mlb

What Can the Blue Jays Expect from Aging Slugger Jose Bautista in 2017?

The 36-year-old Bautista, who is coming off his worst season as a Blue Jay, will be back in Toronto for at least one more year.

by Andrew Stoeten
Jan 18 2017, 5:41pm

Photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

"I don't think there should be any negotiations."

That was Jose Bautista last spring, speaking to a gaggle of reporters about his looming free agent walk year, failing to be careful what he wished for.

It has likely been a rather lonely winter for the man they call Joey Bats. After declining the Blue Jays' $17.2 million qualifying offer in early November, and in the process chaining a draft pick around his own neck, Bautista sat and waited as the market for one-dimensional power hitters collapsed around him.

We all know about Edwin Encarnacion's roller coaster ride through free agency. Before that even began there was a sign that things could get ugly, when Chris Carter, who hit 41 home runs for the Brewers, wasn't even tendered a contract. Mark Trumbo hit 47 home runs for the Orioles, and yet his name—like Bautista's name—hardly appeared in rumours.

READ MORE: Larry Walker Belongs in Cooperstown

Bautista and Trumbo were hit especially hard because MLB's collective bargaining agreement requires any team signing a player who rejected their former club's qualifying offer to relinquish a draft pick in the following year's amateur draft. Teams due to select in the top ten of the draft are required to give up their second-round pick, while all other teams are required to give up their first. Teams that lose such players end up being granted a pick in the compensation round of the draft, which begins immediately after the first. In theory, this system was put in place to help small-market teams that inevitably are unable to afford to keep their best players, granting them extra draft picks to build with. In reality, it mostly just depresses the market for players who have the misfortune of being too good to accept the one-year qualifying offer, but not good enough to find themselves awash in multi-year offers once they hit the open market.

Encarnacion has much a better track record than Trumbo, and is younger and was healthier in 2016 than Bautista, so he wasn't damaged as badly by all of this, but he still took his well-publicized lumps. It also didn't help matters that traditional big spenders had reason to curb their spending this winter: Boston was wary of crossing the luxury tax threshold, while the Yankees and Tigers took small steps back, and others looked ahead to the potentially historic free agent class due to hit the market after 2018 (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Donaldson, etc.).

Bautista still put up solid numbers in a down year, but a market never really materialized for him. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago Marco Estrada feared what the qualifying offer would do to his market so much that he accepted a two-year extension from the Blue Jays. Bautista wasn't quite so savvy. Even after the Encarnacion saga had played itself out, the rumours involving Jose weren't fast coming, and presumably the contract offers weren't, either.

It went so far as "sources," likely straight out of Bautista's camp, telling Jon Morosi of MLB Network and Fox Sports that Jose wanted to be back in Toronto and had rejected "credible" offers from other clubs with his eye on doing just that—news that Morosi broke on a Toronto radio station in the week before Christmas.

But the Blue Jays knew they could take their time. It was obvious that Bautista was the best corner outfielder left on the market, and that the Blue Jays presented the best situation for any outfielder still looking for a job. They held the power over the market and let it grind to a halt, waiting for the Blue Jays' big domino to fall. Michael Saunders, who quickly signed with Philadelphia once it became clear that Bautista was going back to the Jays, held out hope for his own reunion in Toronto. Until that point, the Phillies were likely clinging to hope that they might ultimately snag Bautista, as well.

Over the course of the delay, some fans wondered if part of it was personal—and if the Blue Jays themselves didn't, certainly other teams around the league would have found no small measure of delight in watching such a big personality be so thoroughly humbled. Others were dead certain that the Jays were desperate to recoup a draft pick when Bautista signed elsewhere, screeching all winter about the front office's disloyalty to the fans and the 2017 version of the club because of some pathological need to save dollars and accumulate picks.

The reality was that they were simply being pragmatic. As the market waited for them to make their move, they could explore every option possible to get more value for less cost than they would with Bautista. The draft pick was always part of the equation, but ultimately proved not to be the entire equation. And whatever made them wary of bringing back their franchise icon—either of the pick, or the personality, or performance, or age—wasn't so great that it couldn't be overcome by his willingness to sign a deal that looks like highway robbery compared to the numbers being thrown around a year ago.

Well... that and their own inability to find a more palatable alternative.

***

The draft pick and the soft market were the most talked about factors conspiring against Bautista this winter, but we now have our answers to those questions. The market spoke to the tune of a one-year, $18 million contract (plus incentives and a pair of mutual options), and the Blue Jays saw enough value in that deal to agree to give up their right to a compensatory pick.

