- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Is Jose Bautista’s Leap Unprecedented?

As long as Jose Bautista continues to hit like this it is our duty to write articles in his honor. Earlier in the week Dave Cameron analyzed how much of a bargain Bautista’s 5 yr/$65 mil extension with the Blue Jays will represent even if he sustains just a semblance of his current performance. Dave also offered up a pu pu platter of statistical nuggets summarizing Jose’s nutty season. Today I’ll look at where Bautista’s rise to superstardom ranks historically to answer the titular question.

We all know the man can hit. In just 35 games he has 4.0 WAR to his name, slashing .360/.509/.816 and with 16 home runs in the process. His rest of season ZiPS projection is .267/.388/.567, which is better than most players are hitting right now. Seriously, his regression-riddled wOBA for the rest of the season is .419 — only six players currently boast a mark greater than that.

Everything about his turnaround defies logic. This isn’t the case of an upper echelon prospect like Brandon Wood figuring something out. Bautista was always patient at the plate and played decent defense, but he was the epitome of a player whose value was linked directly to his team-controlled status. He was a stopgap solution, a non-tender candidate, not a stud in the making. He wasn’t going to make $65 million in his entire career, and now that amount over five years is considered a massive bargain. But is his drastic improvement unprecedented? In the annals of baseball history, has anyone ever improved as much and as quickly?

My first thought was to run a straight year-to-year comparison to see if anyone has experienced an uptick like Bautista’s, but I remembered that his improvement actually began at the end of the 2009 season. In September 2009, he hit .257/.339/.606, skewing his seasonal numbers. Though he produced 1.9 WAR on the whole, some significant portion of that had to be attributable to the power surge that month. Jumping from 1.9 WAR to 6.9 WAR is incredibly impressive, but the former number isn’t entirely indicative of his talent level prior to the mechanical changes he implemented.

To that end I decided to average his 2008-09 numbers and use that figure as the comparative basis. Bautista averaged 1.2 WAR from 2008-09 (0.4 in 2008, 1.9 in 2009). The jump from between replacement level and below average player to best-hitter-in-the-game is much more remarkable. To better model his improvement, however, the question was not one of how often a player improved by five or more wins above replacement level, but rather how frequently a player at, or below, Bautista’s prior talent level improved in a similar fashion.

Stipulating that the player had to tally at least 400 plate appearances in the two initial seasons being averaged, there were 841 players with a WAR average of no greater than 1.2 since 1960 who played at least one more season. Here are the biggest improvements from that average to the third season of the span:

Bret Boone (1999-2001): 0.3 WAR in 1999-00, 7.8 WAR in 2001
Dale Murphy (1978-1980): 0.1 WAR in 1978-79, 6.0 WAR in 1980
Jose Bautista (2008-2010): 1.2 WAR in 2008-09, 6.9 WAR in 2010
Cristian Guzman (1999-2001): -1.6 WAR in 1999-00, 3.9 WAR in 2001
Lloyd Moseby (1981-1983): 1.0 WAR in 1981-82, 6.2 WAR in 1983

Murphy’s first two full seasons were 1978 and 1979, so his improvement was more in line with natural development as a youngster. The same can be said of Guzman, whose first two seasons came in 1999 and 2000, and Moseby, whose second and third seasons came in 1981 and 1982. Of the top five, only Boone makes sense as a comparable situation, as both players were around 30 years old when they broke out, and each had a decent season or two in his past.

Moving further down the top fifteen improvements, another comparable player emerges: Leo Cardenas (1967-69), who averaged 0.9 WAR in 1967-68, and tallied six wins the next year. A few other players stood out, such as Joe Carter, Steve Finley and Dave Parker, but each of them had already produced a few all-star level campaigns. They were known to be solid players and were re-establishing themselves as all-stars.

Boone seems like the best comparable overall, as he averaged close to six wins above replacement from 2001-03 after several average or below average seasons.

Is Bautista’s meteoric rise to stardom unprecedented? No, not exactly, at least when the question is examined like this. What might be unprecedented is his improvement on the aforementioned improvement, assuming he finishes at around 10-11 WAR this season. This has the makings of an historic season, folks. Let’s not allow the terms “regression” and “sustainability” to get in the way of our fun.