Assigning Responsibility for David Ortiz

Nothing against Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but I just had to look it up to make sure that the game-winner was hit by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It was an important hit to win Game 2, of course, and it was sharply struck, but that was a fairly obvious run-scoring situation, and more importantly, what people are really going to remember is David Ortiz. What was on people’s minds at the time was David Ortiz and his first-pitch game-tying grand slam. In the same way the US didn’t win gold by beating the Soviets in 1980, the Red Sox didn’t beat the Tigers on the strength of Ortiz’s slam, but it was the slam that provided the moment. What came after only make sure the slam didn’t go to waste.

Naturally, there’s the same issue as there was with Jose Lobaton: we don’t yet know how this will really be remembered, in the long run, because the series still has at least three more games to go, and an eventual Red Sox loss would color everything that came before the decision. The magnitude of Ortiz’s heroics will be determined over the course of the following week. But one does still get the sense this won’t be forgotten as quickly as Lobaton’s bomb, even if the Sox do lose, just considering the circumstances and the identities. The moment became an instant legend. So who do we blame? That’s how we’re supposed to do this, right? Who screwed up, to allow Ortiz to bring the Sox back? Or did no one screw up, and did Ortiz just pull some more magic out of his tuckus?

Just to re-visit: it was 5-1, and the bases were loaded, and there were two outs in the bottom of the eighth. Jose Veras opened and pitched to two batters. Drew Smyly followed and pitched to one batter. Al Alburquerque followed and pitched to two batters. Then it was left up to Joaquin Benoit, who gave away the lead with his first pitch. So immediately one should question whether Benoit was the right guy to have in there.

Seems to me there were five options:

  • leave Smyly in from the beginning, don’t use Alburquerque
  • leave in Alburquerque to pitch to Ortiz
  • bring in Phil Coke
  • bring in Jose Alvarez
  • bring in Benoit

Ortiz has a demonstrated platoon split, and it’s clear no matter how you futz with the numbers. He’s worse against left-handed pitchers, but for the Tigers, Alvarez isn’t a very good left-handed pitcher, so that’s out of the question. Coke hasn’t been any good, so that’s out of the question, too. The other lefty is Smyly, but to have Smyly set up to pitch to Ortiz, he would’ve had to pitch to the right-handed Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia. So while Smyly would’ve provided better odds against Ortiz, he would’ve provided worse odds against the two guys in between than Alburquerque. Removing Smyly only looks worse in hindsight.

So if you remove Smyly, and you ignore Coke and Alvarez, you’re left with either Alburquerque or Benoit to face Ortiz. The last three years, they’ve both been excellent against lefties — the former’s allowed a .239 wOBA, while the latter’s allowed a .277 wOBA. They’ve been good for plenty of strikeouts, while Alburquerque’s been a little more wild, and in that situation Jim Leyland preferred to go to his closer, who he can also trust to throw more strikes. Benoit’s splitter has allowed him to neutralize lefties almost as much as he’s neutralized righties, and while the matchup clearly didn’t work out, I don’t think it’s Leyland who made the mistake. Benoit might not have been the absolute best answer, I don’t know, but he wasn’t a bad answer. It looks bad to have a righty facing a lefty Ortiz in that spot, but that righty’s been good against lefties, and pitcher splits play a bigger role than hitter splits.

So anyway, about Joaquin Benoit vs. David Ortiz:


Benoit and Alex Avila elected to go with a first-pitch splitter. The video makes it look like the splitter hung over the middle of the plate, where in reality it was ticketed for the outer edge. The velocity, though, allowed Ortiz to get out in front of it, yanking the ball to right-center instead of threatening the wall in left. Ortiz hit the ball out in front of the plate, before it could complete its movement.

Sometimes — oftentimes — the mistake is a mistake in location. What struck me here was that Benoit hit his spot almost perfectly, if you assume that his spot was Avila’s glove. Here’s the point of contact:


Let’s rewind. Here’s Avila flashing a target as Benoit was in the early stages of his delivery:


Here’s Avila preparing to catch the pitch, not yet realizing the ball was screaming in the other direction:


The glove is in the same spot, basically. Ortiz hit the ball out in front, and the ball then wasn’t right where the glove was, but then there are still some feet between the front of the plate and the catcher’s glove, and pitches continue to move in that space. When Avila signaled for a spot with his glove, the spot was a little above the glove, and a little more over the plate. That’s where the pitch would’ve had to cross the front plane in order to reach that location behind it.

