Facing the Boston Red Sox is a tall order, no matter the stage. But after they shook off the yolk of a foul curse a decade ago, somehow the autumn weather has blessed them with uncanny greatness.
A lot of that centers around the spiritual anchor, on-field (sometimes) mascot, and their best hitter this season, David Ortiz. The man is simply great in the postseason, his .962 October OPS nearly 30 points higher than his career numbers, and even eight points higher than his OPS in Boston where he truly flourished. As we saw in 2013, he can wreak havoc in a series. This is the man the Cleveland Indians must deal with over a five-game series, and suffer his attacks. There is no stopping David Ortiz, especially not this year. There is only managing him.
Stopping David Ortiz is easier said than done
How does one manage the hideous assault that Ortiz can bring? He’s done damage everywhere, to everyone and in every situation and he shines brightest when the lights are brightest. Plus, this year he’s somehow been on an incredible higher level. He’s making contact on balls in the zone 90.5 percent of the time, the highest rate of his career. His 46.1 percent hard-hit ball rate is the second highest rate of his career. He’s also pulling the ball 48 percent of the time, his highest rate since 2004. As much as the 1.021 OPS, 163 wRC+ and 86 extra-base hits describe his assault, hearing how he’s doing it just paints a more dread picture. He's just hitting the ball incredibly hard.
Or, for an actual picture, here’s his slugging percentage based on where he hits the ball in the zone:
It’s terrifying. You give him a chance, and he apparently pounds it. Amazing for a man in his 20th year of professional baseball. Really, the numbers are amazing for anyone. The Indians need to handle this onslaught, and there may be something inside this that gives a chance.
Earlier this week. MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian wrote a piece about the duel that would occur between Trevor Bauer and his curve that’s so deadly low in the zone and Ortiz, who kills low balls. Bastian included this image in his piece:
He's hitting well over .300 all over the lower part of the zone, only topped by balls away. But there’s something there. Ortiz hits well low in the zone, but the slugging percentage is lower, meaning less bases per at-bat. Obviously balls low in the zone have a tendency to turn into grounders, and grounders are harder to get extra bases out of, but this could be something, at least. The Indians sport an excellent infield defense, centered around Francisco Lindor. Taking advantage of this tendency for Ortiz to hit low balls on the ground (as is the case with any hitter, really) and relying on his slow speed and the range of the infield could negate some of the damage and make more outs, which is the real hope. Some of those grounders will leak through, but I’ll take a base hit over a booming home run. His fly balls just go too far.
Indians pitchers match up well against Big Papi
The top two pitchers on the Indians, meaning Bauer and Corey Kluber, do have a repertoire that benefits them, at least in theory. Bauer’s curve, as noted earlier, is likely to get hit, but grounders are good news here. Bauer hopefully refines his pitch selection from seven or eight down to his best four, but who are any of us to second guess him. But his working low in the zone with the curve may work in his favor. The key point, as ever, is location. That, along with his penchant to throw hard up in the zone and hopefully not in a hittable area, could be to his credit As shown above, Ortiz has his worst hitting numbers on balls up, likely a slowed bat issue from ageing.
Kluber has that cutter of his that, while rarely thrown, is very effective. It’s his second best pitch behind his slurve, which is one of the best pitches in the game. He can bury it on the hands of lefties, just the place Ortiz has his worst numbers. Between that, his slurve, and hopefully well-located sinkers, perhaps it could keep the old man off balance.
Then there’s Andrew MIller. With how good Miller has been, this is the time I worry the baseball gods will curse him with a big Ortiz hit. But realistically, he’s just the best LOOGY ever, and Ortiz is just the person he exists to eliminate in a big moment. So with these three, at least, there are some islands the Tribe could leap to, to avoid Ortiz-related pain.
Terry Francona, secret weapon
If there’s one manager I’m confident can minimize the damage Ortiz can cause in a series, it’s Terry Francona. This really has nothing to do with knowing some kind of weakness in Ortiz’s game, since if there were one at this point in his career teams would have taken advantage of it already. No, this is about the practice Francona has had in facing Miguel Cabrera 18ish times a year since coming to Cleveland.
It’s not that Cabrera hasn’t had his good luck with the Indians under Francona’s watch, he's creamed them most years. But there have been things tried to keep him quiet. Remember when they just walked Cabrera constantly last year? It didn’t work that well, Cabrera still had an OPS over 1.100 that year, but it was something, it was an effort to mitigate the big guy in the lineup. He was much worse this year than in years past, "only" logging an .876 OPS against the Indians, in large part because his BABIP dropped more than 100 points. Whether this is related to defensive improvements, some secret, or just an excellent pitching staff most of the year remains the question. But if it’s either of the first two, it at least lends itself well to facing Ortiz. If it was the third, there's a real problem. But a two in three chance is... something.
Perhaps that’s the answer though, is the 2015 method. As we learned from the 1980’s classic film War Games, the only way to win sometimes is to not play at all. The Red Sox are a very athletic team, able to get around the bases and go first to third on singles, score from first on a double, steal and do all that other "little things" stuff. Except Ortiz.
At this point he is the very definition of a plodding DH. He really always has been, but as his career winds down it’s almost amazing he hit so many doubles.A testament to his ability to hit the ball really hard. But that lack of speed could play into the Indians’ favor. It’s never ideal to automatically give a guy a base, and there are likely to be points where the men in front of him get on. But given the chance, there’s a decent possibility Fracona will just opt to let someone else do damage. Ortiz is having such an amazing season, so much better at the plate than any of his teammates. Maybe it would be a good idea to just take the bat out of his hands.
You won't like David Ortiz when he's angry
The trouble with any of this is, it angers the Ortiz. More than almost any player I’ve seen, the pure passion Ortiz can play with for short stretches is terrifying. Remember when Danny Salazar complained about a rainout that made it so he couldn’t face Ortiz? And when they finally did, this bulletin board material led, at least in part, to a 4-for-4, two double and a homer day for the big guy. If, time and again, the Indians take the bat out of his hands, there will come that time that they can’t.
Then he’ll get that scowl, that tight-eyed glare at the pticher as he digs a divot for himself and ultimately launches a ball to the upper deck. Giving him inconsequential moments to bat in would be ideal, but it’s about creating them. How you remove the emotion from the man's game is the real question. The easy answer is to do the opposite, let him get singles and doubles and get everyone else out. Make him flail at nothing. But that sound really dangerous.
Ultimately, he’s going to have a big hit. I don’t expect a sweep for the Indians, but they can still win. Dealing with number 34 is going to be trouble though. It’s heartening the Indians were able to negate an offense with similar potential in Detroit, but Boston is everything Detroit was supposed to be, and more. All those young athletes, the timeliness of Dustin Pedroia as well as Ortiz, they’re going to do damage. But like with Miguel Cabrera, like with any great hitter, it’s vital to not let David Ortiz beat you.
Easier said than done.