Note: This was written just before Monday night’s game, in which Bautista had three hits and a homer. So, most of his 2014 stats are even better than they appear below.
One of the more impressive active streaks in baseball ended recently, and I bet you didn’t know anything about it. No, not the end of Nolan Arenado‘s 28-game hitting streak, as nice as that was. Jose Bautista went 0-4 in a loss to the Angels on Sunday, failing to reach base for the first time all year after doing so 37 consecutive times. It’s the longest streak since Michael Cuddyer (!) did so 46 consecutive times last year; it’s the longest to start a season since Albert Pujols had 42 in 2008; it’s tied with Carlos Delgado for the longest in Blue Jays history.
That’s interesting, but it’s not that interesting on its own, really. Bautista wasn’t even halfway to Ted Williams‘ record of 84. Orlando Cabrera once got on base 63 games in a row. Kevin Millar, 52. It’s hard to be a poor player and continually get on base, but it doesn’t on its own make you a great player. What’s interesting about what Bautista just did is that it’s a small part of the larger whole: After back-to-back seasons that were very good but hardly up to the standard he set during his insane 2010-11 run, and at age 33, Bautista is once again absolutely destroying baseballs, currently sitting with the fourth-best wRC+ in the game.
Now even “fourth-best” is maybe underselling it a bit, because that includes Seth Smith (!!), a platoon bat who almost exclusively faces righty pitchers, and Troy Tulowitzki, who may very well not be a human of this world. But fourth-best it is, and no matter how you want to parse or qualify it, it’s of course extremely good, and it’s a bit unexpected, considering the trends from his last four seasons I noted about him last fall:
ISO: .357 -> .306 -> .286 -> .239
SLG: .617 -> .608 -> .527 ->.498
That’s a clear downward direction, perhaps not unexpected from a player who took so long to break out that he was already 29 in his first big season. Obviously, some of that was injury-related — due to a 2012 wrist injury and a 2013 hip issue, he hasn’t played in a September game since 2011. (If that doesn’t seem that long ago, it should. Mike McCoy, Mark Teahen, David Cooper and Donny Lucy all started that day.) And who knows, maybe he doesn’t again. Players entering their mid-30s with a recent history of injuries don’t tend to get more healthy, so maybe we’ll look back at the end of the year and talk about a year that started out wonderfully and ended up as another good-but-not-elite season.
But for now, what we know is this: Bautista’s .422 wOBA through Monday afternoon is identical to the .422 wOBA he put up in his breakout 2010, the one that truly put him on the map. (Then as now, his wRC+was the fourth-best in baseball.) An identical wOBA indicates a similar level of offensive production, though what’s interesting here is that he’s not doing it in the same way. In 2010, it was ridiculous power, with a .617 SLG that was behind only Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera, and helped along by a very good .378 OBP. This year, the power isn’t quite what it was at his best — not that anyone’s complaining about a .537 SLG, which is what Michael Morse and Yasiel Puig are providing, but it’s still not .617 — and an elite .430 OBP. (“But he’s got nine homers!” I can already hear. Four came in his first eight games, five in 30 since.)
The current Bautista is still offering power, but he’s also getting on base like crazy. (Remember here that while he did have a .447 OBP in 2011, he also had 24 intentional walks that year, somewhat inflating it.) Let’s take a look at some relevant plate discipline stats:
Note, if you would, some items. Bautista’s swing rate has remained relatively steady, from 37.5 percent in 2009 to 36.0 percent today; that his career mark is 39.1 percent includes some of his earlier free-swinging days in Pittsburgh, as he’s topped that just once in Toronto. He’s swinging slightly less overall, but not a great deal.
Note, secondly, that his contact rate has been consistent with some minor changes. For several years, it was at, near, or exactly 80 percent. Last year, you see a bump to 84.6; this year, a dip to 78.5. That does not correspond to any increase in strikeouts, because his whiff percentage has been all but identical in each of the last three years.
Note, finally, the line that does have a big difference: O-contact percentage, which tells you how much contact he makes on balls outside the strike zone. From 2010-12, it was exceptionally consistent. In 2013, it jumped along with his contact rate to a career-high 72.2, now, it’s plummeted all the way to 52.2 percent, an enormous drop.
What does that tell you? Nothing concrete, because while I’m about to speculate, it’s exactly that — there’s no primary source quoting this as something Bautista believes that I’ve been able to uncover. But it doesn’t seem totally unreasonable to suggest that missing more balls outside the strike zone may actually be a good thing, because for most hitters, contact on those kinds of balls isn’t ideal. (As Dodger fans will sadly remember, this was the Juan Pierre principle, because while Pierre was roundly celebrated for his contact skills, he’d routinely get his bat on lousy pitches, leading to endless weak grounders to second.)
Using the incomparable Baseball Savant, we can look into whether that holds up for Bautista. So far in 2014, Bautista has…
— Seen 444 pitches outside the zone, of which he’s offered at 108 of them. 31 were in play (6.9 percent of the 444), getting him 10 hits (2.2 percent of the 444), all but one a single, and he also reached on errors three times.
— Seen 246 pitches inside the zone, of which he’s offered at 140 of them. 79 were in play (32.1 percent of the 246), 28 for hits (11.4 percent of the 246), including 15 extra-base hits. He also had four other plays where he didn’t get a hit but ended up bringing a run in (fielder’s choice, sacrifice fly, etc.)
Which is all as expected. Swings at pitches inside the zone have a better chance of success for the hitter than reaching for those outside it. This is why I’m not going to expand a considerable amount of your time or my effort in comparing that to the league as a whole or Bautista’s career, because this isn’t exactly on par with discovering plutonium. Those numbers align pretty well with what we all understand baseball to be; there’s a reason that 2014 pitching stars like Zack Greinke, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez all have particularly low Z-Swing marks and Masahiro Tanaka, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez, Felix Hernandez and Greinke rate highly in O-Swing. If you can get entice hitters to swing at garbage outside the zone, good things will happen.
But remember, that only all works for the hitter if you have the patience Bautista does, because otherwise pitchers would never come into the zone. Bautista is one of only two major leaguers with a walk rate above 19 percent; since 2011, he’s second only to Joey Votto in walk rate. He’s on pace to have his highest unintentional walk rate ever this year, and when he does get pitches he wants to swing at, he’s doing so with a career-high 19.1 percent line-drive rate. Those are coming at the expense of a few fly balls; otherwise, his ground ball rate and HR/FB rate are very close to career norms.
In retrospect, it all seems so simple. Don’t help the pitcher by making outs on their pitches. Accept the walks when they’re given to you. Crush the balls that you can, especially now that you’re healthy. It’s simple, yet ever so complicated. Bautista is making it work, he’s doing it at a pace we haven’t seen in a few years. It’s been since Chipper Jones and Manny Ramirez in 2008 that a player 33 or older had a wOBA higher than what Bautista is sporting. It’s still early, of course; it’s also not like we’ve never seen Bautista produce at a high level, either. With his injury concerns not a concern at present, and a plate discipline / power combination that should be envied by all, we’re seeing Bautista production like many — myself included — thought might have been gone forever.
Print This Post