Monday, May 9, 2011

Joey Bats Takes a Step Forward

After Jose Bautista’s seemingly out-of-nowhere career year last season, the question for most (including, I’ll admit, myself) wasn’t whether his production would drop in 2011; it was simply a matter of how much the Blue Jays’ newfound Baron of the Bomb would fall. Though most didn’t expect a return to the mediocre production he’d displayed during the first six years of his career, the consensus was that he simply couldn’t keep up the Babe Ruth impression that shocked the baseball world last year.

Well, believe it. Bautista is your current MLB leader in WAR, and several telling statistics suggest that his production is anything but a fluke. Pitchers around baseball have newfound respect for Bautista following his prolific numbers from the last season-plus. Bautista has shown his skill at the plate by adapting to this respect, becoming much more selective and making pitchers pay when they are forced to challenge him. Over the first few years of his career, pitchers felt no need to be careful with Bautista at the plate, as 53.2% of the pitches he saw were in the strike zone. As his power began to emerge last season, pitchers began to treat Bautista more carefully, and as a result 45.3% of the pitches he saw were strikes, the lowest rate of his career. This year, they’ve truly put the kid gloves on with Bautista at the plate, as he’s getting strikes on only 34.2% of pitches. That’s the lowest strike percentage in the league among players qualified for the batting title, cementing Bautista among the most feared hitters in baseball.

Bautista has adjusted to this development better than anyone could’ve expected, dropping his swing rate 8.7% from last season, and is now swinging at only 33% of offerings, making him the third most selective hitter in MLB. The results are staggering, as Bautista is now reaching base in more than half of his plate appearances. After walking in no more than 15% of plate appearances in any other season in his career, Bautista is now taking free passes in over a quarter of his chances. His incredible 25.2% walk rate now leads the league and surpasses his closest competitor, the Mariners’ Jack Cust, by 5.5%. Cust was the last player to finish a season with a walk rate over 20%, back in 2007, so the amount of ball fours taken by Bautista this season is simply unheard of.

Bautista is laying off more pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone, but when he does take a hack, the results have been tremendous. Bautista’s 19.7% line drive rate is a career high, and he’s followed up last year’s career low 31.1% groundball rate with a 32.4% rate this season, 10% below his career average before last season. He’s also continued to reduce his strikeouts, dropping his K rate more than a percent to maintain and build on his already impressive reduction from 2009 to 2010. Bautista’s even adding some value with his glove to boot, as his 3.1 UZR in the outfield has already matched his most productive defensive year as an outfielder with four fifths of the schedule remaining.

There are reasons to believe Bautista may yet come back to earth slightly, but given his current peripheral stats he should continue to produce at a high level. His increase in LD% and maintenance of his low GB% would suggest a possible jump in BABIP, but his current .344 will almost certainly regress to a more normal rate. Likewise, his AL-leading 29.4% HR/FB is almost sure to drop as the season continues, but I wouldn’t expect Bautista to lose his status as one of the best power hitters in baseball as a result. Though another 54 home run year is unlikely, 40+ bombs is certainly not out of the question, especially since he’s already a quarter of the way there.

Though it’s still early in the season, Jose Bautista has turned me into a believer, and by the end of the year Bautista will make clear that his unexpected 2010 wasn’t a fluke. At this point, I see the Cubs and Cardinals as the most likely destinations for Albert Pujols next year, but there’s been talk of the Blue Jays making a strong push for Pujols or one of the other big bats available next winter. If they’re able to pick up a slugger to pair with Bautista, teams could be forced to challenge Bautista on a much more regular basis. If that’s the case, Bautista will be in a great position to take yet another step forward in his ascension to stardom.

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