Walking Ortiz

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The big discussion on Mike and Mike (and around the baseball world) this morning is whether the Cardinals should be pitching to the Red Sox slugger, David Ortiz. Big Papi is having a World Series for the ages. After going 3 for 4 last night, including a first inning double that drove in Dustin Pedroia, Papi is hitting a ridiculous .733 through five World Series games (he’s also now the all-time leader in OPS in the World Series for players with a minimum of 40 plate appearances. Numbers two and three on the list – Ruth and Gehrig. That’s pretty nice company).

Meanwhile, I don’t think a single other Red Sock has a hit in the World Series so far, except for Laser Show (OK, a slight exaggeration, but the team is hitting about .150 exclusive of Ortiz). So, all of this has raised the question – why in the world are the Cardinals pitching to Ortiz? Greenberg kept repeating a tweet he sent out this morning that if the Cardinals let Ortiz beat them, “they deserve to lose.” Most folks with whom Greenie consulted this morning, including Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and (through Stark) Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, said it was a no-brainer. If the Sox have a guy on base, and Ortiz comes up with a base open, you have to walk him and take your chances with Gomes, or Nava or Napoli or whoever else is coming up next (Gomes, who batted behind Ortiz last night, is hitting .071, but his one hit was the three run blow that essentially won game four for the Bosox).

In retropsect, lots of events take on the air of inevitability. Our brains are programmed to impute to past events an arc and a train of causation. We are wired to be story tellers and randomness is a hard concept for us to grasp. None of this says that those who think the Cards should avoid Papi are wrong. But it is to say that it seems more obvious *after* the big fella has done his damage, that it was wrong to let him hit. We don’t actually know what Ortiz is going to do his next time up, even if it seems obvious, based on his hitting so far in the World Series, that of *course* he’s going to hit a frozen rope somewhere if he gets the chance. Just like we don’t know that Gomes and Napoli are going to continue to struggle at the plate, just because they haven’t hit so far. Five games is, after all, a pretty small sample size (to use a now favored expression of sports commentators, even if they’re not quite sure what it means).

Part of what’s going on here is a tendency to discount the significance of walks. In this regard, of course, and thanks first and foremost to the work of Bill James, walks are understood very differently than they were twenty years ago. And in some circumstances, like walking a guy to lead off an inning, people grasp clearly its significance. But in situations like the ones we’re talking about – walking a slugger with a base open – there is still a tendency to see that almost as a non-event.

A few years ago, Bill James wanted to answer the question – is there such a thing as a hitter so good that it makes sense to walk him every time. To answer that question, he undertook a cute little exercise in which he ran two simulations. In each, he set his lineup to include the Babe Ruth of 1921 – having perhaps his best season – and an otherwise below average group of players, including guys like Jamie Quirk and Gerald Perry.  In 1921, Ruth smashed 59 home runs (no one else hit more than 24 in the AL that year) and batted .378. James actually made Ruth a little better than he really was, turning him into a .385 hitter for the purposes of the computer runs. He ran a thousand seasons under two conditions. In one, he walked Ruth every time (and everyone else did what they normally did). In the other, he “pitched” to Ruth, as would normally have happened in Ruth’s (enhanced) 1921 season.

The results: “It’s not even close. Walking Ruth every time does far, far more harm then good, even under these impossibly extreme conditions.” The team on which Ruth is walked every time is still really bad. But they score 66 more runs than the team on which the normal, historically good Ruth is hitting away. The guy providing “protection” behind Ruth in the lineup was the immortal Gino Cimoli. In the season James chose for him, Cimoli hit nine homeruns and batted .267. When Ruth is walked every time, Cimoli drives in 151 runs. In other words, a scrub becomes a Lou Gehrig-like RBI guy when the batter in front of him walks every single time. As James says, if he put a decent hitter behind Ruth in that condition, the player would drive in 200 runs.

In the crucible of a World Series, where every at bat is so important and a guy hits as well as Ortiz is hitting, it’s easy to understand the instinct to just avoid him. But this may be a case where our “sense” of the situation is deceiving us. We don’t know what Ortiz will do in his next few at bats any more than we know what the guy in the lineup behind him will do (and it’s not as if the pitcher is batting after Ortiz). The only thing we know with certitude is that walking a guy pretty much every time is a boon to that team’s offense. I wouldn’t blame the Cardinals for pitching around Ortiz. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

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