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What If... the Cardinals Had Kept David Ortiz in Check in 2013?

It mostly comes down to one pivotal at-bat in the middle of the series

World Series - Boston Red Sox v St Louis Cardinals - Game Four Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It was announced earlier this week that David Ortiz would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. His post-season heroics are key to his worthiness for the Hall. He was a monster in October. In 18 career playoff series, he posted a .900 OPS or better 10 times, including eight in a row from the 2004 ALDS through the 2007 World Series. As a reader of a site dedicated to the St. Louis Cardinals, you’re likely intimately familiar with Ortiz’s October antics. The Cardinals were the punchline to Ortiz twice, dropping both the 2004 and 2013 World Series to the Red Sox. It’s the second one we’ll talk about today. Ortiz found another level beyond his sterling post-season reputation. He put up a whopping 1.948 OPS, the seventh best ever in the Fall Classic. His collective WPA (win probability added) that year was the 8th best ever in a World Series. Today, we’ll ask... what if the Cardinals had kept Ortiz in check during the 2013 World Series?

We’ll zero in only on the plays that mattered most, where Ortiz specifically had the most impact. For instance, Ortiz hit a two-run homerun in the 7th inning of game 1. However, the Cardinals were down 5-0 at the time and 7-0 after the homerun. The Red Sox were almost certainly going to win regardless of Ortiz’s homerun. Similarly, Ortiz reached on an error in the first inning of that same game with two runners on. The error loaded the bases and set up an ugly first inning for starter Adam Wainwright, but they already had the result they wanted- a double play ball from Ortiz. That Pete Kozma borked the double play had nothing to do with Big Papi.

Game 1

See above- Game 1 would not have changed regardless of Ortiz’s performance. That was an 8-1 loss for the Cardinals.

Game 2

Ortiz blasted a two-run homerun off of Michael Wacha in the bottom of the 6th inning. The dinger gave the Red Sox a 2-1 lead with nine outs to go, and goosed their win expectancy 33%. By WPA, it was the biggest event in the game. However, the Cardinals came back for three runs in the next half inning, survived an Ortiz walk in the bottom of the 8th, and won 4-2. There’s no change in outcome if we remove Ortiz’s homerun or walk.

Game 3

This was the famed obstruction game- the Cardinals won in the bottom of the 9th when Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks was called for obstruction, preventing Allen Craig from scoring cleanly after a throwing error. As for Ortiz, he laced a one out single in the 6th that placed runners at first and third. They were trailing 2-1 at the time. That single goosed Red Sox odds by 11%, almost as much as Daniel Nava’s follow-up single that tied the game. Orti was intentionally walked in the 8th. Obviously, neither his single or intentional walk prevented the Cardinals from winning.

World Series Game 4: Boston Red Sox Vs. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Game 4

This is where it gets tricky. Lance Lynn was cruising entering the 5th inning. The Cardinals had a 1-0 lead and a 65% chance of winning. The only baserunner he allowed- Ortiz on a single in the 2nd inning- was promptly erased by a double play.

Big Papi led off the 5th with a double, worth 9% in the odds. Lynn gave up two walks after that, eventually escaping the jam but allowing one run. Had Ortiz been retired and the rest of the inning been the same, the Red Sox wouldn’t score their run in the inning. More importantly, the pitcher’s slot in the order wouldn’t have come up in the 5th. That means Clay Buchholz, at 66 pitches, may have come back out for the bottom of the 5th. The Cardinals had tagged him for three hits and two unintentional walks in 4 innings. Another shot at Buchholz easily could have been more fruitful than the goose eggs they got against his replacement, Felix Doubront, in the 5th and 6th. That’s especially true because it would have been Buchholz’s third time through the order with the top of the lineup waiting for him- Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, and Matt Holliday.

Ortiz struck again in the 6th when he drew a two-out walk against Lynn with Dustin Pedroia on first. The next hitter, Jonny Gomes, blasted a three-run homerun to give the Red Sox a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It seems disingenous to subtract the walk here since it only improved the Red Sox odds by 4%. It was the Gomes at-bat that was far more damaging. The Red Sox would go on to win 4-2.

If Ortiz’s double becomes an out in the 5th, that run never scores. While I’m leaving the 6th inning walk in place- the three run homer still happens- it’s instead a one-run game and the Cardinals probably get another shot at Buchholz. The odds are in Boston’s favor, but less so. The vagueness around how Buchholz would have done means it’s impossible to put a number on how much the Cardinals’ odds would have improved, but I feel comfortable saying that one fewer Red Sox run + starting the 5th against Buchholz is worth 20% more of a chance at winning.

Game 5

One Ortiz at-bat directly led to runs and it happened quickly. With one out in the first and Pedroia standing on second base, Ortiz laced an RBI double. He singled to lead off the 4th but was retired on the bases on a double play. He singled in a scoreless 8th. The Cardinals tied the game in the fourth. The Sox added two more in the 7th, mostly thanks to David Ross’ ground-rule double, while the Cardinals could only muster four hits- and no walks- against Jon Lester and Koji Uehara. Ortiz’s double was clearly impactful, worth 10% in their odds of winning, but the two additional Red Sox runs and the silent Cardinal bats were the bigger story. This game would have ended the same even if Ortiz’s double was an out.

Game 6

By this point, the Cardinals avoided Ortiz altogether. He walked in a scoreless first inning. With one out and a runner on second in the third inning, he was intentionally walked. Gomes was hit by pitch, and then Shane Victorino smacked a bases-clearing double. Ortiz was intentionally walked again in the fourth inning, and the Cardinals were down 4-0 at that point. Their odds of winning dipped below 10% after Ortiz was walked, and fell below 5% when Ortiz’s walk was followed by a single, a walk, and a single. There’s clearly value to Ortiz simply being on base- he walked four times, three intentional- but the far bigger issue in this game was the Victorino double, and the two-out singles and walks in the fourth inning. This game would have ended the same regardless of Ortiz.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v St Louis Cardinals - Game Five Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Overall Impact

This was The Ortiz Series for good reason. It was impossible to get him out, so much so that they started giving him free passes like Halloween candy in game 6. You have to tip your cap for a legendary series. He was the second most impactful Red Sox hitter in games 1, 3, 4, and 5, along with leading them in game 2 and placing third in game 6.

What’s startling, though, is that Ortiz almost never had THE big blow in the decisive games of the series. Mike Napoli led the Sox in WPA in game 1, Gomes led in game 4, David Ross led in game 5 thanks to his 7th inning double, and Victorino led in game 6. Ortiz led all players in WPA in game 2... which the Red Sox lost.

The only real argument that the Red Sox won strictly because of Ortiz is his impact on game 4, the fulcrum of the entire series. Oddly, removing Ortiz’s leadoff double in the fifth inning has a huge impact... but it has more to do with how Sox skipper John Farrell would have approached his starting pitcher. Because of the double, the pitcher’s slot came up that inning, giving Farrell an easy decision to remove his struggling starter. Maybe Farrell was going to remove Buchholz for Doubront regardless, in which case this is all academic. The first two hitters waiting for Buchholz were Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran, who each singled off of him in the third. Had those two gotten a third shot against the starter, with Matt Holliday on deck, the entire series may have turned out differently. But we’ll never know.