Toronto Blue Jays & Jose Bautista’s Mutual Option: Not Looking Likely

 

Jays From the Couch explores all the scenarios where the Toronto Blue Jays & Jose Bautista’s mutual options is triggered

 

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When Jose Bautista signed his one-year deal with the Blue Jays this winter, the default assumption was that the mutual option (and the vesting option that follows after it) was not going to be picked up. That is definitely the most likely outcome, given historical precedence—over the last twenty years, 96 of the 100 mutual options given out were not picked up.

 

But I wondered how likely it was for a mutual agreement to occur this time? Ultimately, there are two questions to answer:

  1. Is there a narrow performance range where both the Blue Jays and Jose Bautista would be rational to agree to their side of the option? (Yes.)
  2. How likely is it that Jose Bautista finds his way within that range over the course of 2017? (Not likely, at this point.)

 

There are a lot of moving parts to the situation, namely the vesting option for 2019. As such, I’ll show my work as we move along and hopefully this exercise can be a jumping off point for more analysis (this stuff might be boring to some, but the game theorist in me finds it pretty interesting).

 

The Pick-Up Range: No vesting option

Let’s start simple by thinking of a range that would make both sides want to commit to one more season together. Here are the equations that I’m using in my table:

Minimum 2017 WAR (Beyond which Jays would be interested) =

Maximum 2017 WAR (Below which Jose would be interested) =

 

There are three key assumptions to make:

Value of WAR: I will use the $9 million figure that Jays from the Couch was quoted by a Blue Jays source

Aging Curve: This is a key variable. Fangraphs typically assumes that players in their Age-37 season (and beyond) produce 0.75 fewer WAR each season. I will use this as a baseline, but see how a slower aging curve affects things.

Jose’s Walk Salary: There will be some number in Jose’s head that, if offered to him by another team, would motivate him to leave Toronto. Another important, but unknown variable. Presumably, it’s roughly equal to $17 million plus the tangible (sponsorships) and intangible (the love of a fan base) value he would get from another year in Toronto.

 

 

Scenario A: It’s worth laying out this scenario first. If Jose is willing to walk if he receives any more than $17 million, the mutual option will almost certainly not be picked up. If Jose was good enough to keep the Jays interested (2.6 WAR), he would also be good enough to get at least one comparable offer from another team.

 

Scenario B: This one is a little more realistic. If Jose will only walk if he’s reasonably confident he can get an outside offer of about $25 million for one season, a range of 2.6 to 3.5 WAR would make sense. [If you’d rather plug in a lower walk salary, remove 0.1 WAR for each $1 million you subtract from $25 million.]

 

Scenario C: This is the “Jose is fitter than the average 37 year old” scenario. If we assume that his aging curve will be 0.5 WAR per season, the range shifts down to 2.4 to 3.3 WAR, slightly more plausible.

 

The Pick-Up Range: With the vesting option activated

The $20 million vesting option for 2019 kicks in if Jose plays in 300 games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons and is “healthy” at the end of the 2018 season. 150 games a season takes a toll on any player. That said, Jose has played every single game this season, so far. Also, to keep things simple, we will assume that Jose’s competing offers will also be one-year deals with a similar games-based vesting option for 2019.

 

If we assume, for simplicity’s sake, that the vesting option will be triggered, the relevant (and slightly more complex) equations are:

Minimum 2017 WAR (Beyond which Jays would be interested) =

Maximum 2017 WAR (Below which Jose would be interested) =

 

 

Scenario A: Jose’s $37 million contract equates to 4.1 WAR over two seasons. In order for the Jays to reasonably expect Jose to be worth that salary over the next two seasons, he would need to produce about 3.2 WAR in 2017. With the normal aging curve, he’d project to be worth about 2.5 and 1.7 WAR in 2018 and 2019. If Jose is willing to walk for $37 million guaranteed over two years, the mutual option will almost definitely not be picked up (as in the other Scenario A).

 

Scenario B: If Jose is looking for something in the range of $50 million over two years from another team (and we stick with the normal aging curve), he would probably have to produce nearly 4 WAR this season in order to convince teams that he’d be worth that kind of money. This leads to the toughest range to meet: 3.2 to 3.9 WAR. [If you’d rather plug in a lower walk salary, remove 0.1 WAR for each $2 million you subtract from $50 million.]

