Should We Be Concerned About Jose Bautista?

Joey Bats is an intimidating presence, even when stretching. - USA TODAY Sports

Despite a recent rough patch Jose Bautista is having a fine season, but should we be worried about his power down the stretch?

Jose Bautista is a fairly complex guy. He is the biggest breakout story of his era, the face of his franchise and an enemy of umpires everywhere. Bautista has a borderline abusive swing and a gun for a right arm. There are plenty of superlatives to describe the man and mystique that surrounds him, but ultimately he is a baseball player to be analyzed like any other. On the surface, Jose seems to be having more or less the type of season one would expect. He has a slash line of .250/.345/.481, which has been significantly depressed by a slumping last two weeks where he has hit .149/.200/.289. Before this slump he was right in line with the sort of work he did last year, if not his unbelievable 2011 season. Bautista has a fWAR of 2.7 which is good for 24th in the major leagues and tops on the Blue Jays. However, behind those numbers, as always, are more numbers. Bautista is someone who has radically changed throughout his career but right now he is undergoing a much smaller less perceptible change. If you are willing to take a bit of a trip down the statistical rabbit hole with me, it seems that something is afoot with the Blue Jays slugger.

I got started thinking about what Jose Bautista was doing differently today when it came across my desk that Jose was leading the Blue Jays in grounding into double plays this year. For the record, it did not come across my desk in the sense that I have a job where people are constantly delivering me facts about the Blue Jays. I would love to have that job, however it would manifest itself, but that's beside the point. The point is that this piece of information didn't really make sense to me. Not only does Bautista have respectable wheels but I'd always thought of him as a pretty pure fly ball hitter. I decided to look into some batted ball data to see if Jose was putting the ball on the ground more often. I only took data since Jose's breakout in 2010 because he was a totally different player before that point. This is what I found:

Year

Ground Ball%

Fly Ball%

GB/FB

HR/FB

2010

31.1%

54.5%

0.57

21.7%

2011

36.9%

47%

0.79

22.7%

2012

37 %

49.5%

0.76

20%

2013

41%

40.6%

1.01

18.6%

There is a trend towards more ground balls and fewer fly balls from 2010 to 2012, but the results are far more extreme in 2013 so far. In 2013 Jose Bautista has not been a fly ball hitter at all. He has hit more line drives, which is generally a positive, but Jose's game is power and he needs to hit more fly balls to demonstrate that power. Below is a chart showing how his power numbers have been affected by this change:

Year

ISO

SLG

HR

2010

.357

.617

54

2011

.306

.608

43

2012

.286

.527

27

2013

.231

.481

16

I will very willingly admit that the home run column of this chart is unfair because of the limited plate appearances in 2012 and 2013. I just added it because no self respecting chart has only three columns. This data could simply be demonstrating a natural again curve for Bautista as these are his age 29-32 seasons. However, I think the ground balls are more to blame for Bautista's declining power numbers.

In the first chart we see that Bautista's HR/FB rate is only slightly below his best years, indicating to me that he still has the strength and bat speed to hit fly balls out of the yard but simply isn't hitting as many fly balls as before. This looks sort of like a far less extreme case of what happened to Brett Lawrie. Lawrie came up and dominated in 2011 and since then has not come close to repeating his performance due largely to heavy ground ball tendencies. Bautista's drop off is much less significant but there is no doubt that he is hitting more ground balls and that it is affecting his power.

It might seem that I am being slightly nitpicky here. By all reasonable standards Bautista is having a really good season. As mentioned before, his fWAR of 2.7 is one of the best numbers in the big leagues. However, that WAR number is inflated by the kind of defense (24 UZR /150 compared to a career -5.4 UZR/150) that it seems unlikely he magically learned at age 32. Defense peaks early and Bautista's excellent defensive numbers probably amount to no more than statistical noise within a small sample size. I am catching him in the middle of a slump which makes things look worse but I think that the trends in his batted ball data are noteworthy and cause for at least a modicum of concern. Jose Bautista has the ability to be the engine that drives an excellent offense, especially out of the #2 hole in the lineup, but he's got to get back to putting the ball in the air.

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