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Joey Ortiz Succeeds Strangely

Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

This article is not really about Joey Ortiz. Or, of course, but it’s also about how the numbers will fool you. Let’s start with a few numbers then. Ortiz is walking 12.9% of the time so far this year, well above average and more than he ever did in the majors. He chases pitches out of the strike zone only 24% of the time, a huge change in approach. Last year for small groups, that number stood at 34.5%. As a result, he swings and misses more often. There is a story about how Ortiz has improved.

Just one problem: That story doesn’t hold up on closer inspection. Let’s break down the strike zone into four parts the way Baseball Savant and the Statcast team do. There is the heart of the plate (the heart), the edges of the plate and the area just outside it (the shadow), the area where good breaking pitches tend to end up (the chase), and the land of non-competitive pitches (the trash). You can expect Ortiz to turn in less than average rushes and misses. You would be wrong:

Ortiz Swing Rates by Zone

Location Ortiz Swing% League Swing%
The heart 62% 73%
A shadow 40% 52%
Chase 25% 23%
Waste 6% 5%

That is confusing. For comparison’s sake, teammate Rhys Hoskins has similar chase and zone swing rates, and swings at 17% of chase pitches and 1% of drop pitches. He swings more often than Ortiz at pitches over the heart of the plate.

The reason this happens is the reputation area. Those are the hardest pitches to judge, and overall hitters have a hard time telling the ball from hitting that pitch. They throw 59.9% of the pitches that cross the zone, as opposed to 43.6% of the time on pitches that just miss the rulebook zone. In other words, hitters are less flexible, but still get fooled more often. That makes good intuitive sense. When a batter takes a pitch less than an inch at the plate, someone might say “I don’t know how you can take that” or “stop taking it!” It is very difficult to separate from those who are close.

Only, it wasn’t difficult for Ortiz. He’s not very visible when it comes to swinging in the shadow fields in the area, which I’ll call “shadows-in”; his 53% shadow swing rate is below the league average but not by a staggering amount. What about shadow-out? Suddenly Juan Soto, with a 25.2% swing rate. In fact, Soto swings 30.8% of the time on that pitch. Only three players in all of baseball – Andrew McCutchen, Jonathan India, and LaMonte Wade Jr. – slow fishers in that very difficult field.

That’s incredible. But it’s mind-bogglingly impressive when you consider everything he does. If a batter has the skills necessary to separate pitches that stick in the zone and those that just miss, we can expect them to mix pitches down in the heart of the plate and be nasty. But Ortiz doesn’t do that at all. He has the lowest heart rate for plate swings in all of baseball, and he swings at pitches in the chase zone above average.

Is this some special skill of Ortiz? I have no doubts, not because of anything specific about his game, but because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Here’s one way to think about it. Here is a selected list of players with the same gaps between their heart rate and rush 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 the most beautiful batting eyes; rather, I don’t think twice about them when it comes to plate discipline. Ortiz outshines everyone around him when it comes to dissecting the shadows, however; players in this group decrease their swing rate by 13 percent in the transition from shadow to shadow, and he is 27.8 percent.

On the other side of the coin, consider hitters who pick right from wrong on the edge of the zone and Ortiz. This group includes hitters such as Francisco Lindor, Austin Riley, Masataka Yoshida, Fernando Tatis Jr., Steven Kwan, and Ian Happ. These guys know what they are doing at the plate. But they throw in more meatballs and get tricked into swinging at fewer chase spots than Ortiz does with a big mag; they have a 52 percent gap in those two swing rates, as opposed to Ortiz’s 37 percent mark.

This is the long-winded way that if you’re looking for the skills that will make Ortiz hit the big leagues, you need to look beyond his eyes at the plate. Do you have the best eyes in baseball? Probably not. But he probably won’t turn a few layers over the heart of the forward plate either, because he obviously has a decent sense of place; you don’t end up with numbers like his by accident.

So are you one of the best players in baseball when it comes to telling balls from strikes, or just average? Maybe somewhere in between, but I think you’ll continue to get a rough ride in an above-average clip. You see, part of the reason his heart rate is so bad is that he lets pitchers put him in the hole to start making plate appearances. Ortiz takes first pitches more often than the league as a whole; he also takes 1-0 and 0-1 pitches more often than the league as a whole. Those areas don’t exactly fit in the center of the plate.

The thing is, Ortiz doesn’t really need to do that. That approach makes more sense if you’re a trailblazer who wants to hike or hunt a field in a certain area. To the best of my knowledge, none of this reflects who Ortiz is as a hitter. He does his most damage in the middle of the plate, as you would expect. He started hitting for more power in 2023, and that continued into 2024.

Naturally, that power is not easy to understand either. Ortiz swings the bat hard and his average exit velocity in the top half of his batted balls is in the top third of the league. That’s nice, but nothing special. He also hits the ball hard, which is how he ends up with a below-average exit velocity, sweet rate, and high square rate. In other words, he sacrifices some consistency in order to produce a greater connection when he connects.

It pays off, because you’re a hit man. Despite his aggressive swing, he makes contact on 92% of the in-zone pitches he swings at, a career high. Combine that with his uncanny mastery of the terrain, and you’ve got a serious problem. Can you get Ortiz to turn in bad places? Certainly. Do you tend to have mishits? Definitely. But those are small spirits considering all the things Ortiz does at the plate.

Oh yeah, he’s a great defender, too. He has played third this year, but he can handle second and shortstop. If it weren’t for Willy Adames, he would probably be the Brewers’ everyday shortstop, and I would expect Ortiz to take over that role if Adames leaves in free agency after this season. Simply put, Ortiz looks like the first baseman of the future in Milwaukee.

He doesn’t have to keep doing his crimes for that to happen, which is good. I don’t think he’ll retain his terrific power in contact hits or his good strikeout rate. If I had to guess, I’d peg him for a 10% better than average offensive line overall, worse than the projected numbers he’s produced so far in 2024 and worse than his actual production.

However, that is not a disappointment. If you were to go back and tell Brewers fans from last year that the team was going to trade Corbin Burnes, they would be disappointed. If you tell them that the return will be a good defensive player who hits hard and is down, they will be happy. If you tell them that the midfielder will be around until 2029, they will be very happy. And if you told them they were going to get another top prospect (left tackle DL Hall) in the deal, they probably wouldn’t believe it. The Brewers and Orioles have both come out of trades for Burnes before, and Ortiz’s incredible performance is a big reason why.

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