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.

32 Responses to “Power Swings, Zobrist, and Bautista”

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  1. Bob says:

    Nice overview, Matt! Gotta quibble with one point, though.

    You say, “…prior to their power surges, what Bautista and Zobrist have in common is good plate discipline.” I’ve gotta respectfully disagree, there.

    Actually, Zobrist’s minor league plate discipline (which you did touch upon) was *terrific*, as he drew a walk at a near-Youkilisian rate of one every 6 1/2 plate appearances.

    Bautista, however, was merely “okay” in the walks department—and struck out a lot more than Zobrist. On balance, J.B. showed average plate discipline at best.

    In short, unlike Zobrist, there was really nothing in Bautista’s decade-long professional career that foreshadowed hitting excellence. Not hitting for average, not mashing for power, not being young for his level of competition in the minors, and definitely not his strikezone control.

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    • Eric says:

      wow, do you plan on ripping on Bautista every chance you get? He’s awesome, deal with it.

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      • Eric P says:

        Dude…he was hardly ‘ripping’ him. Everything he said about Bautista’s past is pretty much true. He didn’t have the greatest eye in the minors- although he was good-his ISO every year before last season were decent, but hardly indicative of someone with 50+HR potential, and he was a .240-.270 hitter until recently.

        From what I read, all he was saying is that Zobrist’s power surge and general MLB level improvement had more foreshadowing than Bautista’s…

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      • MikeS says:

        Read Bob’s comment. he never said that Bautista isn’t excellent. All he did was suggest that a year or two ago nobody could have seen this coming. It’s hard to argue with that. Anybody who says he knew Bautista was going to become a 3 WAR player would have been looked at as optimistic.

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    • chuckb says:

      Prior to 2009, as the article points out, Bautista’s career OBP was nearly 100 points higher than his career BA. That’s indicative of a player who walks a lot and has a good batting eye. He’s obviously taken it to Bondsian levels now but his walks were very good even in his first 1634 major league PAs.

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  2. Jesse says:

    no baustita was above average during his two main years (07/08) his bb rate of 11.4 and 9.4 % were above the averages of 8.5 and 8.7.

    and while his strike outs were higher his O swing% was aslo well below the average, and 17.9 and 20.9 when the league average was 25% and his swing strike rates were also well below league average

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  3. Nick says:

    The changes each made (or at least that Bautista made) were just as much to improve each hitter’s timing and swing path. Not sure if it was a goal or an unavoidable byproduct, but the bat is quicker to and stays longer in the zone, creating that backspin and drive.

    I think that plate discipline observation (or, more specifically, those quality BB%s) is a great one. Players with such potential selectivity have to be much better candidates to incorporate the kind of changes you discussed here.

    I’d say the main goal isn’t power as much as it is efficiency, because I’d assume that players (not all, naturally) with similar selectivity but less power could still become quite productive if they made such an adaptation.

    Interesting piece, thanks, didn’t realize there were such similarities here.

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  4. Ryan says:

    Man, when is Daric Barton going to try “swinging harder.” His discipline and contact rates seem very similar.

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  5. LionoftheSenate says:

    I love how the stats crowd is at a loss to explain or analyze why Bautista is now dominating…… Why doesn’t this site invite a scout on to write a guest column on the matter.

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    • Chris says:

      They aren’t at a loss. We all know that his hitting coach reshaped his swing. As neither you nor I nor they are major league hitters or hitting coaches I don’t think we are in position to even comment on the subject. You are right, a hitting coach or scout might be able to provide some insight. But you aren’t exactly providing anything of value, while the writers at fangraphs are.

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    • chuckb says:

      Great insight! If only the article, or one of the other ones written about Bautista, had actually referenced another article written about how one of Bautista’s hitting coaches had tutored him on his swing. That would have really added to the piece.

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  6. Franco says:

    I’m guessing the other missing factor is actual physical strength. Both guys must have been lifting like gorillas in the gym before someone saw it and was confused how they weren’t hitting homers.

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    • Tom Jackson says:

      One problem with your assumption Franco. While Bautista did a lot of power lifting in his conditioning program through the 2009 season, in the offseason of 2009-2010, he mostly ditched it in favour of plyometrics and cardio work, so while he may have been “lifting like a gorilla” back when he sucked, he switched it up that offseason and somehow I don’t think he’ll be changing anything for the foreseeable future.

      He mentioned the other day in a radio interview that all the Jays had been tested each week for the previous four weeks and that he was tested twice one week. Doesn’t necessarily mean he, or anyone else playing MLB, is “clean”, but it does mean that he’s “clean” within the parameters of the current testing program, which while far from perfect is the best of the four (and in some states three) major professional team sports leagues in North America. You know, just in case that’s where you were going with the whole “lifting like gorillas” thing.

      It’s very hard to trust anything fallout of the steroid era. You know “Fool me once, shame on you…Fool me twice, shame on me”. We don’t want to get suckered again. I get that, and I struggle with it too. But until the MLB testing, flawed as it is, says he’s juicing I’m gonna choose to give him (and Zobrist and anyone else for that matter) the benefit of the doubt. Something about “innocent until proven guilty” is pushing me in that direction. Call me gullible if you wish. ;)

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    • Tom Jackson says:

      That should read “It’s very hard to trust anything in the fallout of the steroid era”.

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  7. es0terik says:

    I got a small question completely off topic:

    Why are Intentional Walks not counted in WAR?!

