Jose Bautista Looks Lost at the Plate
The Blue Jays slugger's horrendous start to the season has been puzzling.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY
A .414 batting average. A .469 on-base. A slugging percentage of .759. Two homers, four doubles, three walks, and 12 total hits in 29 at-bats over 11 games.
"Boy," you think. "The Blue Jays sure could have used a guy like that these last few weeks!"
Are these the numbers of some new starlet? A former player the Blue Jays let get away? A minor leaguer the club needs to look long and hard at—and soon?
No, that's Jose Bautista.
Not Bautista last April, or the April before. Not Bautista in any of his monstrous years with the Blue Jays after he transformed himself into one of the greatest power hitters in the game.
It's not Bautista so far this April, either, obviously. But it is Bautista in 2017. In March.
I can't blame anyone for having forgotten it after the abysmal start to his season, but it literally wasn't so long ago that Bautista was clobbering the holy hell out of baseballs, making Blue Jays fans dream of big things for this already miserable fucking season.
Spring training numbers are, of course, dubious at the best of times. The level of competition varies. Pitchers with jobs sewn up might be working on a particular pitch. The atmosphere is casual. The stakes are low. But that doesn't mean that we can't learn anything from them.
For Bautista this spring there was also the matter of the World Baseball Classic, and in that event he was nearly as good as in the Grapefruit League. Six hits, a walk, and a home run in 18 pressure-packed at-bats.
That's .333/.435/.500 in the WBC, .414/.469/.759 the rest of the spring, and over 50 trips to the plate in total.
Those numbers aren't predictive, but they also don't look very much like the numbers of a player who now, a little more than two weeks later, is "finished," or who got old fast, or who suddenly has lost bat speed. Yet, perhaps understandably, those are the kinds of things that have begun to be whispered—at least by the armchair hitting coaches in the stands and on Twitter.
Bautista's start to the season has been puzzling. A quick glance at his batted ball profile on FanGraphs and a few things jump out about 2017 so far—all of which anybody who has been watching will have noticed. His swinging strike rate is way up, currently sitting at 12.3%. That number has been below 8% for Bautista every year since 2007.
His contact rate has also been awful, down to 68.3% following Thursday's Golden Sombrero against Red Sox ace Chris Sale. Bautista reliably made contact at about an 80-percent clip through all his best years, and even into 2016.
Something that dipped for him as he struggled to find his form last season was his contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone. From 2010 to 2014 that number ranged between 69 and 72 percent. In 2015 it dipped to 67.8%. Then down to 60.4% in 2016. Right now it's at 54.6%.
Bautista is not doing as good a job as he once did of fighting off balls outside of the zone, and pitches that he may once have at least been able to foul off to extend an at-bat are turning into swinging strikes. From 2012 to 2015 his overall strikeout rate was below 16%. Last season it rose to 19.9%. Right now it sits at 33.3%.
That's the how he's been ineffective so far. The why is a little more difficult.
If you head to Brooks Baseball and look at the heatmaps of where he's being pitched, there's no significant difference between 2017 so far, 2016, or 2015. Pitchers know to avoid the inner half and try to get him to bite low and away. He's seeing more breaking balls as a percentage of pitches thrown—35% in 2017 compared to 32% last season and 30% in 2015—but it's not exactly a massive shift, despite what the current narrative says. We also don't see a huge shift in the frequency of fastballs he's seeing: 54.5% of the pitches he's seen have been classified as hard (fastballs, sinkers, etc.), compared to 58% last year, and 56.5% the year before.
Teams haven't discovered that you can beat him with velocity or that he's always going to chase junk—or so it appears for the most part. There are some interesting variances in what he's seen from left-handers so far, like the fact that he's been thrown fastballs just 28% of the time when the pitcher is ahead in the count, as compared to numbers above 50% for the previous two seasons, which speaks to his struggles with contact and willingness to chase. But the sample against lefties is quite small—just 14 plate appearances so far, compared to 41 against right-handers—so it's a little early to call that a trend.
Against right-handers, it's business as usual. Mostly. The one thing that jumps out is that pitchers are more comfortable throwing Bautista heat with two strikes. In 2014 and 2015 he saw less two-strike heat than a typical batter. In 2015, for example, he got pitches of that classification just 45% of the time with two strikes. Last season the number was 50%. So far this year it's 55%.
The worry there is that it's an indicator that he's not able to catch up. The prevailing theory, however, and the one that Bautista himself is espousing, is less physical. "I've caught myself in between, caught guessing a couple of times," Bautista told reporters after Thursday's loss to Boston. "Normally that's not what I do when I'm at the plate."
John Gibbons suggests that he's trying too hard.
Whatever it is, it's certainly true that he's looked lost—that a hitter we're used to seeing on the hunt, waiting for a perfect mistake to destroy and exerting suffocating control over the strike zone until he's got it, has seemed to be guessing wrong a lot so far. The heatmaps don't show that he's taking pitches in the zone at significantly different rate than the two years previous, but damned if it hasn't felt that way.
Of course, it doesn't necessarily have to be one or the other. He could be lost, mentally, and his skills may have eroded, physically. Or he could be lost, mentally, because of something physical.
To that end, there's maybe an X-factor that hasn't been talked about much. Though he put up excellent spring numbers, Bautista managed just three hits in 13 at-bats after his return from the World Baseball Classic. Five of his eight spring strikeouts came during this period, too. He didn't look as bad as he has over the last week, but he looked more like what we've seen in the regular season than what we'd seen earlier in the spring and at the WBC. And it was right at the very end of his WBC that Bautista had a bout of back stiffness, causing him to sit out the Dominican Republic's final game, a loss to the United States (and Marcus Stroman, in his star-making performance).
At the time the club characterized the back issue as "very minor," and I obviously have no evidence whatsoever to say otherwise. But Bautista's performance declined almost immediately afterward, and if you told me it was still lingering, given the way he's looked at the plate, I can't say I'd be surprised. I wouldn't be surprised if you told me that the prideful Bautista maybe didn't want it out there that he's hurting, either. But let's maybe not go too far into tinfoil hat territory here, because I have absolutely nothing to base this on.
What I can say, though, is that the fact that it's so difficult to identify what's going on with Bautista at least means that there's hope that it's not any of those things that Blue Jays fans need to fear the most: that he's suddenly gotten old or that he's lost bat speed to the point of ineffectiveness. That doesn't mean that those possibilities are ruled out, or that we can assume anything that might be lingering from the back issue will fully heal, or that he's necessarily going to figure it out.
He'll need to make some kind of adjustment, and for the sake of the Blue Jays' season, he'll need to do it sooner than later. But if we know anything about Jose Bautista and his career, it's that he's capable of that. And this time he won't have to completely transform his swing and remake himself into a new and incredible hitter. He'll just have to get back to what he was doing not so very long ago. Mere weeks ago, in fact. In March.