It’s hard to imagine a league where a guy who hits 23 homers can’t find work until the season is underway, and even then is just given a minor league offer. But thanks to hitters’ improving their power numbers up to record highs (or perhaps some juicy baseballs as well), that just doesn’t go as far as it used to. Jose Bautista was one of the premier power hitters ever since his breakout campaign in 2012 with a 54 bomb season, and continued to strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers and fans alike heading forward.
But Father Time catches us all at some point, and Bautista was on a pretty stark four year slide from 2014 to present, going from one of the best bats in the bigs to an 80 wRC+ outfielder without the defense to warrant playing time much longer. Halfway through 37, it’s maybe a little early compared to some comparable hitters who featured great discipline with good contact as well as light tower power, but then again, the landscape of MLB in 2018 is much different than we’ve seen in maybe two decades, give or take a few years.
Bautista did not have a bad 2016, with a 122 wRC+ (this is actually pretty darn good!), but his 22 homers and a .234 batting average weren’t worth more than another “prove yourself” deal. In 2017 he just didn’t do much but homer, and even that was too infrequent. His batting average dropped to .203, and his defense which was once boasted by a rocket of an arm, had depleted down closer to a wet noodle hanging from his shoulder.
And while the production wasn’t good by any stretch, his underlying stats showed he was probably worth a tryout. His batting average on balls in play has never been good, a .264 career average, but this tanked to just .239 in 2017, implying there should have been more hits for him, and hence a better batting average. Part of this is due to his hard contact dropping almost ten percentage points down to 31.0%, but that’s not tremendously far from his 34.4% career average. And even then, we aren’t interested in him to return to his prime form – just a bounce back. And in that regard, it’s not a bad number. It doesn’t put him in bad company to be at 31.0%, and increasing by a few points (which is completely in the realm of possibility) had him around guys where him replicating their production would be a tremendous return on investment, for both the Braves and fantasy owners alike.
He’s hitting the ball softer, which is honestly expected, but he’s hitting it better as well. He dropped his grounder rate from 39.5% to 37.7% and increased his fly balls from 41.7% to 45.8%. This batting profile is remarkably close to his 2011 profile, where he mashed 43 bombs with a .302 batting average. The trouble was his 11.9% home run to fly ball rate was the worst since 2007 when he was with the Pirates, and looked destined to be a journeyman who fizzles out before his 30s. This looks like it was influenced by a different spray angle, where his pull rate dropped from 52.8% to 45.0%, instead of pulling where he can get more power, elected to go the other way more often. This could be a conscious choice, it could be his bat speed declining (which it almost assuredly is, but it’s the degree of magnitude that is up for debate), but if he can find a way to pull more balls his hard contact will go up, as well as his HR/FB.
To get more insight into this, compare his zone profiles from 2017 and 2017, heatmaps of where pitchers threw to him:
It’s not immediately obvious by the coloring, but he saw a good amount more outside, and much less inside where he could turn to pull pitches with authority. We can’t just expect pitcher to start giving him more favorable pitches (although a combination of changing leagues and his drop in performance hint it’s possible, if not likely), but an adjustment on his end would see an increase in his production.
In addition, Bautista’s elite zone coverage is no longer so, and more just really good, but that’s a good indicator of someone who can make the correct adjustments. His 12.2% walk rate last year was still nuts, and even though he’s striking out more and whiffing as well, his 24.8% and 10.9% marks on both, respectively, are not far from league average and are generally passable for a power oriented hitter.
Now let me be explicitly clear here – I am not saying Jose Bautista is a 50 homer hitter again, or even 40. Probably not 30 either. But he’s not nearly as bad as those numbers from 2017 say he is. He was pitched differently, moved around in the lineup, and just wasn’t quick enough on the adjustments initially to prove otherwise with his production. But the underlying numbers suggest there’s more to him, and since he’s almost definitely available for a simple waiver claim, the upside is large. He’s going to still hit some homers, and the average should be bearable where he isn’t killing you on games when the long ball eludes him. If you’re looking to pick someone up in free agency, whether to bolster your team or as a potential sell high guy in a month or so, Jose Bautista is a good looking bet.
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