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    • Eric P says:

      My guess would be because it isn’t a true “skill” thing. I’m not 100% on that, and have never heard an explanation of why though so don’t hold me to that.

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    • KB says:

      Wow, that means Bonds’ 11 WAR should have been much, much higher…

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    • MV says:

      …because they totally ARE? Batting component of WAR is based on wOBA which includes unintentional walks.

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      • Indestructible says:

        Congrats on telling us about unintentional affecting WAR when the question clearly asked about INTENTIONAL walks.

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  8. Dustin says:

    I enjoy the comparison of these two. It is a good article minus the obvious lack of even reading it after writing, not to mention the lack of an editor. I noticed 4 mistakes and I wasn’t even looking for them. Inexcusable really.

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  9. JayTeam says:

    Bautista was drafted as a power hitter, but never translated his potential into production until the ’09 season. That year was unusual in that the Jays had basically 3 hitting coaches who were able to give their pet projects much more individual attention. The soon-to-retire hitting coach was Gene Tenace, the Manager was ex-hitting coach Cito Gaston as well as the soon-to-be hitting coach Dwayne Murphy. In addition to Murphy’s Bautista project yielding results by year end, both Aaron Hill and Adam Lind had huge offensive seasons as well, better than they had done before or since. I’ve wondered why teams couldn’t try this more often, with a pull-hitting coach to work with those that would suit his style, while players who’s power is to all fields have their coach, and maybe a third Charlie Lau up-the-middle type for the slap hitters, rather than expect one coach to be a one-size-fits-all.

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  10. wily mo says:

    andres torres should be in the mix here too

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  11. Josh Shepardson says:

    I was curious how a certain player’s numbers stacked up to Ben Zobrist’s and was pleased to see the comp was rather favorable. That player? Jed Lowrie. Largely viewed as a utility player coming into the season, he finished last year with a power spike posting a .240 ISO and 9 HR’s in 197 PA. The home runs came from nowhere, but he did have a season with an ISO over .200 in 2007. He’s also displayed fantastic walk rates in the minors. He’s also hitting the ball in the air a ton, which should help his slugging, but does he have enough pop to take do some yard work? I don’t like seeing him swinging at more pitches both in and out of the zone, but am encouraged by his track record. Any thoughts on how he further develops?

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    • EDogg1438 says:

      Lowrie has taken a more swing-happy approach this year for some reason. It was very successful early on and has regressed some since.

      The interesting thing to note in Lowrie’s development though is his platoon splits. For whatever reason, he has always been a MUCH BETTER hitter batting right-handed. If he could develop into even an average LH hitter, his RH splits would make him a perennial All-Star caliber player at SS.

      Or maybe he should look into junking the switch hitting and becoming a strictly RH batter.

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      • Josh Shepardson says:

        Interesting, I hadn’t looked at his lefty-righty splits. Also an interesting idea of scrapping switch hitting. I had a conversation with a friend about another switch hitter with a big platoon split and it spiraled into brain storming about hitters who have actually done that. The one name that came to mind for me was J.T. Snow. I’d be interested to see a list of players who have opted to ditch switch hitting in favor of hitting from their more favorable side.

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  12. chuckb says:

    Is it even worth mentioning that, if Bautista were injured for the remainder of the season, he would still finish with as many WAR as Hanley Ramirez did last year? And we’re, what, 1/3 of the way through the season?

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  13. jimiu says:

    Ryan Roberts may be another guy who we might want to compare – good eye, power coming around at a relatively late age.

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  14. Marbotty says:

    Nice write up. Gotta agree with Bob, though, as I’m not sure Zobrist is the best person to compare to Bautista — Zobrist was heralded, Bautista was at one time a throw-in in a trade for Justin Huber. To put it another way, I’m not at all surprised that Zobrist is hitting well, but Bautista has completely floored me with his performance.

    Had it not been for this year’s early dominance, Brady Anderson would have been the best person to compare to Bautista. They broke out at about the same age, and both had several uninspiring seasons prior to said breakout.

    But clearly, Bautista is proving 2010 wasn’t a fluke, something Brady Anderson could never quite do after his spectacular 1996 campaign. Of course, there’s still a chance that Jose could crash and burn and end up with the same sort of pedestrian numbers that Brady managed, but that’s looking less and less likely as the year goes on. I really think finding a comparable two season run for a player who has shown virtually nothing like it in the past is a very difficult thing to do.

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    • Thanks. Just to clarify: what I hoped to focus on (and this may very well be a flaw in how I wrote it up) is what we can see statistically in Zobrist and Bautista’s pre-”breakout” seasons that they have in common as a potential contributing factor. This isn’t to say that everyone or even most players with plate patience can turn into good power hitters, or that Zobrist and Bautista are a lot alike. It is simply to point out that that common factor seems to have been a prerequisite for both of them making successful conversion to power swings. For example, I’m not sure the same coaches could work the same wonders with Adam Jones (although he migth eventually hit for great power for other reasons).

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  15. Mike Green says:

    Hit Tracker might add to the picture. Bautista’s HR distance in 2010 and 2011 has been somewhat above average but not dominating the league in this area. In other words, he’s been more Henry Aaron than Mark McGwire or Prince Fielder.
    At a lower level but still impressive level of HR production, Zobrist has below average distance.

    Nick’s observations above about the nature of the swing improvements would be consistent with this. I suppose that the correlation between walk rate and subsequent HR development might be associated with the degree of control of the bat in both instances, in addition to the pitch recognition aspect.

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