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.
|Time Period||O-Contact %||Z-Contact %||Contact %|
|2017 through April 24||53.3%||77.8%||70.6%|
|2017 since April 24||52.1%||87.6%||76.3%|
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.
The second issue of interest to Sullivan concerned Bautista’s batted balls. Early on this season, Bautista wasn’t pulling the ball or hitting the ball hard. Using the same four time periods, let’s check how he’s done since then.
|Time Period||Hard-Hit Rate||Pull %|
|2017 through April 24||24.4%||33.3%|
|2017 since April 24||38.0%||52.2%|
This is just what we would expect to see. The hard-hit rate and pull rate have returned to the levels we’ve seen from better versions of Bautista in the past. While this is very good news, there’s a note of caution in here, as well. These numbers match up well with Bautista at his peak, but they also match up pretty well with Bautista from last season, when he was merely an above-average hitter and roughly average baseball player.
The last thing Sullivan addressed was Bautista’s damage (or lack thereof) against fastballs. Here’s Bautista’s weighted run numbers per 100 pitches on fastballs:
|Time Period||Runs per 100 Fastballs Faced|
|2017 through April 24||-2.50|
|2017 since April 24||3.57|
Bautista is hammering fastballs of late after failing to produce on the pitch earlier in the season — and record fairly neutral figures on the pitch in the 2016 season. Bautista’s zone percentage has dropped from 47% early on in the season down to 44% over the last month. A drop in zone percentage could mean a couple different things. On the positive side, it could mean that pitchers have begun to fear a hitter more than they had and are being more delicate with the strike zone. On the negative side, it could mean that pitchers believe they can get the batter out by pitching out of the zone. A hitter like Javier Baez is going to have a low zone percentage because, while he does have some pop, he rarely walks and strikes out a lot, meaning it’s possible to entice with pitches outside the zone.
So for Bautista, we might be seeing a bit of both when it comes to fear and the strike zone. We know that Bautista is still missing when he chases outside the zone, so maybe he’s cheating a bit on the fastball. For the time being, though, it doesn’t seem to matter: he’s seeing and hitting enough fastballs inside the zone. Another note: Bautista is seeing fewer fastballs and more sliders this year than ever before. Back in 2013, Bautista’s whiff rate against the slider was around 9%. That number has increased every year since and is up to 16% this year, per Brooks Baseball. It’s down to about 14% during his recent hot streak, but Bautista might begin to see even more sliders and fewer fastballs as the season goes on.
Early on this season, it looked like age was getting the better of Bautista as he failed to catch up with his declining skills. Over the last month, he has made adjustments to do damage on fastballs in the zone. It’s too early to say how long this version of Bautista will last. He still has a great sense of the strike zone and the power is obviously there. When he was struggling at the end of April, his rest-of-season projection called for a 121 wRC+. After this run, that figure has improved 128. He currently possesses a 123 wRC+. After all that, we are probably pretty close to his assessments at the beginning of the season. We shouldn’t have gotten so low on him after his rough start, but we shouldn’t assume he’s all the way back now after this good run.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.