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Jose Bautista’s renaissance

After a dismal 2017, Bautista at 37 is having a pretty good year

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, the headline is a bit misleading, but you get the point. After a terrible 2017 when he was one of the worst hitters in all of baseball Jose Bautista is having a pretty good year. As of July 12th, he is slashing a .219/.367/.430 line to go with 122 wRC+ in 188 plate appearances. In 58 games his WAR stands at .90 which translates into 2.7 wins over a 162 games season—decent for a 37 years-old with below average defense.

Cynically we can attribute it to sample size—after all, 188 plate appearance is about 2 months of a season and his numbers may regress as the year goes on. But let’s just go with his tiny sample size and see if there’s anything noticeably different from last year. Let’s start with his 20 game rolling wOBA for 2017 & 2018 (data: FanGraphs.com).

In 2017, with the exception of May, when he posted a wOBA of .437, his rolling wOBA mostly remained below .300 for most of the year. In fact, outside of May, his highest wOBA for the month was 0.284. Any thing below .300 is considered terrible. To give some perspective, his .293 wOBA for 2017 was marginally better than Ryan Goins’ .278.

However, things look different in 2018 thus far. 20 game rolling wOBA has—except for his time in Atlanta—been over .300 and for the past month and a half as been consistently over .350. It will be interesting to see if his trend continues or if his last few weeks are reminiscent of May 2017.

Let’s look at what is different this year and if it is sustainable. In 2017, Bautista’s walk rate was 12.2%, lower than his career rate of 14.6% and lowest since 2009. His strike out rate spiked to 24.8% which over the last few years has ranged between 15-20%. This year, Bautista is striking out even more, his K rate is up to 27.7%; however, his walk rate is also up to 18.6%. Bautista has always had an eye for the strike zone and has shown plate discipline over these years, so it’s safe to assume that with regression, we can expect his walk rate to be in 13-15% range.

Over the years, Bautista has seen a steady diet of fastball, breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

Percentage pitches seen
www.brooksbaseball.net

However, his whiff rate since 2016 has been climbing up.

Whiff Rate
www.brooksbaseball.net

Looking at his plate discipline, Bautista’s swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone remain consistent. However, his contact rate has gone down from 88.6% in 2015 to 80.4% this year (career rate 86.8%). This is a possible indication of bat speed slowing down. On pitches outside the zone, although his swing rate has remained steady, his contact rate has plummeted from a steady 60s to 51% in 2017 and 38% in 2018.

The other aspect of Bautista’s game that is dramatically different is his power. Slowing bat speed, moving to a pitcher’s ball park and increased K rate means Bautista is probably no longer the home run threat he used to be. His average home runs per plate appearance for his career is approx 20. As recently as 2016, his HR/PA was 23.5 which ballooned to almost 30 in 2017. This year its around 26, which based on his plate appearances is around a 26 home run season. Although this is a slight improvement, I don’t believe that Bautista has a 35 home run season left in his career.

On a positive note, Bautista’s Ground ball rate is down from last year while both line drive and fly ball rate is up. His hard contact rate has also gone up from 31% last year to 44% this year. According to Statcast, his xwOBA is also up from .309 last year to a healthy .355 this year indicating that so far this year, his numbers have more to do than just luck. His exit velocity is also back up to 2015 and 2016 levels—92.4 mph in 2018 vs 88.3 mph in 2017. In fact, he ranked 99th in MLB last year in average exit velocity vs. 22nd this year. The other interesting thing to note is that his xwOBA on hard hit balls is the highest over the past four years.

Statcast Data

Season Barrels Barrel % Exit Velocity Launch Angle xSLG xwOBA xwOBACON Hard Hit %
Season Barrels Barrel % Exit Velocity Launch Angle xSLG xwOBA xwOBACON Hard Hit %
2015 56 12.6% 92 16.7 0.517 0.389 0.406 46.10%
2016 29 9.0% 91.6 14.8 0.45 0.37 0.4 46.30%
2017 27 6.4% 88.3 17 0.381 0.309 0.352 35.40%
2018 9 9.0% 92.4 21.1 0.428 0.355 0.426 46.00%
Statcast data https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/

It is safe to suggest that this is comeback year of sorts for Bautista and not just the power of small sample size. Its way off from his peak years, but its enough value for someone making $1 million and with the ability to play three different positions.

For a Blue Jays fan, it was always hard to imagine that 2017 would be his last hurrah in the majors. This year redeems some of that, he’s been producing enough that if this sustains rest of the way some team may come calling for 2019 as well. He’s already had a few memorable moments this year, his return to the Rogers Centre and his first game ending home run, a Grand Slam against the Rays. As a Joey Bats fan, I hope we have a few more of these moments before he calls it quits.