Player-A-Day: David Ortiz

Welcome to Player-A-Day. The purpose of this column is to identify interesting major league players who may be fantasy-relevant in 2014. We will discuss the real-world roles the player may fill, set a range of potential expectations, identify any wild-card factors in play, and comment on how this affects the player’s fantasy value.

The high level

David Ortiz recently concluded a World Series run for the ages. His average and OBP were the second best in World Series history while his OPS and slugging ranked seventh and eighth respectively. He convinced opposing manager Mike Matheny that it was better to avoid him altogether, which led to more Red Sox runs.

Some of you may remember when Ortiz’s career hit a rough patch from 2008-2010. For those three seasons, Ortiz’s wOBA dipped below .400 for the first time since his years with the Twins. Since that slump, he’s (semi-) quietly posted three straight strong seasons, but he’s also battled injury over that time. Coming up on his age 38 season, it’s hard not to wonder how much is left in the tank.

The one thing we know is that Ortiz will play when healthy. Interleague games still present a challenge, since he has to be completely healthy for the Sox to consider using him in the field. The aforementioned injury concerns should prevent any aggressive valuations in response to his remarkable World Series.

The details

Once upon a time, Ortiz would post fantasy numbers that pretty much no longer exist aside from Miguel Cabrera. He was a four category monster who would score over 110 runs, drive in over 110 and blast 35-plus home runs, all while batting around .300.

Those days are mostly over. He struggles to stay on the field for enough games to post the ludicrous counting stats, and the Red Sox no longer have Manny Ramirez to help spread terror. A .300 average is still a possible outcome, as the last three seasons have shown, but there’s some reason for concern as well.

His late-career renaissance can largely be attributed to a huge cut in strikeout rate. It’s unclear if that’s the result of a change in approach, some unannounced injury healing, a new offseason regimen, or some other unknown factor. It would be nice to know how Ortiz managed to cut his whiff rate, since it would inform us more about what to expect next season.

This past season saw that whiff rate inch upward to 8.4 percent, which corresponded with a modest increase in his strikeout rate to 14.7 percent. If that becomes a trend, it could be a problem, but the available data don’t suggest much reason to worry.

Ortiz is a useful hitter against both lefties and righties, but he’s much more potent against right-handed pitching. In 2013, he posted a .449 wOBA against righties compared to a .316 wOBA against lefties. The PITCHf/x data show that he’s particularly susceptible to sliders from lefties.

Against right-handers, Ortiz generally does his damage by waiting for pitches within the strike zone. He takes a more aggressive approach against left-handers and appears to try to focus on hard, inside pitches. Left-handers do tend to bust him inside, so he has the advantage of knowing their preferred plan of attack.

There isn’t any one chart that provides an a-ha! moment into Ortiz. We can assume that age- and injury-related decline will continue to slowly sap his value. Eventually that’s going to manifest as a complete collapse and it could happen in 2014.

Fantasy implications

Ortiz started six games in the field in 2013, so Yahoo owners will have him available as a first baseman. Owners in other formats may find him to be a DH only, which hurts his value (unless your league requires a DH rather than a utility players).

He’s still capable of providing mid-tier first base value. If you can find a way to use him solely against right-handed pitching, you’ll receive some impressive rate stats.

The top concerns are age and injury. You absolutely must price injury and collapse risk into your model when you’re considering Ortiz. After his impressive 2013, some leagues will see some overly aggressive valuations placed on him. In those circumstances, be prepared to let him go. Other leagues will be focused on younger, higher upside names. You may be able to sneak Ortiz onto your roster cheaply by nominating him very early while most owners are still hoping to win Joey Votto or Paul Goldschmidt.

Per Zach Sanders, Ortiz was the fourth most valuable fantasy first baseman at $18. Based on the leagues in which I participated and a few draft histories that I have access to, Ortiz generally cost between $8-13 last season. Expect a slight increase in 2014, but that rate should hold fairly steady. If you’re seeing that price, he’s a good target.

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