There are several issues complicating Jose Bautista’s impending arbitration status. For starters, there’s the fact that last season was a career year for him, something that was completely out of line with his previous statistics. This brings up the career vs. platform year debate in full force. A five-plus hearing (and four-plus as well) is supposed to focus almost solely on the platform season, but given the circumstances surrounding Bautista, you would be hard pressed not to point out his past failures. In addition, there are not a lot of good comps for five-plus corner outfielders in the pay range Bautista is going to occupy, making the case even murkier. Given these factors, it’s not surprising that the Jays and Bautista made the nearly unprecedented move of postponing their hearing.
In the past few seasons, the majority of five-plus corner outfielders (we’ll treat him as a corner outfielder rather than a third basemen since the majority of his 2010 season was spent in right field) ended up with salaries in the three to seven million dollar range – Conor Jackson (2011 salary, $3.32 M), Craig Monroe (2009, $3.82M), Milton Bradley (2008, $4M), Brad Wilkerson (2008, $4M), Josh Willingham (2011, $6M), Cody Ross (2011, $6.3M), Xavier Nady (2010, $6.55M) and Ryan Ludwick (2011, $6.8M) are just a few. The problem for the Jays is that while some of these fellows have rather nice careers under their belts, their platform season doesn’t hold a candle to Bautista’s. Even when you begin comparing him to a heavy hitter, the waters are still a bit murky.
Take Matt Holliday for example. His comparable season to Bautista is 2008, his last year in Colorado. By all accounts, it was a pretty good follow up to his near-MVP season in 2007 – he hit .321/.409/.538, with 38 doubles, 25 homers and swiped 28 bags in 30 tries. His OBP and SB totals were both career highs. In some respects, these numbers compare very favorably to Bauista’s 2010 numbers. Holliday bests him in AVG by 61 points, in OBP by 31, stole 19 more bases and had 25 more hits. On the other hand, Bautista played 21 more games than Holliday, more than doubled Holliday’s home run total and had a slugging percentage 79 points higher and OPS that was 48 points higher. On platform year alone – again, using strictly conventional numbers, as we discussed last time – it’s not easily determined who had the better season, but since the shiniest numbers are generally games played/plate appearances and home runs, the scales tip slightly toward Bautista.
Bringing in career, Holliday is going to carry the day. At this point, Holliday was an All-Star in three consecutive seasons, and he had strung together three straight seasons with at least 139 games played, 623 plate appearances, 25 homers, a .321 AVG and .387 OBP. He was, while perhaps a bit Coors Field-aided, a legit star. His overall career line after 2008 was .319/.386/.552, a monster of a line compared to Bautista’s .244/.342/.453 career line. Holliday bests him in every category, though the plate appearance totals aren’t that disparate – 2,968 for Holliday versus 2,721 for Bautista – less than half a season’s difference. The only category in which Bautista approaches Holliday’s career numbers are home runs, as he hit 113 to Holliday’s 128. Either way, the career comparison will not paint Bautista in a favorable light.
It’s not just Holliday who busts down Bautista on a career level either, as both Ludwick and Willingham have put up more homers and a better OPS in less playing time than has Bautista. It just so happens that their production was a bit more spread out. That’s great news for the Blue Jays, as they try to shine the light on Bautista’s otherwise ordinary career. But Bautista still has a pretty darned good case to make based on just his platform season. And recently, aside from Holliday, there just aren’t many five-plus corner outfield comps on Bautista’s side of the midpoint to use. The most recent example I could find is Alfonso Soriano, but his is a bit dated to be very useful. In situations like these, it’s been deemed acceptable to expand the comp group from strictly corner outfielders to overall “corner” guys, i.e. third basemen and first basemen.
This caveat would bring Mark Teixeira’s 2007 season, as well as the 2010 seasons of Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard into play. But as good as those seasons were, particularly Teixeira’s, they don’t roundly beat Bautista’s. As with Holliday, Bautista still holds the winning cards when it comes to home runs and slugging percentage, and bests Teixeira by a significant margin in terms of playing time. Allowing first basemen into the comp group also opens the can of worms that is Carlos Pena. Unlike three-plus and four-plus players, five-plus players can compare themselves to free agent contracts. And despite a 2010 season that saw him hit just .196 with a .705 OPS, the Cubs gave Pena a one-year, $10 million deal – a contract on Bautista’s side of the midpoint. That it was a one-year deal makes it even more relatable to arbitration. And while Pena did sock 28 dingers, again, that doesn’t stack up to Bautista. That this sort of thing is allowed may explain why there hasn’t been a five-plus hearing since 2008.
Jose Bautista’s 2010 season would be tough for anyone to top. His 54 homers are tied for 19th on the all-time single-season leader board. While this, and the other numbers he put up in 2010 are completely out of line with the rest of his career, the waters get muddied when you consider that a five-plus hearing is supposed for one supposed to focus on platform, and that there aren’t a lot of recent comps on Bautista’s side of the midpoint from which to form an argument. As a result, the postponement likely saved the Jays and Bautista a lot of Ricola, as they were going to go hoarse trying to prove that their side of this unique argument was more important. Whether they agree to a single-season deal or a multi-year one, they are more likely to come to a reasonable agreement outside the hearing room than they would have inside it.