Jays From the Couch looks into the very slow start to the 2017 season from Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder, Jose Bautista is missing! He has to be. What we are witnessing at the moment is not him. At least, it is not what we are used to seeing from the former home run champ. Something is different…bad different. And, when that something stands out among the current team-wide struggles, you know it is bad. It has been noticeable for quite a while, so it has to be explored. When this franchise icon is putting up a wRC+ of 21, there is something amiss, early or not. So, I had to go looking for an explanation.
|Year||Age||G||PA||R||H||2B||HR||RBI||BB||SO||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS||IBB||Cy Young Award<br>ROY – Rookie of the Year”>Awards|
The above table shows what we are used to seeing in Toronto. Obviously, his 2011 season of 8.1 WAR would be difficult to consistently repeat, but he is usually good for between 4 and 6 WAR, at least he has been over the last 6 or 7 seasons. His career wRC+ value of 131 suggests that what we are witnessing now is not the player we all know and love.
We’re used to seeing league leading strike zone awareness that has led to a career walk rate of over 14%. And, in that regard, Bautista is keeping up his usual pace. In his 14 games, he has 9 walks for a rate of 14.5%. However, the free passes aren’t really the concern, here. Instead, what is alarming is what is happening outside of those walks.
Take Thursday’s afternoon tilt against the Red Sox, for instance. In 4 at bats, Bautista struck out every single time. This game stands out because it is the most recent, and prolific example of the unusual futility to which we are bearing witness. But, it certainly is not the only time Bautista has collected the letter K. In fact, his bag of Ks has a total of 18. He’s whiffing at a rate of 29%! That’s Justin Smoak territory. In fact, it is worse than Smoak’s 26.8%. We expect it from Smoak, not Bautista, whose career K% sits at 18.2%.
In order for someone to be struggling that badly, there has to be a change. If you’ve been paying attention to Buck Martinez on the TV broadcasts, you would have heard that pitchers are throwing Bautista more offspeed stuff, more breaking balls. But, does Brooks Baseball agree?
On the top, you see the frequency of pitches thrown to Bautista in 2015. In the middle, we have those from 2016. On the bottom, we have the 2017 results. To make things simple, we’ll look at the rate at which pitchers used breaking and offspeed stuff from year to year:
2015: 25.36% breaking, 12.66% offspeed
2016: 31.06% breaking, 9.39% offpseed
2017: 35.89% breaking, 5.92% offspeed
It would appear that the opposition has increased the amount of breaking balls and decreased the amount of offspeed stuff. For a guy like Bautista, who likes to use his bat speed to pull the ball and rope it over the LF wall, pitching him offspeed stuff is probably not a good idea, so it makes sense that he would be seeing less of it. Of course, tossing him hard, fast stuff is flirting with danger. Or, at least it has been in the past, which might explain why he is seeing slight decrease in that area from last year.
What about location? It would make sense if pitchers have been trying to stay away from the inner half with his power potential. Here are his breakdowns. Again, top is his zone profile from 2015 with 2016 in the middle and 2017 on the bottom.
For the most part, we are seeing the same pattern: pitch Bautista down and away. But, what is noticeable is the frequency with which this is occurring so far in 2017. It would appear that pitchers have known to keep things down and away, but are starting to do it more and more often. Of the 294 pitches Bautista has seen in 2017, 121 of them have been balls. That’s 41%.
So, the next logical question is ‘what it Jose doing about all of this?’ For that, we head to Fangraphs. The combination of all of the above results in some interesting information. According to PITCHf/x data, Bautista has seen a dramatic dip in his Pitch Values. When he sees fastballs, he has put up a value of -1.80 wFA/C. That is a drop from last year’s mark. In fact, it is the first negative value since 2009. Perhaps, the mix of breaking stuff and location make it more difficult for Bautista to respond to the fastball, especially if he is aware of the above and is heavily focused on guarding against it.
We can’t say for sure what Bautista’s mental approach is at the plate, but we can gain some insight into how it is paying off. According to Fangraphs’ PITCHf/x Plate Discipline info, this season he is swinging about 4% more often overall, with an uptick in inside the zone swing rate. The real issue is the amount of contact he is making. His overall contact rate is at a career low of 71.3%. Since he’s been in a Blue Jays uniform, he has never hit below 79% contact, usually sitting above 80%. That decrease in contact looks even worse when you separate it into outside (56.7%) and inside (76.5%) the zone. Both of these numbers are well below his career marks and show a dropoff from last season.
When he is making contact, he is seeing a dip in the oh, so hard contact we are used to seeing. Last season, we saw hard contact 41% of the time. In 2017, it has been about half that at 20.6%. His medium contact has gone from 37.7% to 58.8%. Of all the things about Jose Bautista at the plate, this might be the most concerning. He’s juts not hitting the ball as hard. Take a look at his 2016 Exit Velocity chart from Baseball Savant:
Last season, save for a couple blips, he was seeing better than league average (~90mph) exit velocity. As it turns out, in 2017, we’re seeing an average exit velocity of 86.39 from Bautista. This is a hefty drop for a guy who relies on his ability to hit the ball hard. Of course, the easy response to this would be to point out that aging players obviously would lose the ability to hit the ball hard. And, that might be happening in the case of Bautista. The problem with that is that it is too easy.
If you consider everything pointed out above, there seems to be a perfect storm happening to cause a period of struggle, the likes of which we’ve not seen from Bautista in Toronto. Not only is he making softer contact, he is seeing more breaking balls down and away. There appears to be an intentional approach to Bautista that very well could have started last season. We certainly saw it play out in the playoffs. Due to this altered approach, timing, etc can be thrown off to the point that we are seeing play out in the early part of this season.
Adjustments have been made for Jose, now he will have to make adjustments in turn. He is a very smart hitter, and would have likely figured out this approach. What could be happening is that he is hyper focused on the breaking stuff to the point where he is having trouble reacting to fastballs that he would normally crush. Again, we can’t get inside his head and say for sure that this is the case, but it would certainly make sense, all things considered.
The lazy narrative would probably tell you that the 36 year old slugger is just the victim of what everyone expected- age related regression. That is a difficult pill to swallow since his first 14 games don’t resemble a decline, so much as a complete disappearance. This kind of rapid regression doesn’t seem logical if you’re just going to blame age. Instead, we’re witnessing a proven bat that is having some difficulty adjusting to an altered approach from pitchers.
Does that mean that it is easy to fix? Well, it might be easier to fix than the aging problem, which no one in the history of the world has been able to solve yet. Instead, Jose Bautista will be tasked with making adjustments to his approach at the plate, his pitch recognition, his timing, etc. In short, he has a lot of work to do. And, you can bet that he is already on the job.
While it is frustrating to watch – we should also recognize that he is far from the only one struggling at the plate – resorting to boos and jeers is not the answer. There have been a fair amount of those directed at Bautista over the last few games. You might as well save them for someone else because the person you’re been booing at isn’t Joey Bats, the bat flipping, home run trotting, trash talking, bad mamma jamma. That guy hasn’t been seen yet in 2017.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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