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Alex Speier

David Ortiz is hammering baseballs, so why is he slumping?

David Ortiz is hitting .219 this season.
David Ortiz is hitting .219 this season.(Getty Images)

David Ortiz is hitting baseballs as hard as Mike Trout.

That’s not entirely accurate. Baseballs have come off Trout’s bat, according to MLB At-Bat data compiled at BaseballSavant.com, with an average exit velocity of 92.60 mph, 15th best in the big leagues. Ortiz trails him, at 92.49 mph, 16th best in the majors.

So, advantage Trout. Still, the marks are so close that they force a reconsideration of exactly what Ortiz’s considerable struggles to this point in the year actually suggest.

After all, Ortiz (6 homers, .219 average, .297 OBP, .362 slugging) ranks ahead of players such as Todd Frazier (17 homers, .293/.363/.604), Albert Pujols (16 HR, .264/.316/.523), and Jose Abreu (11 HR, .283/.339/.500) in terms of the speed at which baseballs are flying off his bat.

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The fact that Ortiz ranks in the top 20 in Major League Baseball in exit velocity is intriguing, given that the other members of the group represent something of a who’s-who of the game’s top sluggers, with names like Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, and Josh Donaldson near the top of the list. Meanwhile, lining up Ortiz’s statistics next to the other members of the MLB top 20 in exit velocity is something of an exercise in “one of these things is not like the other.”

No one else in the top-20 group is hitting below .240. Ortiz has a .297 OBP; the only two players with worse OBPs in the top-20 exit velocity group (Ryan Howard and Mark Trumbo) have drastically higher strikeout and lower walk rates than Ortiz. Of the group, Ortiz has a middle-of-the-pack walk rate – just over one walk per 10 plate appearances, ninth best in this group – that suggests solid if not elite pitch selectivity and the third-lowest strikeout rate of this group.

Ortiz has a .372 slugging percentage, last on the list by a lot. In fact, only one other player (whiff machine Jorge Soler of the Cubs, with a .403 slugging percentage) has a slugging mark under .450. If Soler made contact as often as Ortiz, his slugging percentage would be considerably higher.

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Top average exit velocity
BABIP = batting average on balls in play
Avg. Exit Velocity HR BABIP
Giancarlo Stanton 98.51 21 .274
Joc Pederson 95.18 17 .297
Josh Donaldson 94.06 17 .326
Pedro Alvarez 93.9 10 .272
Miguel Cabrera 93.61 12 .361
Yasmani Grandal 93.6 6 .317
Ryan Braun 93.56 13 .273
Alex Rodriguez 93.54 11 .307
Jorge Soler 93.48 4 .383
Jose Bautista 93.35 11 .259
Paul Goldschmidt 93.23 17 .396
Prince Fielder 92.99 10 .370
Mark Trumbo 92.82 9 .273
Ryan Howard 92.69 11 .281
Mike Trout 92.6 16 .313
David Ortiz 92.49 6 .234
Freddie Freeman 92.36 10 .363
Todd Frazier 92.3 17 .294
Albert Pujols 92.28 16 .233
Jose Abreu 92.18 11 .310
SOURCE: BaseballSavant.com, Fangraphs.com

There is the possibility that Ortiz has encountered a considerable run of bad luck. Even though he's hitting the ball hard, he has a career-worst .234 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a mark that is well below his career-average BABIP of .300 and that ranks 19th in this group of 20 hitters. (Many of the hardest hit balls by Albert Pujols, who ranks 20th on the list, don't count towards BABIP, since he's launched 16 homers -- which count as balls not in play.)

Of course, increased sophistication of shifts against Ortiz might also contribute to the frequency with which his well-struck balls turn into outs, but a.) that seems like an incomplete explanation and b.) it doesn't mean that his physical skills have eroded to the point of rendering it unlikely that he will contribute.

It doesn’t make sense. Ortiz is doing a credible job of getting the bat on the ball, and when he does, he’s hitting it as hard as some of baseball’s elite sluggers, yet his offensive line is terrible. The fact he is hitting the ball hard and frequently suggests that the questions about whether he still has the physical skill to play – and perform as a middle-of-the-order hitter – might be at least somewhat misplaced.

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That’s not to suggest that Ortiz shouldn’t be sitting against lefties. His staggeringly poor performance against lefties (.114 average, .111 OBP, .157 slugging mark, 0 homers, 0 walks, 14 strikeouts in 72 plate appearances) isn’t something the Sox can endure at a time when their offense is mired in a mess, especially given the additional benefit of getting Hanley Ramirez out of left field. Given that Ortiz has yet to take a walk against a lefty this year, after 72 plate appearances, it’s fair to suggest that career track record can’t rule the day when it comes to playing or sitting him against southpaws.

But against righthanded pitchers, there’s a different story. Ortiz remains formidable. He’s posted a .278 average, .387 OBP, and .492 slugging mark against pitchers of the opposite hand.

There is a strange home (.355/.461/.565) vs. road (.203/.311/.422) component to that success against righties, but a shockingly low .196 batting average on balls in play against righties on the road suggests that the marks as a visitor may climb considerably.

In other words, against righthanded pitchers, there’s plenty – how hard he’s hitting the ball, his plate discipline, and frequency of contact – to suggest that even if he’s not exactly what he’s been in recent years, he’s close enough to it that Ortiz can remain a potent lineup presence.

The sort of contact that he’s making is not that of a player who has already staggered past the finish line.

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