So even if Benoit missed a little, he didn’t miss badly. He threw a pitch in the zone near the edge, and you don’t want to try to go too far out of the zone with a first-pitch ball with the bases loaded. That’s not even a typical Ortiz power zone — since 2010, here’s the only home run Ortiz has hit against a right-handed pitcher with a pitch around that spot. He hit it to left-center. Ortiz has had some success turning those pitches into hits, but not so much dingers. Benoit hasn’t had many of those pitches turned into dingers, either.

So if it’s not an issue of pitch location, might it be an issue of pitch selection? As it turns out, yes, exactly that:


Ortiz was sitting on a first-pitch splitter, so when he got a first-pitch splitter, he was prepared to kill it. He figured the Tigers were giving him a lot of first-pitch offspeed stuff. But then, the Tigers couldn’t have known what Ortiz was sitting on. Had they gotten predictable? Was there reason for the Tigers to believe Ortiz would know what was coming?

The first two times Ortiz batted Sunday, he got a curveball and a changeup to start off. The next time, though, he got a first-pitch fastball, so that could’ve messed with his internal calculations. Of the eight other times Benoit has faced Ortiz in the PITCHf/x era, seven of those plate appearances began with fastballs. Benoit, usually, throws first-pitch fastballs to lefties about three-quarters of the time. Ortiz, obviously, had an idea, and it worked out for him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Tigers should’ve been wise to his thinking. The earlier fastball demonstrated it wasn’t all going to be offspeed. Benoit doesn’t throw a ton of first-pitch splits. You don’t expect a guy to swing at the first pitch off a fresh reliever, and you certainly don’t expect him to swing at a first-pitch non-fastball, so Avila and the Tigers might’ve figured they could steal a first-pitch strike with a splitter in the corner of the zone. In retrospect, they should’ve thrown a fastball, but I don’t think they were wrong to do what they did.

So what’s left? Did the Tigers do everything right, and did Ortiz just beat them, the way Jose Lobaton beat a good Koji Uehara splitter? Bringing in Benoit was justifiable. Throwing a pitch in that location was justifiable. Throwing a splitter in those circumstances was justifiable. The only thing I haven’t touched on yet is the movement. And, whoops.

Benoit threw four splitters in the eighth inning. Here are their vertical movement readings, from PITCHf/x:

  • 5.0
  • 0.2
  • -0.2
  • 0.2

The first one is the splitter to Ortiz. The way this works, that means the first splitter had about five fewer inches of vertical break than the subsequent three. So, it dove less, with the subsequent three being more like Benoit’s usual splitters. In layman’s terms: the splitter to Ortiz was unusually flat. It didn’t not break, but it didn’t break very much, certainly not relative to Benoit’s usual, and inches make all kinds of difference. You might have heard before that baseball is a game of them. The ball didn’t come out of Benoit’s hand just right, so while it was the right pitch in the right spot, it wasn’t the right quality of splitter, and I suspect this mattered. It was a splitter that hung too much, and Ortiz did with it what one is supposed to do with pitches that hang. Who knows what the outcome is there if the pitch is more sharp? It’s a pitch that gets a lot of swings and misses. It’s a pitch that gets a lot of groundballs. Benoit made a mistake after all: he didn’t throw his pitch well enough, and a splitter without enough dive is a slow, bad two-seam fastball. That has “bad” right in the description.

Three of Joaquin Benoit’s splitters Sunday night were more or less fine. One was atypically flat, and it’s a splitter Red Sox fans might be seeing for the rest of their lives. It’s yet to be determined just how well this showdown will be remembered, but the potential is there for this to be recalled as something legendary. Give just a few inches, and you can bring a team to life.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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This is very interesting look at that pitch and situation. I wonder though, if Benoit’s splitter would have broken more if Ortiz wouldn’t have hit I out in front of the plate. This may have already been taken into account in the calculations but splitters have a lot if late movement, so it might just be that Ortiz caught I early in the break.