Jose Bautista: Force of Nature

For all of the natural ebbs and flows of individual player performance, the game’s ruling class — the elite of the elite — is a fairly closed society that remains fairly static from year to year. Any given season might have its Yasiel Puig breaking through, or its Albert Pujols conceding his seat. But the core membership is fairly predictable. What might happen in any given year, though, is one of these elite players taking a temporary step up in class‚ reaching an even more rarified air than before. Over the past two weeks, we’ve taken a deeper look at the 2014 performances of some of the game’s elite and determined whether they have taken things to the next level. Today: Jose Bautista.

Jose Bautista’s path to greatness has been far from traditional. Any list of the game’s greats will turn up players who were once selected in the Rule 5 draft, purchased for cash, claimed on waivers, or traded multiple times, often for non-entities. Each and every one of these scenarios, believe it or not, apply to Bautista. A 20th round draft and follow selection in 2000 by the Pirates, Bautista was selected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft at the 2003 winter meetings. Less than six months later, Tampa Bay claimed him on waivers from the Orioles, only to sell him to the Royals less than a month later. He was then traded twice on the same day a month later, just before the 2004 trading deadline, winding up in Pittsburgh.

He was given every chance to succeed over three and a half seasons in the Pirates’ organization, before being moved along one last time, to the Blue Jays in exchange for catching prospect Robinzon Diaz. Yes, Bautista had showed a lot of promise with the bat, especially in the minor leagues, but no, absolutely no one saw what was coming next at the major league level with the Blue Jays.

Bautista was a thoroughly ordinary offensive player in his first four seasons as a major league regular, three spent with the Pirates and one with the Jays. I searched for players with a negative combined number of standard deviations above/below league average OBP and SLG in their first four seasons as a regular who were materially above average offensive players in their fifth, at the age of 29. The only two players other than Bautista that I was able to come up with were Xavier Nady (2008) and Rich Aurilia (2001). Neither was anywhere near as good as Bautista in their age 29 season, and both were better than Bautista in their four previous seasons as a regular – both had OPS+ figures over 100 in at least one season, while Bautista did not. Nady was never again remotely near a league average performer after his age 29 season, while Aurilia, as it turns out, had some “help” in reaching his new heights.

From all indications, the only “help” that Bautista received was in the form of a new batting coach, Dwayne Murphy, who shifted from the first base coach role following the 2009 season. Bautista became extremely pull-focused in 2010, and took off. Now, for most hitters, gearing up to pull for power at the exclusion of all else is a recipe for failure. You open up massive holes on the outer half of the plate, swing and miss a bunch, and roll over a bunch of weak grounders to the pull side. The infield defense then overshifts, and your struggles intensify. This progression has affected a succession of high-power, low-OBP guys, either ending their careers or at the very least dropping them to a lower rung in the game’s pecking order.

Bautista has possessed another trait that could have waylaid him a long time ago – he is one of the game’s foremost popup generators. In his breakout season of 2010, popups accounted for an amazing 20.2% of his balls in play. As a frame of reference, consider that the MLB average popup percentage is usually just south of 8.0% percent. As he entered his breakout phase, Jose Bautista was a hitter who had struck out at a better than league average clip, with a decent walk rate, but a huge popup and low liner rate. This was a guy with upside, but also with a whole lot of risk and potential downside. There was one way to bust through it, and it was with brute force – top-of-the-scale batted-ball authority. And that’s exactly what Bautista has done for the last few years – mash. He’s basically been the older, somewhat lesser version of Giancarlo Stanton when it comes to batted ball authority.

In 2010 and 2011, Bautista had his two career years to date, making runs at the AL MVP Award in both seasons. 2012 and 2013 were injury-plagued campaigns, however, and weren’t as successful even on a per at bat basis. Until the last few days, however, Bautista appeared to be healthy and back at the top of his game before the dreaded “muscle tightness” slowed him down, hopefully temporarily. The Jays are rocking and rolling, and if that continues and Bautista gets back into the saddle quickly, he may again make a run at the MVP. Has Bautista regained his status as one of the game’s elite hitters? Or have his physical gifts begun to recede a bit, placing him in the tier of the very good, but not necessarily great offensive players in the game today? Let’s take a closer look at his 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to see what, if any, changes have taken place. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2013
J.Bautista % REL PCT
K 15.9% 80 37
BB 13.1% 165 94
POP 13.7% 175 94
FLY 27.6% 98 41
LD 18.8% 88 13
GB 39.9% 94 44

