One year ago, 39-year-old David Ortiz was hitting a lowly .229/.311/.411, and Red Sox fans were fed up. An article here on RedSox.com suggesting that his still-elite exit velocity was evidence that there was plenty of life left in his bat was met with comments suggesting that Ortiz should "retire
One year ago, 39-year-old David Ortiz was hitting a lowly .229/.311/.411, and Red Sox fans were fed up. An article here on RedSox.com suggesting that his still-elite exit velocity was evidence that there was plenty of life left in his bat was met with comments suggesting that Ortiz should "retire already" and "stop embarrassing us."
A year later, it seems that the exit velocity may have been a good sign after all. Since then, Ortiz has hit .316/.402/.669 (with 44 home runs), the best line in the game. He's hit .338/.420/.704 this season -- also the best line in the game, with a slugging-percentage lead of nearly 100 points over second-place Manny Machado.
• Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Ortiz and other #ASGWorthy players
Oh, and Ortiz is on pace to break Earl Webb's 85-year-old record for doubles in a season. Big Papi already has more doubles this year (28) in 245 plate appearances than he did in 602 plate appearances in 2014 (27). Given his current track of one double per every 2.25 Boston games, Ortiz's 72 would top the 67 that Webb put up (also for the Red Sox) way back in 1931.
So, how is Ortiz doing it? Here are three reasons that explain how he has bounced back and threatens to set a record.
Gif: Ortiz walks off in the 11th
1. He's stopped worrying about the shift
Last year, we noted that Ortiz's spray charts showed that he'd gone to the opposite field (particularly against lefty pitching) more than ever, and it had hurt him. His exit velocity last season to the left side was 90.6 mph, while it was 95.1 mph to the right side. This year, it's even more pronounced -- 88.9 mph to the left side and 96.3 mph to his pull side.
It's not surprising that Ortiz hits the ball harder to his pull side; most hitters do. But this year, he's doing about the best possible thing he can do, which is hit the ball more to his pull side (50 percent of his batted balls, his highest since 2004), and keeping those balls in the air. Ortiz has put only 42 percent of batted balls to the pull side on the ground this year, his lowest ever, and much lower than last year's 57 percent. That's important, because with him being one of baseball's most-shifted players, he's hit just .154 on pulled grounders over the past three years.
More pulled batted balls, and more of which are going in the air, are crucial, especially in terms of the doubles record. While it may seem that Ortiz is constantly bashing doubles off the Green Monster, that's not necessarily true -- only six of his 23 home two-baggers have gone off the famous left-field wall.
2. Fenway, obviously
Unsurprisingly, Fenway Park is a fantastic place to hit doubles. Since the turn of the century, the Red Sox have hit more home doubles than any team (by nearly 500 over the Rockies), and their pitchers have allowed the second-most home doubles. Eighty-two percent of Ortiz's 28 doubles this year have come at home, and that's close to a record -- only seven hitters have ever had a higher percentage, with a minimum of 25 doubles, and three of them also called Fenway home.
But it's not the Monster that's helping Ortiz. It's the short right-field line, only 302 feet away, and the huge expanse in right-center that allows for deep doubles to the triangle in center, and ground-rule doubles over the short wall in right field. It's so perfectly situated to the way he hits, that you'll notice something interesting when we compare his doubles spray chart in Fenway to what those batted balls would look like on a relatively neutral field, like Dodger Stadium:
Nearly all of the balls to left are catchable before the warning track in the park on the right. Conversely, some of the ones to center and right may possibly leave the park as homers, given the different dimensions. Ortiz is great because he's great, but Fenway is the perfect spot for him.
Gif: David Ortiz's Double BOS vs TOR
3. Less exposure to lefties, and better success against them
Ortiz actually isn't hitting the ball harder overall; last year's exit velocity was 93.8 mph, and this year's is 94.6 mph, which is slightly higher, but not a significant difference. But against lefties, it's up from 91.8 mph to 94.2 mph -- tied with Mike Moustakas for the best by a lefty against lefty pitching, with a minimum of 15 batted balls.
Remember, a year ago, this is what we'd said about Ortiz against lefties:
In 75 plate appearances against southpaws, Ortiz has just eight hits. That's a .111 batting average, a .138 batting average on balls in play, and a -40 wRC+.
So far this year, Ortiz has 11 hits -- including six extra-base hits -- but in just 45 plate appearances. That's a .275 batting average, a .346 BABIP and a Weighted Runs Created Plus that is 33 percent above average.
But Ortiz is also facing them less, as indicated by the fact he's got 30 fewer plate appearances at the same point of the season. For most of his time in Boston, he had the platoon advantage 65 to 70 percent of the time. Last year, that was 70 percent. This year, it's up to 82 percent, as Hanley Ramirez has taken several designated hitter starts against lefties.
That Ortiz is on pace to set the doubles record is impressive; after all, he's certainly not turning singles into doubles with his legs like Billy Hamilton might. But it's not just about the record. Given where he was a year ago -- wondering if he would last the season -- that he's still here is impressive. That Ortiz is dominating at age 40 is even moreso.
Don't leave, David. It's far too soon.
Mike Petriello** is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.