Joey Ortiz Is Succeeding Strangely

Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

This article isn’t really about Joey Ortiz. Or, well, it is, but it’s also about how numbers will fool you. Let’s start with a few numbers, then. Ortiz is walking 12.9% of the time so far this year, far more than average and far more than he ever did in the high minors. He’s chasing pitches outside of the strike zone only 24% of the time, a huge change in approach. Last year in the minor leagues, that number stood at 34.5%. As a result, he’s swinging and missing far less often. There’s the story of how Ortiz has improved.

Just one problem: That story doesn’t hold up to closer examination. Let’s break the strike zone up into four parts the way Baseball Savant and the Statcast team do it. There’s the heart of the plate (heart), the edges of the plate and the area just off of it (shadow), the area where good breaking pitches often end up (chase), and the land of non-competitive pitches (waste). You’d expect Ortiz to swing less frequently than average at chase and waste pitches. You’d be wrong:

Ortiz Swing Rates by Zone
Zone Ortiz Swing% League Swing%
Heart 62% 73%
Shadow 40% 52%
Chase 25% 23%
Waste 6% 5%

That’s baffling. For comparison’s sake, teammate Rhys Hoskins has similar chase and zone swing rates, and he’s swinging at 17% of chase pitches and 1% of waste pitches. He’s also swinging more frequently than Ortiz at pitches over the heart of the plate.

The reason this can happen is the shadow zone. Those are the toughest pitches to judge, and in aggregate batters have a tough time telling ball from strike in that area. They’re swinging at 59.9% of shadow zone pitches that cross the zone, as opposed to 43.6% of the time at pitches that just barely miss the rulebook zone. In other words, hitters are swinging less, but they’re still getting fooled quite often. That makes good intuitive sense. When a hitter takes a pitch a fraction of an inch off the plate, someone is likely to say “I don’t know how he managed to take that” or “what a take!” It’s incredibly difficult to lay off of those near misses.

Only, it hasn’t been difficult for Ortiz. He’s fairly unremarkable when it comes to swinging at shadow pitches in the zone, which I’ll call “shadow-in” pitches; his 53% shadow-in swing rate is less than league average but not by a staggering amount. How about shadow-out? He’s suddenly Juan Soto, with a 25.2% swing rate. In fact, Soto swings 30.8% of the time at those pitches. Only three players in all of baseball – Andrew McCutchen, Jonathan India, and LaMonte Wade Jr. – are fishing less frequently on those extremely difficult pitches.

That’s impressive. But it goes from impressive to confusing when you consider the rest of what he’s doing. If a batter has the requisite skills to separate the pitches that clip the zone from the ones that just miss it, we’d expect them to mash pitches down the heart of the plate and ignore bad ones. But Ortiz isn’t doing that at all. He has one of the lowest heart of the plate swing rates in all of baseball, and he swings at pitches in the chase zone more than average.

Is this some special skill of Ortiz’s? I’m skeptical, not because of anything in particular about his game, but because it doesn’t make intuitive sense. Here’s one way of thinking about it. Here’s a curated list of players with similar gaps between their heart swing rate and chase swing rate: Adley Rutschman, Paul Goldschmidt, CJ Abrams, Logan O’Hoppe, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Bryson Stott, Sal Frelick. I don’t think of those guys as having particularly sterling batting eyes; rather, I hardly think twice about them when it comes to plate discipline. Ortiz outstrips everyone around him when it comes to discerning pitches in the shadow zone, though; the players in this cohort drop their swing rates by 13 percentage points in the transition from shadow-in to shadow-out, and he’s at 27.8 percentage points.

On the other side of the coin, consider the hitters who pick right from wrong at the margins of the zone as well as Ortiz. This group includes hitters like Francisco Lindor, Austin Riley, Masataka Yoshida, Fernando Tatis Jr., Steven Kwan, and Ian Happ. These guys know what they’re doing at the plate. But they swing at more meatballs and get fooled into swinging at fewer chase pitches than Ortiz does by a huge margin; they have a 52 percentage point gap in those two swing rates, as opposed to 37 percentage points for Ortiz.

This is a long-winded way of saying that if you’re looking for the skills that are going to make Ortiz an excellent major league hitter, you need to look beyond his eye at the plate. Does he actually have one of the best eyes in baseball? Almost certainly not. But he probably won’t swing at so few pitches over the heart of the plate going forward either, because he clearly has at least a decent sense of the zone; you don’t end up with numbers like his completely by accident.

So is he one of the best players in baseball when it comes to telling balls from strikes, or merely average? Probably somewhere in the middle, but I think he’ll continue to earn tough walks at an above-average clip. See, part of the reason that his heart swing rate is so bad is that he lets pitchers put him in a hole to start plate appearances. Ortiz takes first pitches more frequently than the league as a whole; he also takes 1-0 and 0-1 pitches more frequently than the league as a whole. Those pitches are disproportionately right down the middle of the plate.

The thing is, Ortiz doesn’t really need to do that. That approach makes more sense if you’re either a slap hitter who wants to work a walk or are hunting a pitch in a particular location. As best as I can tell, neither of these reflects who Ortiz is as a hitter. He does most of his damage right over the middle of the plate, just like you’d expect. He started hitting for more power in 2023, and that’s carried right over into 2024.

Naturally, that power isn’t so easy to understand either. Ortiz swings the bat hard and the average exit velocity of the top half of his batted balls is in the top third of the league. That’s pretty good, but nothing special. He also mishits the ball quite a lot, which is how he ends up with below average exit velocity, sweet spot rate, and squared up rate. In other words, he’s sacrificing some contact consistency to produce loud contact when he does connect.