FREQ – 2014
J.Bautista % REL PCT
K 14.2% 70 24
BB 17.5% 219 99
POP 11.1% 144 81
FLY 27.8% 100 48
LD 21.3% 102 53
GB 39.8% 91 38

We’re only showing two years here, but continuation of some long-term trends have helped Bautista minimize his considerable batted-ball risk. First, Bautista has become pretty darned difficult to strike out, an increasing rarity for a power hitter in this day and age. As recently as 2008, Bautista’s K rate percentile rank was a very high 85. Since then, it has drifted straight downhill, to 82, 56, 51, 35, 37, and thus far in 2014, to 24. His walk rate, while always a strength, has moved into the peerless category, with his percentile rank moving from 60 in 2008 into the nineties ever since, and currently sits at the maximum peak level of 99.

While a popup percentile rank of 81 thus far in 204 is nothing special, it marks his first time out of the nineties since 2008. His line drive percentile rank of 51 thus far in 2014 might seem unimposing, but consider this – since 2008, his highest full-season percentile rank in this category was 17. Conservatively expect some regression in this mark as the season continues to unfold.

Let’s take a look at Bautista’s production by BIP type in 2013 and 2014, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.296 1.041 159 199
LD 0.742 1.227 158 146
GB 0.239 0.246 98 154
ALL BIP 0.306 0.594 112 131
ALL PA 0.250 0.349 0.485 133 150

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.400 1.150 225 206
LD 0.652 0.913 100 127
GB 0.279 0.291 130 125
ALL BIP 0.361 0.626 137 138
ALL PA 0.298 0.422 0.516 170 172

Bautista’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

It should be noted that at this stage in his career, Bautista is a very good – but not elite – fly ball impactor. His 2013 and 2014 fly ball ADJ PRD figures of 199 and 206, after adjustment for context, are nowhere that of Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Pedro Alvarez and Mike Napoli‘s 2013 fly ball ADJ PRD figures. He has been making much less frequent top-of-the-range contact in the air, as well. In 2013, 9 of Bautista’s 90 fly balls a full 10.0% percent – were hit at 105 MPH or higher. This year, he has yet to reach that mark once.

As for line drive impact, Bautista’s ADJ PRD has slid a bit from 146 in 2013 to 127 in 2014, but remains in the elite range. Giancarlo Stanton is basically the only guy around who hits his liners materially harder than Bautista. His groundball authority has also gone backward a bit this season, from an ADJ PRD of 154 in 2013 to 125, well above average but far from the elite range.

On all BIP, Bautista’s ADJ PRD has moved up slightly from 131 in 2013 to 138 in 2014, in large part to his increased line drive rate. That’s really good, but to be honest, the upper crust among MLB hitters does better than that. In 2013, Bautista wasn’t an elite offensive player. In 2014, he is, but not because of elite batted-ball authority. It’s because of elite K and BB rates, very good batted-ball authority, and a likely temporary blip in his liner rate.

One more note….. about that whole dead-pull thing he’s pulled off all these years. He’s actually easing off the throttle on that just a bit. In 2013, hit 72 grounders to the LF-LCF sectors, and only eight to RCF-RF, for a “pull factor” of 9.00 on the ground. That’s easily into automatic overshift territory. Thus far in 2014, it’s a much different story, with a 2.84 pull factor (54/19) on the ground. This means you overshift the infield at your own risk, and wouldn’t you know, Bautista is hitting .040 higher on grounders in 2014 despite not hitting them as hard as he did in 2013.

Jose Bautista isn’t quite the brute force machine that he was at his physical peak in 2010-11, but has become much more of a craftsman since then. He doesn’t hit the ball as hard or as far, but he strikes out less, walks more, pops up less, and is now actually beginning to use the opposite field a bit more than he did in the past. We still don’t know if his most recent nagging injury is just that, a minor nuisance, or the first of a few dominoes that could conspire to shorten his 2014 campaign much like the previous two. What we do know is that Bautista is still a force of nature, albeit a somewhat more subtle, nuanced one.

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“In his breakout season of 2010, popups accounted for an amazing 20.2% of his balls in play.”

I’m curious as to where you’re getting this data. What’s the difference between a popup and and infield fly ball? Fangraphs has Bautista hitting 37 IFFBs in 2010 out of 457 balls in play, which comes to only 8%.

Roto Wizard
Roto Wizard

Pop ups would also include those into the outfield