I was in the Sox clubhouse on Thursday with WEEI.com and one thing stuck out at me — Clay Buchholz playing Plants vs. Zombies on the leather couch on his iPad. Having played Plants vs. Zombies for hours on my friend’s magical device, I can understand the addiction.
Thursday was also the day that David Ortiz railed against the media, Buster Olney of ESPN in particular, for criticizing him after his horrendous start to the year. I was not around for that particular encounter but the fallout has been pretty interesting.
“I was watching the other day this guy named Buster Olney,’’ Ortiz said of the ESPN baseball reporter. “He was 100 percent saying that I can’t hit inside fastballs anymore. [He] needs to sit down and watch the game because I don’t get pitched inside.
“When people try to get me out, they go away. This guy was talking that I can’t hit inside pitches and I was like, ‘What is this guy watching? When was the last time he sat down to watch a game?’
“I would like somebody to give this guy a call and sit [him] down to watch a game and see how many inside pitches I get, how many of those inside fastball strikes I get. I guarantee you that if he sees one the whole game, it’s a lot, because they don’t pitch me in. So don’t be saying that.’’
Ortiz cannot hit the inside fastball? Who is right here, Olney (who I respect quite a bit) or Ortiz?
So, I decided to go to the Pitch f/x data from Brooks Baseball to figure it out. This is by no means a definitive answer to the question but it is interesting to study. I picked two games against the Yankees at random, both from May, one home, one away. I chose the Yankees because, really, if any team has a good plan on how to approach Ortiz, it would be New York. Familiarity breeds contempt and all of that. Anyway, the first game was May 9 at Fenway for Sunday Night Baseball. Ortiz went 1 for 4 with a double, run scored and an RBI. The starting pitcher was A.J. Burnett.
Burnett was not afraid to come inside on Ortiz, though he did not hit the strike zone much when he did. The first at bat, Burnett stayed in the middle to outer side of the plate against Ortiz at all and the designated hitter flew out in the second inning. The third at bat, in the fifth inning, resulted in a ground out and Burnett came inside twice, both balls and one a fastball at 91 MPH. The ground out came on a pitch dead in the middle of the zone at 93 MPH, which does not really give much indication either way on how Ortiz was turning on the ball. Ground outs happen, hitters fail 75 to 80 percent of the time, even against mediocre to poor pitchers.
The double came in the third inning and Burnett came inside on Ortiz twice with the fastball, one out of the zone on the fifth pitch (at 2.00 feet relative to the plate, basically meaning straight at the batter) at 94 MPH and once in the zone at 95 MPH on the inner half of the plate, about belt high at .5. That was the seventh pitch of the at bat and Ortiz punched it for the double.
Ortiz struck out against Romulo Sanchez in the eighth on a curveball on the outside edge of the zone. Sanchez did not come to the inner half of the plate once against Ortiz.
The data from Burnett showed that when he did come in on Ortiz, he came in with breaking stuff or so far inside that he was brushing Ortiz off the plate.
The next game I chose was from this last Monday at Yankee Stadium, the game Papelbon blew when he served up a walk-off dinger to Marcus Thames in the ninth. Ortiz was 2 for 4 with a home run in the game and was 1 for 2 against the Yankees’ starter Phil Hughes.
Hughes did not seem afraid to come inside on Ortiz, coming into the inner foot of the strike zone twice with 94 MPH fastballs in his first at bat before getting him to fly out on a ball away. The home run, pictured with the f/x data above, was in the fourth inning and was on the inner edge of the strike zone at 88 MPH. Ortiz turned on the slider and put it over the wall for the solo shot. Now, the pitch was not a fastball but it was an example of a pitcher coming inside on Ortiz and paying the price for it.
So, was Buster wrong? Not exactly. Pitchers do come inside on Ortiz with the fastball but for the most part they like to stay middle/away. Ortiz, for the most part, has the scouting on himself correct and in the month of May has turned it around to the point that opposing pitchers probably do not want to look on the inner half for strikes on the big man.
As far as clubhouse frustration boiling over? Let’s put it like this — if Ortiz is smiling, then the rest of the league better watch out.