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The trials and tribulations of Jose Bautista

Whether the Jays want to rebuild or rebound, they need Jose Bautista to be better

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Bautista has struggled this year. Better we get that out in the open early here lest anyone end up at word 1,000 and be totally surprised.

After inking himself to a fresh one year deal worth $18 million with mutual options to stay in Toronto through 2019, Bautista has stumbled out of the gate hitting .178/.309/.244 this season. Most who judged the deal at the time acknowledged that some decline was headed the way of Bautista who’s now 36, but few saw the cliff at the end of the road that he’s fallen off of, hoping to find his way back up.

For those like myself, the idea of signing Bautista into the waning years of his career had a lot to do with the watchful eye at the plate and arguing that, while the power may evaporate as he gets closer and closer to the rocking chair, his ability to get on base would continue to make him an essential and valuable member the Toronto Blue Jays for several years to come.

That just hasn’t been the case this season. Not only has his power evaporated—he has just one home run to date—his walk rate declined from 16.8 per cent of his plate appearances last season to 14.5 per cent this year. Mirroring that, although in more dramatic fashion, his strikeouts increased from 19.9 per cent to 27.3 per cent this year.

If you’re trying to discern how this occurred, dig a little into his Pitch F/x data on Fangraphs and you can see that he’s essentially swinging at nearly the same rate with one significant and season-altering difference: he’s not making nearly the same amount of contact when the ball makes its way in from 60 feet six inches away. When he does, he’s not hitting it hard. At all.

His ‘hard hit’ rate per Fangraphs has been nearly cut in half from 41 per cent all the way down to 25.4 per cent this year. The scary thing though is that he’s just not making contact with the ball, which is a problem if you view success as putting the ball in play and giving runners a chance to score runs. Sure his BABIP of .246 does suggest that his batting average is going to increase somewhat in the future, but relying on hitting the ball at “medium” speed isn’t likely to get him back to his former self any time soon.

The concerning aspect of Bautista’s struggles is that he’s swinging through more pitches than ever before. Looking quickly at his Pitch F/x plate discipline, you can easily see that he’s swinging at nearly the same rate both in and outside of the strikezone (or within a percentage point) but his contact rate is down on the aggregate level by nearly eight per cent. What’s worse is that the more significant decline between his in-zone and outside of zone contact rate is that he’s making significantly less contact on pitches in the strikezone this year.

Looking lastly at what pitch types he seems to be seeing more of this year, you can see that pitchers are challenging him more with fastballs (39.6 per cent to last year’s 35.5 per cent) while also increasing the usage of sliders against the former-slugger. The pitch values support that approach as Bautista has struggled with no other pitch as badly as he has with the fastball this season.

This is a blatantly obvious concern for both he and the Toronto Blue Jays. It would be one thing if pitchers were throwing him fewer fastballs because he can’t hit the breaking stuff, but to not be able to make effective contact with the fastball through April is a troubling sign for an aging star, never mind one who’s looked upon to be a leader on a team hoping to fight its way back into contention (not sure if that’s even possible at this point).

The thing about Bautista though is that there’s some ineffable quality about his struggles that is emblematic of the entire team’s struggles this season. It’s that old narrative of, “well this team just isn’t this bad, they’ll get better.” And there’s really nothing wrong with that narrative or argument. It’s essentially a simplified version of the law of averages: the Toronto Blue Jays parts are better than this. Jose Baustia, one of those parts, is quite simply better than a .178 batting average. You can argue that he was destined for a decline at some point, but this isn’t as much a decline as it is an unexpected collapse.

With that said, when a team or player struggles for this long into the season, it is cause for concern and discussion going into the future. Given that the Jays are unlikely to play at a franchise record setting pace in terms of winning percentage throughout the rest of the season, there’s a strong non-zero chance that this will be Mr. Bautista’s last season in a Jays uniform. If he’s willing to rescind his no-trade clause, there’s a good chance he’s played his last August home games in the Six, too.

Whether the Jays want to sell him or not, they need to see Bautista’s production increase in the next couple of months. Essentially, as it’s been since 2010, the future of the Toronto Blue Jays may very well lay in the hands of one Jose Bautista.