Power Swings, Zobrist, and Bautista

In the wake of his demolition of the Twins the previous weekend, last week was apparently the Nerdosphere’s official Jose Bautista Fest. As we bask in the the heat generated by the re-entry of Bautista’s various shots into the left-field seats, it is worth noticing some striking similarities between the mashing Blue Jay’s recent path and that begun just a season earlier by Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist. While Bautista is easily the superior hitter, Zobrist is no slouch himself. Beyond the general career parallels, what might make this worth examining is what we might learn about the sort of hitters that can develop power seemingly “out of nowhere” as these two did.

The similarities go beyond simply rather sudden power increases. Both started as infielders (Bautista at third, Zobrist at shortstop), then switched to being primarily right fielders due to defensive limitations (Bautista more than Zobrist, as the latter still plays second base well when he isn’t manning right field for the Rays). The general lesson about moving left on the defensive spectrum is here, but it is their bats that really interest us.

Both Zobrist’s 2009 and Bautista’s 2010 were preceded by small-sample increases in the prior season that were understandably viewed with skepticism. Prior to 2008 (his age-27 season), Zobrist had hit .250/.304/.275 in 303 major-league plate appearances. While his minor-league numbers suggested that this was something of a small-sample slump, there were no real hints of the kind power Zobrist would develop — he never had an isolated power over .200 over a full season in the minors. When Zobrist came up as a utility player in the latter stages of the Rays’ “surprise” 2008 run, in 227 major-league plate appearances he hit put up .253/.339/.505 (.364 wOBA). Especially shocking were the 12 home runs in just over a third of a season worth of plate appearances.

Given Zobrist’s past, his .253 2008 ISO didn’t seem sustainable, but there he was in 2009 with a .246 ISO as part of his .297/.405/.543 (.404 wOBA), MVP-level season. Some regression was to be expected, but not as much as Zobrist did in 2010 en route to a disappointing .238/.346/.353 (.323 wOBA) season that seemed to show that Zobrist’s power of the previous one-and-a-bit seasons was just an extended hot streak. So far in 2011, his ISO is back up to .249. Overall, his .260/.349/.509 (.376 wOBA) line isn’t quite on the level as his 2009 (although given the change in run environment, his current 143 wRC+ is in the same neighborhood as 2009’s 151), but it does indicate that the power is here to stay.

Bautista’s story was similar, if more circuitous, as he played on four teams in 2004 alone. Prior to 2009 (his age 28 season), Bautista’s career major-league line was .238/.324/.398. That showed more power than Zobrist’s early years, but given that it was over 1634 plate appearances, there wasn’t much hope Bautista could be much more than he was — something like a four corners utility bench bat. In 2009, Bautista was having one of his typical seasons through August — hitting .237/.327/.386. In 125 August plate appearance, Bautista had an extremely productive September .257/.339/.606 (.393 wOBA), including 10 home runs. Again, at the time it seemed quite likely to be another small sample size blip. Since then… well, you know.

The above is easily seen from their player pages, but putting it them side-by-side makes the parallels (not to deny the differences — the similarities are more interesting at the moment, however) more striking. Each player had a short spurt of surprisingly big production over part of a season before their their true coming out parties, and each of those, on their own, would have been quite understandably seen as probably being the effects of random variance given the past performances of the players. We don’t see it that way now, of course, but that’s the benefit of hindsight.

What is also evident is that each player credits changes to their swings recommended by Dwanye Murphy in Bautista’s case and Jaime Cevallos in Zobrist’s. Given what has transpired since, it would be foolish to put those changes on the margins of the massive improvements these hitters each made. Having said that, however, we also have read plenty of stories about players changing their swings with the help of coaches, and nothing much comes of it. Are there any pre-existing conditions (from a statistical point of view — which, again, isn’t to deny the scouting perspective) that might have made Bautista and Zobrist likely to succeed by, if I may put grossly oversimplify, “swinging harder”?

When looking at their numbers prior to their power surges, what Bautista and Zobrist have in common is good plate discipline. In Zobrist’s case, this didn’t show in his horrible 303 plate appearances in 2006 aand 2007, but was evident in the minors — his walk rates were always above average, and from 2006 to 2008 in the minors, he had more walks than strikeouts. Bautista’s pre-2008/2009 plate discipline wasn’t quite that impressive, but other than his miserable 96 plate appearances for four teams in 2004, his walk rate was always above average, at around 10% or 11%. While he struck out more often than average in his early years, it was never dreadful. He was usually at around 25%, not much higher than, say, Evan Longoria‘s career rate.

I want to be cautious: we’re just looking at two players who have relatively exceptional developmental histories; a larger study would be required to draw more firm lessons. The circular relationship between walks and power has been confirmed by others in the past. Both Bautista and Zobrist made changes to their swings in order to generate more power, and is has clearly worked for both of them. However, “swinging harder” seems more likely to work with players who have a good idea of whether or not any given pitch is in their wheelhouse. Perhaps the older and most obvious lessons are still the best.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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