In January — shortly before the two sides agreed to a contract — I made the argument that the Blue Jays should sign Jose Bautista. In the same article I mentioned that even with decline due to his age, he may be a valuable contributor to Toronto. However Bautista is having the worst start to the season in his career. As of April 21, Bautista is hitting .109/.242/.145 with two doubles and zero home runs. He’s struck out 33.3 percent of the time, and his BABIP and ISO are both horrendous.
While April baseball tends to give us crooked numbers due to an extremely small sample size, the spotlight on Bautista has been more than usual, due to his comments about a contract extension last year as well as the horrible baseball Blue Jays fans have had to endure so far.
This really isn’t the Bautista we know, and it’s silly to expect him to continue to post such horrible numbers all year long. In fact, during World Baseball Classic he slashed .333/.435/.500 with a home run in 18 at-bats. Surely, he couldn't just fall off a cliff that quickly — or could he?
During one of the Blue Jays broadcasts, Buck Martinez mentioned that John Gibbons seemed to suggest that pitchers are throwing a steady diet of breaking balls at Bautista this year. So I thought, why not test that theory? Let’s see if it really is the reason. I decided to go back three years, looking at the percentage of pitches Bautista has seen since 2014.
Bautista pitches seen, by category
So 35.3 percent is slightly higher than previous years, although the small sample size means it is too early to make judgments, but it is something we should keep an eye on as the season moves on. However, one thing of note is that percentage has steadily increased in the past four years.
Let’s break down how Bautista has fared on breaking balls this year vs. last 3 years. Here’s his slugging zone profile on breaking pitches from 2014-2016:
We can see that Bautista was murderous on pitches inside the zone, inflicting particularly severe damage on pitches at the inner third of the plate. Let’s compare this to his zone breakdown on breaking pitches this year:
This really does not tell us anything except that Bautista has connected on two of the six breaking pitches thrown to him in the zone. For the most part, the breaking balls he’s seen haven’t been in the zone. Looking at his whiff rate on breaking pitches between 2014-2016…
…we can see that breaking pitches aren’t the reason Bautista has struggled. Sorry, Gibby! For good measure, let’s see what Bautista has done on hard pitches, first from 2014 to 2016…
…and this year:
It seems that Bautista has had more misses on fastballs, which has led to a higher swinging-strike rate overall (12.0 percent). Given where he has missed, it seems like he still has a pretty good idea of his strike zone — his whiff rate in the lower half of the zone is almost identical to his career numbers. It’s also possible that given his struggles, he has tried to force the issue and ended up with more swings and misses.
There could be two reasons for increased misses on fastballs: firstly, Bautista is starting to age, and maybe Father Time is finally catching up with his bat speed; or secondly, the sample size here is so small that all of this is an aberration. His hard contact rate of 26.3 percent is his lowest since 2010, so maybe he has lost a step.
Another issue worth exploring is that maybe it has been a timing issue. His fly balls and line drive rates are pretty similar to his career numbers, but he’s hitting most of these in the center rather than pulling them, which makes me wonder if he’s having a hard time squaring pitches. His career pull and center percentage are 47.1 percent and 31.8 percent, respectively; this year they’ve been turned on their head, at 32.4 percent and 47.1 percent, respectively.
It seems that once Joey Bats gets his timing right, he should see more success. He may not be the player he was a few years ago, but he’s still capable of pulling up a pretty good offensive season. For all Blue Jays fans, here’s hoping that it happens sooner rather than later.