It’s perhaps as exciting a story as it is bizarre. Just one year removed from a 40 homer (!!!) season, where he was worth 4.4 fWAR, Jose Bautista struggled hard to find much interest in the market. It ended with a potential three year deal to stay with the Blue Jays, which in the end is the place where he seems to fit the best.
Now, it’s not unprecedented for hitters to be unsigned so late into the offseason, especially sluggers with aging concerns (*cough* Prince Fielder), but it’s far from common. Yes, Bautista just turned 36 and had his worst offensive campaign since before his breakout year in 2010, but perhaps general managers are overrating how his marginal decline would compare to general production, as he is still a very good hitter, at least.
His 2016 paints a different picture than his peak, but someone hitting 22 bombs with a 122 wRC+ like he did would be expected to command at least some more serious interest, much less a solid contract. For some offensive comparison, Bautista’s 2016 numbers are comparable to Justin Turner and Carlos Beltran.
Both players who received contracts this offseason already worth $64MM for four seasons, and $16MM for one. Both are relevant and good cohorts, as Turner had a similar mid career breakout at his age 29 season, and Beltran is set to turn 40 in April this season. Beltran has held a steady wRC+ around 125 for the past six seasons, and a career mark of 120, and Turner saw a year to year drop in wRC+ almost exactly what Bautista had over the same time frame.
The differences between Bautista and this pair still do exist and are good counterarguments despite what seems like solid market evidence for Bautista being productive in 2017. Turner is still much younger than Bautista (just turned 31) although he has a shorter peak (so far), and Beltran’s consistency quells concern over decline unlike Bautista’s drop. In the end, the market seemed a little unfair to Bautista, unless his demands were ridiculous, which is also possible. But his contract of $18MM guaranteed for the first year is right around where we would expect him given the market for his cohorts.
While comparing some general numbers from Bautista to fellow 2016 off-season free agents, digging more into the man himself finds some more accurate answers. There’s no denying that his 2016 is a cause for concern heading forward, but his numbers weren’t very far off what he was producing in 2012 and 2013 as a 31 and 32 year old. His batting average (2012-13 average of .251 to .234 in 2016) doesn’t show a giant difference, and his power has shown a low .230s ISO before. These still all combine for a good seasons, and it’s nice that he’s shown ability to come back from some other down years, albeit slightly less so.
Bautista’s knowledge and vision of the strike zone is noted as perhaps the best in the game by many fellow players and opposing coaches, but his strikeout rates in 2016 show some cause for concern. He nearly hit 20.0% (19.9% actual) despite a previous max of 17.0% post breakout in his 2010 season. Since then he’s put up rates averaging 15.8%, a significant change from what he put up this past year. While Bautista still kept the chase rates among the elite lows (20.2% with a league average of 30.6%), pitchers are starting to challenge him more often (56.1% first strike rate is second highest since his breakout year).
We can expect some regression with age from Bautista, but a rebound does seem to be coming. Most projections have him with a wRC+ upwards of 130 and banging 30+ bombs. And just like the free agency market didn’t seem to be giving Baustista his fair due, it appears the same is happening with fantasy owners. His current ADP is averaging around 113, behind other hitters like David Dahl, Eric Hosmer and Matt Kemp. While these guys put up seasons somewhat comparable to where Bautista was last year, he’s expected to rebound decently compared to this group who put up numbers around what we would expect (although Dahl does have good projected growth).
It’s pretty tempting to write off Bautista as on the decline, and to make fun of the Blue Jays for spending so much money on him that they (potentially) could have used to bring back Edwin Encarnacion instead – who’s projected for better things over the lives of their respective contracts. But fantasy baseball is about finding the undervalued players at the right price, and that’s exactly where Joey Bats is heading this year.
Bautista still has elite plate discipline, light tower power, and he’s going to get the opportunities to succeed. While he has some risk, he doesn’t have significantly more than anyone with a similar ADP, and he has much better potential for a big year. Don’t be afraid of Bautista; he’s a tremendous value pick in 2017.
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