Joey Bats Is Punishing Baseballs Again

Jose Bautista is on a tear, putting a disastrous first month behind him with a red-hot May.

by Blake Murphy
May 25 2017, 3:53pm

Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There didn't seem to be a particularly good reason for the bat flip, other than that bat flips are great. Down 8-3 in the top of the eighth, Jose Bautista took Eric O'Flaherty deep and then launched his instrument, one of several moments of tension in what would have otherwise seemed a normal game. Bautista appeared almost apologetic by the time he reached the plate, and the oddly timed, seemingly random flip saw Bautista wear a pitch the next day.

It was not a flip born of euphoria, anger, or some grand sense of the moment. It was fun, but kind of weird. In retrospect, it stands as the canary in the coal mine for Bautista's return to form, the flip itself now feeling like a proclamation that a recent hot streak following an awful start to the season was here to stay. It came after Bautista's fourth home run in eight games, and he hasn't stopped hitting since, with Wednesday's tattooing of a Matt Garza offering standing as the latest reminder of just what a locked-in Bautista looks like.

That there was this sustained level of offensive performance still, here at age 36, was one of the tougher questions that plagued the early part of 2017. April was a veritable disaster for Bautista, with an apparent loss of bat speed and poor handling of pitches in the strike zone—normally a strength—rendering his normally potent bat punchless.

Through April 29, Bautista owned a weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) of 50, indicating he'd produced at just half the rate of the league average. For an aging and well-paid slugger playing a corner outfield position, that wasn't going to cut it. Bautista was still walking, but he was striking out far more than he'd become accustomed to, and his contact rate and pitches in the zone was down to 80.8 percent (his career rate is 86.6 percent, and he hadn't dipped below 83.4 since 2004). What's worse, the balls that did come off his bat were doing so at an average rate of 90 MPH, down from 91.6 in 2016 and 92 in 2015, both elite marks. And after barreling 85 balls combined over the last two seasons, Bautista managed to do so just three times.

Things have taken a dramatic turn in the weeks since. Bautista's strikeout rate has dropped, though it's still above his established norm. His contact rate on pitches inside the zone has nudged higher. The ball is coming off the bat harder again, too, with an average exit velocity of 91.7 MPH that would rank 22nd in baseball on the year. He's barreled eight balls in those 23 games, helping lead to seven home runs and a robust 189 wRC+, a tidy summation of his .321/.424/.643 slash line. He looks like he's back.

Bautista's turnaround has come at the right time with the Blue Jays plagued by injuries. Like the role players who stepped up during his struggles earlier in the year, Bautista has taken up the mantle with the lineup thinned out. He's not quite hitting like peak Bautista again—2011 is firmly in the rear-view mirror at this point—but his numbers on the season are normalizing, and he looks a lot more comfortable and dialed in managing the strike zone and finding pitches to drive.

That he's striking out more than ever is cause for some concern, still, and he'll need to hit closer to his May level than his April level from here. Why, exactly, he's no longer putting as many balls in play is worthy of a deeper dive at some point. That the ones he's getting to are being driven so well and so hard is a major positive, and as Toronto rounds back into health on the position-player side this weekend, Bautista's resurgence should be a big factor in the Jays pulling their offense up from the bottom of the American League East.