Over the winter, Jose Bautista was forced to settle on a one-year contract of about $18 million, or roughly the price of a qualifying offer. Given Bautista’s performance over the previous half-dozen years — during which he’d been one of the game’s best hitters — that deal came as a surprise. Most thought he would get three or four years guaranteed at that rate.
When a player receives so little compared to the general consensus, there’s an inclination to believe that maybe the teams know something we don’t. Bautista had just recorded one of his worst seasons, putting up a 122 wRC+, a 20-point drop from his previous three campaigns. Perhaps there was reason to believe that his poor 2016 season was going to carry over into this year. That certainly looked to be the case just a few weeks into the current season. Not so much anymore.
On April 25, Jose Bautista had played in 19 games, recorded 85 plate appearances, and produced just three extra-base hits, only one of those a homer. His walk rate was a solid 15%, but his strikeout rate was 31%. A lot of strikeouts and no power caused an early-season hitting line of .129/.271/.200 and just a 33 wRC+. As for the cause of Bautista’s poor play, age-related decline was certainly a possibility. Curious himself, Jeff Sullivan requested reader assistance, on April 25, to help better understand the underlying causes for some hitters’ struggles. Jose Bautista was one of those struggling hitters. Since that time, however, he hasn’t struggled at all. In fact, he’s been one of the game’s best, recording a 177 wRC+ in the meantime.
Regarding Bautista, the first issue raised by Sullivan raised was contact. The Jays’ right fielder had historically made contact on 81% of pitches, but he was down to 71% this season. His whiffs both in and out of the zone were up. To help gain some context, let’s separate Bautista’s last few years into a few different segments: 2013-2015, 2016, the 2017 season through April 24, and the 2017 season since April 24. Let’s start by looking at contact rate.
Jose Bautista Contact Rates
|2017 through April 24
|2017 since April 24
The good news is that Bautista has brought his contact rate back up to near-vintage Bautista levels. When the ball is pitched in the zone and Bautista swings, he’s making good contact. Before we get to the damage done on contact, that dropping O-Contact% is worth a look. From 2013 to -15, Bautista was above the league average of 63% on swings on balls outside the zone. Last season, Bautista tumbled below the 62% league average. This season, whether looking at the early or latter part of this year, Bautista is well below league average. While that is likely an indication of his declining skills, given Bautista’s batting eye, it might not hurt him as much as others. Bautista’s 21% swing rate on pitches outside the zone is among the top-10 rates in baseball.
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