One of the remaining great unknowns is finding a reasonable way to evaluate the performances of coaches. With managers, we have only so much of the picture. It’s the same with hitting coaches and pitching coaches, and while sometimes we can credit a pitching coach for helping a guy learn a new pitch or smooth out his mechanics, hitting coaches are even more of a mystery. It would appear that teams haven’t even figured out who is and isn’t a worthwhile hitting coach, yet while their overall value isn’t known, one thing we can do is focus on individual cases. A team’s hitting coach won’t have the same effect on every hitter. In Toronto, one hitting coach has had a significant effect on one hitter.
Before the year, the Blue Jays added Kevin Seitzer, and one of Seitzer’s messages was stressing the importance of using the whole field. Seitzer came into a situation featuring Jose Bautista, who blossomed into a star by becoming an extreme pull power hitter. This season, Bautista has performed at a level well above what he did the previous two seasons. He’s back to what he was at his peak, yet he’s gotten there by following a different sort of path.
To review: between 2010-2013, there were 287 qualified position players. Bautista ranked fourth in wRC+, yet 12th-worst in BABIP. This season, out of 174 qualified position players, Bautista ranks fourth in wRC+, and when it comes to BABIP, he’s in the upper third. On its own, that’s interesting, but it could be noise. You have to dig deeper to confirm the presence of a signal.
Brendan Kennedy actually just wrote about this. I’m just going to put more numbers to it. Proof that Bautista’s a little different:
With opposing teams using the infield shift against him more and more, Jose Bautista says he is being “less stubborn and hard-headed” this season, adjusting his approach to hit balls to the opposite field.
He said he made the change after talking with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who was hired this off-season and arrived in Toronto preaching the gospel of hitting to all fields.
Bautista would run a low BABIP in part because he was focusing on fly balls, but also in part because he hit the ball most of the time to the left. So defenses responded to that, as Bautista became one of those righties who got shifted. The most oft-recommended way to beat the shift is to bunt, but it doesn’t work the same for righties as it does for lefties. Bautista’s working to beat the shift not by bunting, but by swinging and hitting the ball toward the area left vacant.
Here’s a pretty important chart:
When Jose Bautista became Jose Bautista, he started yanking the ball a lot more often. He consistently hit more than half of his balls in play toward left field. This year, his pull rate is down from over 52% to under 44%, and his opposite-field rate is up from 18% to over 25%. Bautista says he’s made a conscious adjustment, and the numbers demonstrate as much, unmistakably.
Last season, 400 players hit at least 100 balls fair. Bautista ranked 14th in pull rate, and 379th in opposite-field rate. This season, 215 players have hit at least 100 balls fair. Bautista ranks 79th in pull rate, and 110th in opposite-field rate. Of the 199 players to have hit at least 100 balls fair in both 2013 and 2014, Bautista’s got the ninth-biggest pull-rate drop. All the pull power is still there — Bautista is still lethal as half of the Bautista/Edwin Encarnacion tandem — but sometimes, now, Bautista’s willing to try to do something else.
A drop in pull rate isn’t always a good thing. One of the biggest drops belongs to Domonic Brown, and he’s been a disaster. But unlike Brown, Bautista isn’t missing his power, as he’s hitting the ball toward right on purpose.
How about a couple examples? Here’s one from early May, and one from later May.
What’s unclear is how much of this Bautista can do on the fly, and whether he has to prepare to go the other way beforehand. I don’t know if he can make his decision when the pitch is on its way. But there’s no arguing with the overall results of his process to date — he’s taken advantage of mistake pitches, and he’s also taken advantage of specific defensive alignments. As one of the best hitters in baseball, we can conclude that Bautista has tremendous bat control. Blessed with tremendous bat control, it shouldn’t be a shock that Bautista’s finding success toward right field.
Here’s what Bautista’s done going the other way:
Before, a third of his balls hit toward right were liners or grounders. This year, he’s at half, as more of those balls in play are intentional. So his success has skyrocketed. Among players with sufficient balls hit the other way this season, Bautista ranks 13th out of 84 in wRC+. In the past, even when he went the other way, he wasn’t good. Presumably, this is because he was trying to not go the other way. Now it’s a goal of his, and the results are following, because extreme defensive shifts leave open an extreme amount of space, and one doesn’t even need to hit the ball that well to take advantage.
What Bautista’s been before is a power hitter with limited success on fair balls that didn’t leave the yard. Now he’s a power hitter more able to spread the ball around, and while teams might continue to shift him as they’ve done, he’ll probably only continue to poke singles and doubles into the space when he’s able. I should note that, perhaps as an additional consequence, Bautista is running a career-low foul rate, and a career-high in-play rate. That might be unrelated, or that might be the result of Bautista looking to go wherever a given pitch might take him. In the past, he’s blamed emphasis on spraying the ball around for his foul balls, but he’s a different hitter now than he was before his Blue Jay days. He’s an elite hitter now, and an even better hitter in 2014 than he was in 2013.
Jose Bautista didn’t need Kevin Seitzer to be good. Jose Bautista was already really good. But with the help of Kevin Seitzer, Jose Bautista has started to do something he hadn’t done, and he’s returned to the uppermost tier of offensive nightmares. Not everyone is going to be able to defeat an extreme defensive shift. But then, not anyone is Jose Bautista.
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