to find an answer for how to pitch to David Ortiz in this World Series. Through four games and 16 plate appearances, the Red Sox slugger has put up video game numbers, hitting .727/.750/1.364. That’s eight hits — three for extra bases, including two home runs — in 11 official at-bats, plus four walks. Ortiz also has no strikeouts and a sacrifice fly that would have been a grand slam if not for Carlos Beltran’s heroic catch; had that landed in the bullpen, where it was headed before Beltran’s glove got in the way, Ortiz would be hitting .818/.867/1.727.

And while Ortiz wasn’t the biggest hero of Game 4 — that honor went to Boston teammate Jonny Gomes, whose three-run homer off Seth Maness broke the game open in the sixth inning — he was certainly one of them, reaching base in all four of his plate appearances, collecting his team’s first two hits and scoring two of its four runs.

Not surprisingly, Ortiz is near the top of the leaderboard when it comes to a few World Series records:

• His on-base percentage ranks second in history, behind only Billy Hatcher’s .800, set for the Reds in 1990. Hatcher went 9-for-12 with two walks in Cincinnati’s four-game sweep.

• His slugging percentage ranks fourth, behind a trio of Yankees: Lou Gehrig (1.727) in 1928, Hideki Matsui (1.385) in 2009 and Babe Ruth (1.375) in 1928. Gehrig and Ruth put up those astounding numbers in a four-game sweep of the Cardinals, while Matsui made his mark in a six-game win over the Phillies.

• His 2.114 OPS ranks second in World Series history behind Gehrig’s 2.433, with Hatcher’s 2.050 (.750/.800/1.250), Matsui’s 2.027 (.615/.643/1.385) and Ruth’s 2.022 (.625/.647/1.375) the only others above 2.000.

Those rate stats owe plenty to small sample sizes, but with the series now tied at two games apiece, Ortiz is guaranteed to play in at least another two games and could climb higher in the rankings when it comes to a few key counting stats:

• He has reached base 12 times so far. The series record is 21, set by Barry Bonds for the 2002 Giants (eight hits and 13 walks). Marty Barrett (1986 Red Sox) and Mickey Mantle (1960 Yankees) both reached base 18 times, while Ruth (1926 Yankees) and Matt Williams (1997 Indians) both reached 17 times.

• Ortiz has 15 total bases. The series record is 25, co-owned by Reggie Jackson (1977 Yankees) and Willie Stargell (1979 Pirates), with Lou Brock (1968 Cardinals), Paul Molitor (1993 Blue Jays) and Duke Snider (1952 Dodgers) tied for third at 24.

• Ortiz has four walks, which is nothing special, but if the Cardinals decide to get more cautious — and who could blame them at this point? — he could climb higher. Bonds’ mark of 13 walks in 2002 is probably out of reach, as are the 11 by Ruth in 1926 and by Oakland’s Gene Tenace in 1973. Willie Randolph had nine for the 1981 Yankees, while eight players had eight.

St. Louis’ problems regarding Ortiz in this series have been twofold: its lefty relievers haven’t been able to stop him, and when manager Mike Matheny has stuck with his righty starters instead, bad things have happened. Keep in mind that during the regular season, Ortiz destroyed righthanded pitching (.339/.440/.652 in 384 PA) but had his worst showing since 2010 against lefties (.260/.315/.418 in 216 PA), one that was well below his career norm (.267/.339/.477); his career split by OPS is 164 points in favor of righties (.980 to .816).

So far, Ortiz is 3-for-3 against St. Louis’ two lefty relievers. Rookie Kevin Siegrist — one wag’s pick for Unlikely Hero in this series — served up his two-run homer in Game 1 and a relatively inconsequential two-out single in the eighth inning of Game 4. Veteran Randy Choate yielded a sixth-inning single to Ortiz in Game 3 that was immediately followed by Daniel Nava’s game-tying RBI single of Maness.

Stung by that Game 1 homer, Matheny chose not to use either lefty against Ortiz in the sixth inning of Game 2, when Michael Wacha faced him after issuing a one-out walk to Dustin Pedroia. Wacha was riding a 19-inning scoreless streak at the time, but Ortiz broke out his regression stick by taking the rookie over the Green Monster for a 2-1 lead. Wacha faced just two more batters, escaping the inning and no doubt breathing a sigh of relief as the Cardinals recovered to score three runs in the next half-inning en route to victory.

On Sunday, Matheny again curiously chose to ride his starter a bridge too far. Lance Lynn was coming off a 29-pitch fifth inning in which Boston tied the game at 1-1 via Ortiz’s leadoff double, a pair of walks and Stephen Drew’s sacrifice fly. Lynn got two quick outs to start the sixth, then yielded a single to Pedroia, setting up the same situation in which Wacha failed. Rather than call for the lefty, Matheny let Lynn walk Ortiz “unintentionally” on four pitches, then went to Maness, who… well, you know the rest.

Regardless of what has transpired — the .412/.444/1.000 Ortiz has hit in 18 PA against lefties this October, compared to .276/.463/.517 in 41 PA against righties — the percentages still say that the Cardinals are better off throwing their lefties at Ortiz in high-leverage situations, particularly when the alternative is letting a starter facing him a third time. For his career, the 38-year-old thumper has hit .316/.394/.622 for a 1.016 OPS in his third time facing the same pitcher in a single game (1,539 PA), compared to .305/.404/.572 (.976 OPS) in his first and .292/.375/.563 (.938 OPS) in his second. Granted, those numbers are markedly different this year — OPS of 1.143 (135 PA), 1.082 (134 PA) and .843 (108 PA), respectively — in smaller sample sizes, but the general tendency is for hitters to gain about 30 points of OPS per additional PA from the first through the third time, and any notion that Ortiz isn’t benefitting from those additional looks is putting a whole lot of faith in small sample sizes.

For all the talk about the way the modern game coddles pitchers too much, that tendency suggests managers should actually be quicker with the hook in the middle innings. It’s tough to do that day after day during the regular season given the additional burden it places on bullpens — to say nothing of the problems it could cause with regards to a manager’s relationship with his starters — but with the extra relievers and additional off days in the postseason, it’s a luxury managers can afford.

Whether it’s pitching around Ortiz more frequently, or attacking him with lefties earlier in the game and hoping they keep him in the park, the Cardinals need to find a better answer for Big Papi if they’re going to beat Boston. What they’re doing thus far isn’t working, and if it continues, his will rank among the greatest World Series performances ever.

1 comments
DarrellStanaford
DarrellStanaford

in '76 Jonny Bench hit .533 & slugged 1.133. Not sure of his ops.

I'm very impressed with the lack of strikeouts & fitness of Ortiz. No doubt the lack of extra weight has helped him stay healthy. He is a lean, mean hitting machine. Big but not bulky.