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How much have defensive shifts really hurt David Ortiz?

Little in the box score points to Aug. 16, 2004, as the day David Ortiz's life as a hitter forever changed.

Ortiz stepped to the plate five times, going 1 for 3 with two walks in an 8-4 win over the Blue Jays. But there was more.

Carlos Tosca had been fired as Toronto's manager a little more than a week earlier. When infield coach Brian Butterfield approached John Gibbons to suggest a new defense against an emerging star, the new Jays manager listened.

"Butter's ahead of the game. He's the best coach in baseball," said Gibbons. "[Using a shift against Ortiz] was always something he'd talked about. When I took over, I knew he wanted to do it. We started to do it. I don't think it necessarily got recognized till later and some other guys started using it more."

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In the bottom of the fourth inning, Ortiz grounded a ball to a right side occupied by three infielders. Second baseman Orlando Hudson botched the play for an error.

After the game, Ortiz said it was the first time he'd experienced a shift with three position players on one side of second base. The strategy added him to a list that included Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Jason Giambi, and Carlos Delgado as lefthanded mashers subject to shifts.

Butterfield, who'd employed shifts aggressively while on Buck Showalter's staff in Arizona, struggled to recall the initial decision to shift against Ortiz.

"I'm surprised we didn't do it earlier," he said.

The rest of the baseball world soon reached a similar realization. Other teams followed the Jays' example in 2005. Near-universal employment of the tactic arrived by 2006.

.   .   .

A rope to right field. A liner down the right-field line. A hard grounder to the right of second base. A ball smoked back up the middle.

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Balls he'd trained to see as hits had become bizarre groundouts.

"I guess now it's part of the game. I don't really put attention to it anymore," Ortiz said. "I just let the ball get deep, put a good swing on it, and whatever happens, happens."

Yet that doesn't stop Ortiz — or others — from thinking about what might have been.

Ortiz has 2,159 career hits, a lifetime .285 average, .379 OBP, and .547 slugging mark. What might those numbers look like without an alignment that sometimes turns perfectly struck balls into outs?

"I would say I'd be at least up to 2,600 hits," said Ortiz.

Such a number would boost Ortiz's career average to .343. Assuming he notched virtually all of those additional hits starting in 2005 (when teams started to follow Toronto's lead), he'd be a .379 hitter (instead of a .288 hitter) over the last decade.

That seems unlikely. Still, Butterfield considered feasible an estimate of hundreds of lost hits for Ortiz.

"I honestly believe that if the league was forced to play [two infielders on each side of second base], he would be close to being a .400 hitter," said Butterfield. "I just think that there's been that many hits taken away from him. I think it would be mind-boggling for people to go back and research how many hits he's had taken away."

Yankees pitcher David Phelps had no defensive help on the third base side as he faced David Ortiz in a spring game in 2014.
Yankees pitcher David Phelps had no defensive help on the third base side as he faced David Ortiz in a spring game in 2014.(AP)

Yet those who have scrutinized the matter closely suggest Ortiz has experienced nothing like that impact. Indeed, as much as there have been suggestions that the increased prevalence of shifts has been a central part of baseball's depressed run-scoring environment, it's difficult to suggest that redrawn defensive alignments have had more than a marginal impact, particularly in comparison to the historically high strikeout rates being produced by electric arms.

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Scott Spratt of Baseball Information Solutions (BIS), which has attempted to document precisely the use of shifts over the last five years, wrote in an e-mail that Ortiz has faced the shift 2,060 times since Spratt's company started tracking the matter in 2010, more than any other batter.

BIS measures a players' batting average on groundballs and short line drives (the two types of hits most often affected by the shift) to identify the impact of the strategy. According to Spratt, Ortiz has a .229 average in the 725 instances where he's hit a grounder or short line drive against a shift. In the rare instances (99) when he's hit grounders or short line drives without a shift in effect, he has a .253 average since 2010.

Most shifted batters, 2010-2014
GSL - plate appearances ending in grounder or shallow liner; BAGSL - batting average on grounder or shallow liner
Shifted PA Shifted GSL Shifted BAGSL No Shift GSL No Shift BAGSL
David Ortiz 2060 725 .229 99 .253
Adam Dunn 1847 509 .204 75 .293
Ryan Howard 1756 598 .184 82 .366
Prince Fielder 995 412 .231 475 .261
Brian McCann 976 346 .194 372 .250
DATA: Baseball Information Solutions
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

The takeaway? BIS estimates that Ortiz has lost about 17 hits (3.4 per year) over the past five seasons because of the shift.

For those who have watched him, that figure is hard to believe.

"I think they're way off, by a large margin," said Butterfield.

Given that the shift, based on anecdotal evidence and newspaper reports of the time, didn't become close to universal against Ortiz until 2006, it's worth comparing how often in-park contact for Ortiz resulted in hits before and after the implementation of the strategy.

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Ortiz says he changed his offensive approach after joining the Sox in 2003. He embraced the notion that it was his job to hit the ball beyond the visible horizon.

In theory, one can thus define three eras of his career: His Twins career (.305 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) — meaning contact not resulting in homers — from 1998-2002); the pre-omnipresent-shift Red Sox era (.306 BABIP; 2003-05); and the shift years (.299 BABIP; 2006-14).

What if contact for Ortiz resulted in hits at the same rate in the shift era as it did in his first three years with the Sox? Instead of tallying 993 hits from 2006-14, he'd have 1,019 — boosting his total by 26, an average of just under three per season.

Suppose Ortiz performed at an improbably extreme level. Among players of the last 30 years, the one with the highest career BABIP is Derek Jeter, whose all-fields approach yielded a .350 career average on balls in play.

If Ortiz was given the benefit of the doubt that he'd have matched Jeter's BABIP from 2006-14 (the shifted years), he'd have notched 171 additional hits (19 per season).

Lowering the bar a bit, with 113 hits (just under 13 a year), Ortiz would be a career .300 hitter. Assuming all of those added hits were singles, his resulting .300/.392/.561 line would put him among 12 of the greatest hitters ever: Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Ted Williams, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera.

Butterfield, in fact, believes that Ortiz already belongs in that conversation.

"He can manipulate the barrel of the bat like no power hitter I've ever watched," said Butterfield. "He's the greatest hitter I've ever seen."

Yet there's at least a chance that the shift strategy that Butterfield helped to jumpstart against Ortiz has played a role in preventing Ortiz from enjoying true recognition in that category. How does the third base coach feel about that responsibility as Ortiz's first alignment enemy?

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"Honestly, it was fun being on the other side trying to defend one of the greatest hitters of all time," said Butterfield. "It's even better to be on the same side of the field and watch the way he can do things with the bat."


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.