The deal, officially announced Wednesday, includes a $17 million mutual option for 2018 (with a $500K buyout), and a $20 million vesting option for 2019.

The contract has the potential to be a steal for Toronto. Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

But one question that dogged him throughout this process still remains: what can the Blue Jays expect from Bautista in 2017?

Even when we think we have a handle on this question, the answer proves elusive.

On the surface there are reasons to be optimistic about Bautista's performance going forward. While Bautista's 2016 failed to live up to his lofty standards, there are both positives to be seen, and mitigating circumstances for the negatives. His walk rate (16.8 percent) and his on-base percentage (.366) were both still elite. There is maybe a little concern in the fact that his contact rate on pitches out of the zone took a nosedive, which in addition to taking more pitches than usual, contributed to an uncharacteristically high strikeout rate. But his overall swinging strike rate stayed stable, as did his contact rate on the whole.

He's wasn't swinging through good pitches, in other words.

The problem was more what happened when he did make contact. Bautista's isolated power (ISO—which measures the number of extra bases generated per at-bat) was his lowest since his 2010 breakout, as was his slugging percentage. He produced one home run for every 23.5 plate appearances, compared to one every 16.7 the year before.

If the toe and knee injuries that sent Bautista to the disabled list twice last season made it difficult for him to generate his typical amount of power, it stands to reason that a healthy Bautista could bounce back nicely in 2017.

Unfortunately, this notion would be more comforting for Jays fans had Bautista been producing at something more like his normal rate before first landing on the DL in the middle of June. In Jose's healthy first two-and-a-half months of 2016, his numbers were almost identical to what he produced overall.

Still, there could be upside. In a piece for The Ringer on the unfortunate timing of Bautista's free agency, Ben Lindbergh introduces us to this graph from MLB's data guru, Tom Tango, that suggests Bautista was somewhat unlucky in 2016 as well.

Via Tom Tango

"That's a lot of colors, numbers, names, and arrows, most of which indicate that Bautista made good contact more often (and weak contact less often) than the typical player," he explains. "The takeaway is that when Bautista put the ball in play, his wOBA, or weighted on-base average—an all-in-one offensive stat that, unlike OBP, accounts for how the batter reached base—was more than 20 points lower than we would have expected it to be, based on where and how hard he hit the ball."

But Lindbergh warns that assuming this is all bad luck would be a mistake. "It might also stem from an age- or injury-related loss of speed (which wasn't great to begin with) and a lower likelihood of beating out singles or stretching singles into doubles or triples."

And as to the idea that a bounce back to full health will be simple, Lindbergh reminds us that "time doesn't typically take away injuries; it adds even more."

On the other hand, Bautista is part of a generation of athletes that are anything but typical when it comes to health.

"His winter routine is a 5 AM wakeup call, and body maintenance that includes flexibility, eyesight work, nutrition, yoga and complex weight work," explained Peter Gammons in a fascinating piece last spring. "Every month or two, through the season, he has his blood drawn to make sure all maximum levels are maintained, and balanced."

Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs also pointed to that Gammons piece as he went in-depth on Bautista and the aging curve. Specifically, the fact that "because of the advances in training, medicine and technology, Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk—who was previously a part of innovative strength and training staffs while with the Dodgers and Indians—said in October that he suspects our aging curves are in danger of becoming outdated."

Sawchik points out, quite rightly, that "we are on the cusp of a weekend in the NFL when the Pittsburgh Steelers' best defender, 38-year-old James Harrison, will be targeting perhaps the best player in the league, in the 39-year-old Tom Brady. Both are reportedly maniacal and on the cutting edge with regard to fitness and nutrition. So is the 36-year-old Bautista."

Even with Encarnacion gone, the Blue Jays' lineup still has the potential to wreak havoc. Photo by Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Bautista's discipline when it comes to age-defying would be more relevant had he signed a multi-year deal. But with the mutual options in his contract practically assuring that he'll be a free agent again next winter, there's no reason to believe he'll be anything less than relentless in pursuit of every dollar, and thus in his health.

This only bodes well for the Blue Jays.

So, too, does the fact that, of the many free agents and players available in trade who had red flags and big questions hanging over them—and to one degree or another, that's every one of them—the front office decided to make their big bet with the greatest hitter in the history of the franchise. (With apologies to Carlos Delgado.)

Bautista will return to where he's beloved. The Blue Jays look much more like legitimate contenders than they did a week ago. And the one fan base that deserves above all to reap the rewards of whatever he has left in the tank will get that opportunity, at least for one more season.

It's about time.