I get it! I totally get that David Ortiz seems like he's LOCKED IN. And the closer you get -- say, if you're in the broadcast booth or the dugout or (heaven forfend) 60 feet away on the mound -- the more LOCKED IN he seems. Seems like there's nothing you can throw David Ortiz this week that he won't square up and wallop. I get it.
But as Grant so helpfully points out, the pitchers would have a better chance if they didn't throw pitches right into Big Papi's Big Papi Happy Hitting Zone™. Let's grant the premise, though; let's allow for the possibility, even the reality, that Ortiz has been LOCKED IN during the first five games of the World Series. What we want to know, and what Mike Matheny and his pitchers should really want to know, is if Ortiz will continue to be LOCKED IN. Because if he will, they should be extra careful with him. If he won't, they can be as careful as they would normally be when pitching to one of the greatest left-handed hitters of this era.
Everybody says that Ortiz is LOCKED IN, but everybody really doesn't know that. Whatever everybody means is that he's been hitting the ball real hard in most of his at-bats in this World Series. Which covers five games. Before that, he couldn't buy a base hit in the American League Championship Series. So we really are talking about five games.
Which is really, really, really convenient for us. Because in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, co-authors Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin titled "When You're Hot, You're Hot." Within, they examine hot hitters, and the predictability of their continuing hotness. And in one of my favorite coincidences so far this week, they chose as their example of hotness ... five hot games. Just like Papi's World Series!
The methodology is simple: Look at a bunch of players with five-game hot streaks, and see what they did immediately afterward. Is the "after" closer to the hot streak, or closer to the expected performance that's derived from the players' entire careers?
It's closer to the expected performance. It's closer by a lot. In fact, it's nearly identical to what you would expect if you knew exactly zero about the hot streak.
The section includes this "The Book Says" box ...
Knowing that a hitter has been in or is in the midst of a hot or cold streak has little predictive value. Always assume that a player will hit at his projected norm (adjusted for the park, weather, and pitcher he is facing), regardless of how he has performed in the very recent past. A player's recent history may be used as a tiebreaker.
... but the same section actually concludes with a caveat:
Also keep in mind that we are not saying that scouts, managers, or coaches are unable to recognize a (presumably small) subset of hot and cold players who are truly on or off-kilter enough for their streaks to have some significantly large (larger than we see in the entire group) predictive value. We are merely looking at and commenting on all hot and cold streaks (as defined by our study) in general.
Okay, so maybe David Ortiz is, or has been, on kilter. So what? We know he can't do this at will. If he could, he would have collected more than two hits in the ALCS. Players get hot and players get cold, due mostly to random variation but also due to other factors we don't or can't fathom. One thing we do know, though? In the absence of injuries and accounting for age, players nearly always revert to whomever they were before.
So if I'm the St. Louis Cardinals, I pitch to David Ortiz as if the last five games had never happened. And when I see Stephen Drew walking toward the plate, I don't get too cocky.