That’s paying off, because he’s a phenomenal contact hitter. Despite his aggressive hacks, he’s making contact on 92% of the in-zone pitches he swings at, an elite rate. Combine that with his unconventional strike zone mastery, and you have a very tough out. Can you get Ortiz to swing at bad pitches? Most definitely. Is he prone to some mishits? For sure. But those are small headwinds considering all the things Ortiz is doing right at the plate.

Oh yeah, he’s a great defender, too. He’s largely played third this year, but can handle second and shortstop as well. If it weren’t for Willy Adames, he’d probably be the Brewers’ everyday shortstop, and I’d expect Ortiz to take over that role if Adames leaves in free agency after this season. Put simply, Ortiz looks like a future foundational player in Milwaukee.

He doesn’t need to keep up his current pace on offense for that to be the case, which is a good thing. I don’t think he’ll maintain either his outrageous power on contact results or his sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio. If I had to guess, I’d put him down for an offensive line around 10% better than average the rest of the way, a little worse than the expected numbers he’s produced so far in 2024 and much worse than his actual production.

That’s not a disappointment, though. If you went back in time and told last year’s Brewers fans that the team would trade Corbin Burnes, they’d be disappointed. If you told them that the return would be an excellent defensive infielder who hits for power and gets on base, they’d be excited. If you told them that infielder would be around through 2029, they’d be ecstatic. And if you told them they’d get another top prospect (left-hander DL Hall) in the bargain, they probably wouldn’t believe you. The Brewers and Orioles have both come out of the Burnes trade ahead, and Ortiz’s impressive performance is a huge reason why.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 month ago

Very happy to see Joey succeed, but I would push back on the last paragraph. A good player is exactly what it takes to trade for Corbin Burnes. It’s not some big surprising win for the Brewers.

1 month ago
Reply to  markakis21

If Ortiz is an above average infielder for a number of years, and Hall ends up being useful as well, the Brewers will likely end up way ahead on the WAR balance of the trade.

Fans consistently overestimate the value of one year of a superstar

1 month ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

I’m not the first person (or even the thousandth) to point this out, but I think prospects for superstar rentals is a case where WAR is not a good framework for evaluating the trade.

The Orioles needed Corbin Burnes more than they needed Joey Ortiz and DL Hall this year. I’m not saying those guys wouldn’t have been valuable (Hall especially with the intermittent bullpen issues this year), but they had a particular hole at starting pitcher with huge question marks on Kyle Bradish and John Means’ health.

Burnes and Ortiz are actually even right now at 1.4 fWAR, so the WAR balance might work out for Milwaukee this year.

There’s also a small benefit to denying other AL rivals Burnes, but I think that’s negligible in the scheme of things.

Last edited 1 month ago by tdmoc
30 days ago
Reply to  tdmoc

Yeah, concentrating WAR into one season and one roster spot is valuable.

The Red Sox got more fWAR (5.9 from Verdugo, and 1.5 from Wong) than the Dodgers from Betts (2.8 in the season before he was a free agent). Not sure anyone is going to argue that the Red Sox won that trade.

29 days ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The question isn’t just whether Burnes’ total WAR as an Oriole is higher or lower than the future WARs of Ortiz and Hall.

The question also must include Burnes’ effect on the Orioles chances to win a title this year. Much ink has been spilled on the difference a great starter can make in the playoffs. Further, Ortiz and Hall were essentially depth pieces for an already overcrowded team. Ortiz likely wouldn’t even be playing this year, and Hall would probably be in the bullpen, if not AAA.

I say this as a Brewer fan who is pretty happy with the trade: If Burnes helps the Orioles playoff run this year, it may be worth it.

1 month ago
Reply to  markakis21

Sort of. It takes a prospect that the other team thinks is really good to trade for Corbin Burnes. Sometimes your big prospect return ends up being more Manny Margot than Joey Ortiz. Sometimes he even winds up being more like Willie Calhoun.

Brad Johnsonmember
30 days ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The disconnect here is the Orioles were HYPED on Joey Ortiz. They absolutely loved him. Maybe they had to sell the Brewers on that love or maybe the Brewers got there on their own, but I can speak with confidence that the Orioles truly believed Ortiz to be a foundational player. If not for Jackson Holliday (and several others who look like core/role guys), they probably wouldn’t have entertained selling Ortiz even for a player like Burnes and even to fix as obvious a problem as their rotation.

I know, publicly, not much was thought of Ortiz because the stats read good-not-great, and our access to quality scouting is mostly limited to folks who are severely overtasked.

Last edited 30 days ago by Brad Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  markakis21

In any case, this is looking like a win-win at the moment. Corbin Burnes looks more like a #2 than a #1 right now but he’s been the team’s most valuable starter so far. Bradish has pitched better on a rate basis but the injury concerns make him a little worrisome. They’re 2 games back from the division lead with a similar BaseRuns record to the team ahead of them. You can see how getting Burnes has mattered a lot so far and very likely will matter going forward. And Ortiz isn’t anywhere close to this good but his xwOBA puts him somewhere in the 125-130 wRC+ range and that combined with quality infield defense is a ridiculously valuable player (like, 4+ wins). So even if his batted ball data overstates his offensive output going forward and he’s more like a 3-win player (because his swing decision data here is a little weird) that’s a fantastic return for almost anyone.