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Is Jose Bautista the Best Hitter in the AL?

Among the most talked about story lines heading into the 2011 season, few generated as much interest as Jose Bautista‘s attempt to follow up on his monstrous season from last year. The universal consensus was that he would take a step backward, as it was a given he wouldn’t hit 54 home runs again, but the question was just how far back would he go?  Perhaps it’s time to change the question.

Bautista’s ridiculous start to the season – he’s now hitting .359/.506/.750, good for a Major League best .533 wOBA after making just two outs over the course of the three games against the Rays this weekend – has effectively ended any legitimate speculation about whether Bautista’s season was an enormous outlier. He is still doing all of the things that made him so good last year, only now he’s proving that he can do it while hardly seeing any pitches in the strike zone, and his patience has upped his walk rate to elite levels as well.

So, instead of asking just how far Bautista will regress, perhaps the more relevant question now is whether or not Bautista is currently the best hitter in the American League. It’s a question that would have seemed ludicrous 12 months ago, but what Bautista has done since – and done consistently – while adjusting to a changing approach from opposing pitchers has made this a legitimate query.

Perhaps the best place to start when answering questions of this nature are the updated ZIPS projections we have here on the site, courtesy of Dan Szymborski. Not surprisingly, the consistent excellence of Albert Pujols still has him on top, though Joey Votto is making a hard charge at the title for best hitter in the National League. After those two, however, there are three AL hitters whose projected lines for the rest of the season are all pretty similar:

Miguel Cabrera: .307/.396/.567, .408 wOBA
Adrian Gonzalez: .311/.402/.551, .404 wOBA
Jose Bautista: .261/.378/.548, .403 wOBA

Considering that Bautista is third on this list, and has the lowest projected numbers in BA, OBP, and SLG, you might wonder why we’re even asking if Bautista is a better hitter than either of the two more established sluggers ahead of him. After all, Cabrera has been mashing since he came into the league, and Gonzalez made The Leap a few years ago while playing in a far less hitter friendly environment, and along with their top prospect pedigrees, their history makes it easier to believe that their skills are “real”.

But what if we look beyond the expected results and look into what ZIPS is projecting in terms of the numbers that are generally considered core components with fewer variances around them – walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated slugging? Changing perspectives leaves us with a slightly different picture.

Miguel Cabrera: 12.6 BB%, 19.0 K%, .263 ISO
Adrian Gonzalez: 12.7 BB%, 20.4 K%, .242 ISO
Jose Bautista: 15.1 BB%, 23.8 K%, .289 ISO

Bautista is projected to have both the best walk rate and the most power of the three going forward, and while his strikeout rate is higher than both, that isn’t the reason that the other two have slightly higher wOBA projections. The real driver in the difference for their projected lines?

Miguel Cabrera: .322 BABIP
Adrian Gonzalez: .345 BABIP
Jose Bautista: .264 BABIP

Gonzalez’s BABIP projection is a bit odd, honestly – his career mark is just .311 and his prior season best is .340. Yes, those numbers occurred in Petco so there needs to be a park adjustment, but his career BABIP on the road is just .325, so the number still seems aggressive to me. But, of course, the real outlier here is Bautista, whose mark is well below average, and is the reason his rate stats are relatively low compared to his core skill numbers. 

Bautista is an extreme fly ball hitter, and since most his balls in play are either going over the wall or being chased down in the outfield, his skillset is perfectly suited to generate low BABIPs. But even with the disadvantafe taken into account, the .233 mark he put up last year was still exceptionally low, and given the natural variance in BABIP results even among hitters, it’s not exactly easy to estimate what his “true talent” BABIP is now that he’s a pretty different hitter than he was earlier in his career. His .272 career mark would be helpful, but now he hits more fly balls than he used to hit. To counter that, though, he also seems to hit the ball a lot harder than he used to, and his BABIP for 2011 is currently .381 – though obviously in a sample too small to mean anything.

But, really, projecting BABIP isn’t something any of us are particularly good at. We can look at a guy like Austin Jackson and say “that’s going to regress”, but how far it will is something we don’t really have a great handle on. There’s a lot of noise in BABIP, but there’s enough skill differences between hitters that it’s not just as simple as regressing everyone back to the league average. We can be pretty sure that Cabrera is going to post a higher BABIP than Bautista this year, but I don’t know that we have a good sense of what the margin will be.

And right now, BABIP is the major area where ZIPS gives an advantage to Cabrera and Gonzalez, but if we’re willing to admit that it’s the number that we’re probably least confident in projecting – and I think we should be – then the gap essentially disappears and, depending on how you want to project Baustista’s BABIP, he might even take the lead.

Of course, these projections are for the player in their given home park, and Bautista certainly gets a benefit from playing half of his games in Toronto, so we’d have to then ratchet his park-adjusted numbers back down, which would knock him a peg behind Cabrera at least. Is that counteracted by the fact that Bautista’s projection still includes significant data from 2008 and 2009, however, while it might be reasonable to assume that data from those years is less relevant for him than it is for comparable players? That’s tough to say, honestly.

Guys have looked like they made The Leap before, and then have reverted to prior form, but Bautista’s drastic changes suggest that he’s made some real sustainable gains. Like with Cliff Lee, there are real improvements we can point to that justify diminishing the value of previous performances, and while I don’t think Bautista is going to keep his current pace up, nor do I think he’s going back to anything close to what he was before.

Essentially what it comes down to is how much weight you put on the most recent performance. If you think Bautista’s eight month power binge is evidence that he’s a changed hitter, then it’s hard to get away from the conclusion that he has passed Miguel Cabrera and is now the best hitter in the American League. More conservative types might want to see him keep this up a little bit longer before making drastic changes in their evaluations. I’m not sure either side has enough evidence to be clearly right or wrong, honestly.

So, we probably can’t say with certainty that Bautista is the best hitter in the AL right now. He might be, though, and at the very least, he’s in the discussion, and he’s making a fantastic case for himself.