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What the Heck Happened to Jose Ortiz?

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What the Heck Happened to Jose Ortiz?

Remember Jose Ortiz? I do, because he was one of the guys I was wrong about.

First, some history. Jose Ortiz was signed by the Athletics as a free agent in 1994, out of the Dominican Republic. He played in the Dominican Summer League in '95, hitting .300 with a .498 SLG and 14 steals. Promoted to the Arizona Rookie League in '96, he hit .330 with a .530 SLG and 16 steals, and was starting to get noticed as a prospect.

Ortiz moved up to Class A Modesto in the California League in 1997, hitting .245/.332/.421 with 16 homers and 22 steals. 20 years old, he acquitted himself well given his age. I liked his walk rate (60 free passes) and, influenced perhaps more than I should have been by gaudy scouting reports, I gave him a Grade B+ in the 1998 book. At this stage, age-relative-to-league was his best attribute, but his power/speed combo was intriguing.

Promoted to Double-A Huntsville in 1998, he was limited to 94 games by a broken finger. He hit .277/.369/.407 with 22 steals, showing good plate discipline. His strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate increased. He moved to second base and was being mentioned as the eventual double play partner for Miguel Tejada. I dropped his grade to a straight B in the '99 book, but this was more because I felt that the B+ in '98 was too high, rather than anything to do with his performance. He was just 21, and still looked on track.

At Triple-A Vancouver in 1999, Ortiz stalled out. He hit .284, but with just nine homers. His OBP dropped to .335, and his walk rate fell off substantially. I gave him a Grade C for the '00 book, which looks too low. . .nowadays that would have been a C+ or maybe even a B- considering his past track record. He wasn't great in '99, but he wasn't THAT bad, and was still just 22.

Ortiz rebounded sharply in '00, hitting .351/.408/.575, with 34 doubles, 24 homers, 108 RBI, 47 walks, and 64 strikeouts in 518 at-bats for Triple-A Sacramento. I saw him play in person, and he was MUCH more impressive than in '99 or even '98, doing a better job of working the count and making hard contact. He handled breaking balls well, and looked both statistically and visually like the real thing. I gave him a Grade A- and rated him the number 12 prospect in the game.

Ortiz began '01 down with a strained calf muscle. This eventually cleared up, but Oakland gave Ortiz just 11 games of playing time, before shipping him off to the Colorado Rockies as part of the Jermaine Dye/Neifi Perez three-way trade with Kansas City. The Rockies saw Ortiz as their Second Baseman of the Now and gave him regular playing time the rest of the year. He hit just .255, albeit with 13 homers and a .495 SLG. His numbers were inflated by Coors in the power department (nine homers at home, four on the road), but otherwise he actually hit slightly better on the road. His strike zone judgment was worse than anticipated, and he showed a particular weakness for pitches on the outer half of the plate. I saw him hammer those to the opposite field in '00, but he got into a bad habit of trying to pull them against major league pitching. Still, this is a normal adjustment problem, and I thought he had a good chance to figure things out.

2002 began with Ortiz as the regular second baseman in Colorado. He struggled, badly. Part of the problem was injuries: he was bothered by a bad hamstring much of the summer, then tore the meniscus in this left knee. But even when healthy, he was a major disappointment, being too pull-conscious, having problems with the strike zone, and playing erratic defense. He hit just .250/.315/.312 for the Rockies, and was sold to the Orix Blue Wave in Japan that winter.

From top prospect to Japanese League refugee in a year. How did this happen?

In retrospect, Ortiz's outstanding 2000 season in Triple-A looks like a fluke; he never hit as well before or since. I saw him that season and he looked really good, controlling the zone well and driving the ball to all fields. But he was unable to bring these skills to the major leagues, as he got into the habit of trying to pull everything. Injuries were another factor: he was injured for much of 2002 and could never get into a consistent rhythm. The Rockies sure gave up on him easily.

If you discount what he did in 2000, and just look at his career otherwise, he looks like a guy who'd hit .240-.260 with a touch of power and some speed. Given a normal growth curve from the age of 21, he could have/should have developed into a better player than that, but his growth curve wasn't normal.

In 449 major league at-bats, Ortiz hit .243/.305/.379, with 14 homers. This is very similar to what his MLEs showed 1997 through 1999. The outlier season was the 2000 fluke. My mistake here was believing that his '00 performance spike was legitimate progress. I believed this in part due to personal observation. His approach was different in '00 compared to '01 or '02. It's too bad he didn't maintain it.

So basically, Ortiz didn't develop much as a player from the age of 21 on. He had some badly-timed injuries that didn't help, and perhaps the Rockies gave up on him a bit too quickly. Nevertheless, this is a case study of how what looks like improvement is sometimes just a head-fake.