 

Scenario C: Finally, if we stick with the same salary expectations, but assume a slower aging curve, both sides would likely be interested in triggering the mutual option if Jose produces between 2.8 and 3.5 WAR this season.

 

My guess is that if the Jays are considering picking up the mutual option, they will assume that the vesting option will be triggered as well, making this second set of scenarios most relevant. Ultimately, the team must decide to pick up the mutual option, which puts the vesting option in play, before it knows how the 2018 season will unfold (which will determine the fate of the vesting option). If Jose was healthy enough in 2017 to make this decision tempting, they’d likely assume he can replicate that health in 2018.

 

Can Jose do it?

Well, that depends on Jose’s performance this year. At this point, there are a few ways to think about how Jose’s 2017 season will progress.

 

In pre-season projections (Depth Charts), Jose was expected to produce 3 WAR, a partial rebound to his pre-2016 value. At the time, I (and others writing at the time) felt that this projection would put the mutual option in play—that’s what motivated this exercise in the first place. Based on the scenarios we’ve developed, that seems about right. 3 WAR would meet Scenarios B and C (2018) and Scenario C (2018/19), while falling just short of Scenario B (2018/19). My hunch is that if Jose met this level in a healthy 2017 season, the Blue Jays would be willing to trigger the mutual option.

 

Unfortunately, his 2017 season has been a mixed bag. He was playing below replacement level through April (-0.5 WAR, 170th among 184 qualified batters), before playing exceptionally well in May (1.3 WAR, 16th of 188). Unfortunately, June (-0.5 WAR, 189th of 191) has been just as bad as April for him. A simple pro-rating of his performance so far over 162 games amounts to a 0.7 WAR (the least “scientific” way to project his performance this season). In this case, Jose would be delighted with the option years, while the Jays most likely wouldn’t be.

 

If we use the Depth Charts’ rest-of-season projections to fill in the gaps, Jose would end up with 157 games played and a WAR of 1.9. Again, short of the ranges in all scenarios.

 

It isn’t looking good for this mutual option. Let’s get creative (and generous to Jose) and write off April as the result of lingering back issues from the WBC and focus on May and June. One great month, one terrible half-month. He has produced 0.8 WAR over 43 games since May 1st. Maintaining that pace over the next 90 games would result in 1.7 WAR over the next three and a half months and 2 WAR for 2017 overall. Roughly on par with his rest-of-season Depth Charts projections and still probably not enough to make the Jays comfortable with picking up the mutual option.

 

One final hope is that his underlying performance at the plate (where he generates all of his positive value) has been as good as hoped and that he has been (at least partially) the victim of bad fortune. Unfortunately, when we look at these stats, everything is trending in the wrong direction. Relative to 2015 and 2016, he has seen his batting average, expected batting average, walk rate, strikeout rate, weighted on-base average on balls in play, expected weighted on-base average on balls in play, overall weighted on-base average and overall expected weighted on-base average worsen.

 

 

Put together, Jose’s performance this season suggests that he has been fairly solid, if a little unlucky on balls in play (0.21 xwOBA – wOBA on BIP). However, his plate discipline has worsened substantially and the two facts are likely connected. Being more aggressive at the plate (his 10.5% swinging strike rate is about 3% higher than recent seasons) might be helping him to maintain solid performances on balls in play, but may also have led to a lot fewer walks and a lot more strikeouts.

 

Ultimately, if Jose finishes up with 3 WAR for the 2017 season (as he was projected to), the mutual option stands a modest chance of being picked up. If he ends up around 2 WAR, as Depth Charts currently projects him to, the Blue Jays would be very wary about picking up the option.

 

That said, a new, different deal would still be possible, depending on a number of factors—how the Jays view their more advanced outfield prospects and any external alternatives, as well as the relationship between player and team. A 2 WAR performance this year implies a 1.25 WAR performance next season, worth about $12 million. If there is a will to remain together, a bonus-laden deal with a base salary around $12 million could be in the cards. As was the case when the current deal was signed, Jose’s future will all depend on how his 2017 season plays out.

 

In the mean time, I’ll be enjoying the great moments Jose keeps producing. The 13th-inning homer vs. the Angels. His three-run homers to beat the Rangers and the Mariners, both in front of the kids on Jr. Jays Saturdays. And the night he saw the two runs that Cleveland put up in the top of the first and raised them a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning, setting up a barn-burner of an 8-7 win.

 

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

 

 

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.