Jose Bautista Might Be the Most Interesting Free Agent

It’s safe to say 2016 was a disappointing year for Jose Bautista. After posting three consecutive seasons with a WAR greater than 4, Bautista posted his lowest mark since 2008. The Toronto Blue Jays were ousted in the American League Championship Series for the second consecutive year and have looming decisions on how to go forward. Bautista is a polarizing figure in the baseball world and is a free agent in a relatively weak class. The big question teams will be asking is whether Bautista’s 2016 was more indicative of further decline or if there is a chance he rebounds. The 36-year-old will be looking for his last big payday.

Bautista’s defensive game continued to deteriorate. After posting a -12.5 UZR/150 in 2015, Bautista had a -9.3 UZR/150 this past season. Moreover, he finished second to J.D. Martinez for the right field Iron Glove. The main takeaway here is that Bautista is no longer good defensively and we shouldn’t expect him to get better. Unless a team wants him playing in the outfield, his future likely rests at first base or in the DH role. That’s not say a team cannot be playoff contenders with a poor right fielder. The aforementioned J.D. Martinez and Mark Trumbo were both below-average fielders this past season and both teams were in the thick of the playoff race. Moreover, being a good base-runner has never been part of Bautista’s game. Which brings us to his offensive value.

Jose Bautista will be paid on the basis of his bat. With his bad defence and sub-par base-running, teams will be lining up for Bautista due to the offensive numbers he has put up since his breakout in September of 2009. Since 2010, only three players have had a higher wRC+, and nobody has more home runs. On the surface, Bautista’s 34-point drop in wOBA and 26-point drop in wRC+ show a declining bat. Factor in his age, and things aren’t looking so rosy. Digging deeper, it is possible this was somewhat of an anomaly and Bautista will have a better offensive season in 2017. This is what makes Jose Bautista the winter’s most intriguing free agent.

Jose Bautista Walk and Strikeout Rate

Bautista’s walk rate remained elite. The Dominican slugger is one of the more selective hitters in the league, having the tenth-lowest swing percentage since 2014. The strikeouts rose, becoming much closer to the league-average 20.6% strikeout rate. Since 2014, Bautista has the 65th-best swinging strike rate at 7.3%, tied with notable players such as Adrian Beltre and Joey Votto. Bautista’s swinging strike rate in 2016 was 7.2%. This suggests his strikeout rate has more to do with an increase in called strikes than swinging strikes.

It’s been said that when a player can no longer catch up to a fastball, the end is nigh. The swing is slower, leading to more swinging strikeouts and an increase in weak contact.

FB SwStr%: League and Bautista

Bautista’s been below league average at swinging and missing on fastballs throughout his career. He saw an uptick in 2016, but it was still better that most. Moreover, among players to see at least 1000 pitches, Bautista ranked 11th in the league in average fastball exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, at 97.8 MPH against. Overall, Bautista can still hit the fastball.

In a similar method as shown here by Andrew Perpetua, I took a look to see if Bautista was getting lucky or unlucky.

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As you can see, Bautista’s slugging was fairly close to its expected value. Bautista’s lowest slugging percentage over the past five years was .498. There is a big difference in batting average, likely due to the big difference between expected BABIP and actual BABIP. To look into this disparity further, I looked at Alex Chamberlain’s expected BABIP formula. Using that formula, the xBABIP was .287, a lot closer to Bautista’s batting average. Bautista has been a career .260 BABIP hitter. Some of that is due to him popping out a lot and a lack of speed. Lastly, by taking a look at xISO, Bautista also underperformed by both metrics. Through Chamberlain’s formula, Bautista’s expected Isolated Power would be .265, and under the work of Andrew Dominijanni, his expected ISO would be .257. Bautista’s .217 ISO was his lowest mark since 2009. It is likely that Bautista was a tad unlucky in regards to outcomes. The story told by the multiple variants of xBABIP, xISO, and xAVG all point toward a better fortune for the Dominican slugger.

Another potential concerning issue with Bautista was the drop in contact on pitches outside the zone. With a career 64.7% O-Contact percentage, this number dropped to 60.4%, the lowest since 2009. You can see the difference between 2012-2015 and his 2016 contact percentages in various parts of the zone below.

Bautista Contact% 2012-2015

Bautista Contact% 2016

While his zone contact rate looks consistent, his contact made outside the zone away from Bautista decreased. To compensate for this, Bautista swung slightly less on pitches outside the strike zone. If he continues to struggle to make contact on pitches outside, then Bautista will continue to take more chances on borderline calls. The overall contact rate remained solid and he continued to pull the ball at the same rate, showing that Bautista still has good bat speed.

Another riveting aspect of Jose Bautista is that over his career, he hasn’t had a platoon split. Against right-handers, the six-time All-Star has a career 131 wRC+, and against southpaws he owns a 135 wRC+. The current Steamer Projections peg Bautista to be worth 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, with a 128 wRC+.

Jose Bautista showed some signs of decline. He made less contact on outside pitches, and he saw a decrease in offensive stats such as wRC+ and Isolated Power. The three-time Silver Slugger however continued to show strong plate discipline, and continued to hit the ball hard, using the same approach he has over the past few years. Furthermore, many expected stats point toward Bautista being somewhat unlucky with balls in play. With a wRC+ of 122, it is clear he can still hit and a rebound in offensive numbers isn’t out of the question. With the sub-par season he had, he could very well be one of the better value sluggers in the market. ­It will be a fascinating offseason for the Dominican slugger.

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