Sneak Peeks: Ramiro Mendoza, David Ortiz, and the art of guessing a player’s age

June 26th, 2006 → 9:34 pm @

This is the second in an occasional series of Sneak Peeks from Feeding the Monster. In the section below, which takes place in January 2003, the Red Sox debate whether to offer David Ortiz, recently released by the Minnesota Twins, a one-year contract. This excerpt is in honor of Ortiz’s walk-off single in the 12th inning of today’s Red Sox-Phillies game, Ortiz’s second walk-off hit in as many games and his 13th game-winner (10th in the regular season) since signing with the Sox.

At the beginning of the offseason, the team had compiled a list of about 15 first basemen and designated hitters who might be available for a discount. They’d gotten Jeremy Giambi and still hoped to get Kevin Millar. As a backup, they had pursued options like free agents Brad Fullmer, Greg Colbrunn, and Travis Lee. Another name on the list belonged to a burly 27-year-old Dominican left-handed hitter: David Ortiz. …

Within the Red Sox, Ortiz intrigued virtually everyone involved in the discussions. One of the scouts loved his swing–it was, he said, a thing of beauty. After looking over his hit location charts, Theo Epstein’s crew thought he was likely the type of player who would be able to take advantage of the left field wall in Fenway. Bill James liked the fact that, while he hit only .234 in 2001, his secondary average was almost .400. (“That’s my kind of player,” James says.) Dave Jauss, a scout who was down in the Dominican Republic for the winter, reported that in the winter-ball leagues on the island, Ortiz was a superstar, as big as Manny Ramirez or the Montreal Expos’ Vladimir Guerrero. Finally, Epstein was consciously trying to find players who could help make the Red Sox clubhouse a more positive place to be, and Ortiz, like Millar, had a reputation for being both outgoing and upbeat, which Epstein felt was crucial at that moment in the team’s history. …

That’s not to say the Red Sox didn’t have reservations. Most pressing were their concerns about Ortiz’s age–foreign-born players are known to claim to be younger than they really are so it will seem as if their peak years are still ahead of them, and Ortiz had given his age as 17 when he broke into professional baseball in the States a decade earlier. Instead of simply throwing up his hands, Epstein asked James to see if he could find a way to determine anything further about Ortiz’s likely age. “I did a study of his career progression up to that point, identifying historical players who had very similar career paths up to that point in time, and concluded that, on average, they were exactly the age that David claimed to be,” says James. “That was a fun little study. I had never done anything like that before.” With that settled, Epstein made his move, acquiring the player that would change both Epstein’s and the Red Sox’s futures. On January 22, 2003, the Red Sox signed David Ortiz to a one-year, $1.25 million deal.

“We knew he had breakout potential,” says Epstein. … Still, not long before the Sox signed Ortiz they inked former Yankees pitcher Ramiro Mendoza to a two-year deal worth $6.5 million and, as Bill James notes, “We weren’t any more excited about the one than we were about the other.”

There are many more exclusive details about the acquisition of David Ortiz, the work of Bill James, and the formation of the Best Hitting Team Ever Assembled in Feeding the Monster, out July 11 from Simon & Schuster.

Post Categories: Bill James & David Ortiz & Feeding the Monster Sneak Peeks & Red Sox & Theo Epstein

Statistics, clutch hitting, and the left arm of God

June 13th, 2006 → 11:40 am @

On Sunday afternoon, David Ortiz, after being down 0-2 to Rangers closer Akinori Otsuka, hit his sixth regular-season walk-off home run since 2003; those, of course, go along with the two walk-offs he had in the 2004 playoffs and the four other walk-off hits he’s had over that same time period. (Check out this photo gallery for some great shots of those moments.) Ortiz’s monster shot into the right-field bleachers raises a couple of interesting questions. First, why in the world would managers keep pitching to Ortiz when the game is on the line? I know, I know, walking Ortiz would have loaded the bases for Manny Ramirez, with his 20 career grand slams (behind only Lou Gehrig’s 23 on the all-time list). But isn’t Ortiz recognized as the best clutch hitter of his generation, a sort of anti A-Rod?

Well, yes and no. Since the advent of sabermetrics a couple of decades ago, there’s been a good amount of debate concerning whether or not clutch hitting truly exists. Bill James, who helped pioneer the field and now works as an advisor to the Red Sox, initially said no; recently, he says he’s changed his mind. Then, in a new book published this spring, writers from Baseball Prospectus argued that Ortiz’s lifetime clutch rating is essentially zero. “[M]ost of the damage was limited to just two seasons, 2000 and 2005,” BP’s Nate Silver writes. “It isn’t a bad track record, but if clutch hitting really exists, one would expect more consistency out of the ‘greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox.'”

Silver’s analysis shows how easy it can be to use statistics to prove almost anything—and how difficult it can be to figure out the best way to use data so that you’re truly learning something. Since winning a full-time job with the Red Sox a couple of months in to the 2003 season, Ortiz has become a much smarter hitter: he’s closed up his holes and has learned to foul off pitches he used to whiff at. It stands to reason that his performance in clutch situations has improved as well; indeed, his epic at bat against Esteban Loaiza in Game 5 of the 2004 American League Championship Series—an at bat Theo Epstein called one of the greatest of all time—was a gorgeous example of a hitter wasting pitches until he got one he could handle. And since October 2004, Ortiz has come up big again and again and again. (As soon as Ortiz connected with Otsuka’s pitch, Sox broadcaster Don Orsillo screamed, “How many times can he go to the well?”) The fact that over the entirety of Ortiz’s career–including the years in which the Twins wanted him “to hit like a little bitch”–Ortiz’s clutch performances come out as a wash doesn’t really tell us anything about what kind of hitter he’s been for the last several seasons.

“I’m still not sure exactly how to measure clutch hitting,” Bill James told me last year. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Here James, generally an understated man, paused for a moment. “Watching Ortiz, it’s hard to think it doesn’t.”

There’s more–much more–about Ortiz, clutch hitting, Bill James, and what life is like inside a Major League Baseball organization in my book Feeding the Monster, due out in July.

UPDATE: In Michael Silverman’s Red Sox Notebook he writes that Ortiz’s walkoff on Sunday was the first “two-out walkoff blast by a player whose team trailed by at least two runs since Brad Wilkerson of Montreal did it July 17, 2003.” Ortiz is also the first person to have a game-ending home run in five straight seasons since the Crime Dog did it from 1993 to 1997.

Post Categories: Baseball & Bill James