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May 2, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Bautista's Enduring Young Charms

by Jay Jaffe

Twenty-six players have hit at least 50 home runs in a single season. Only nine of them have done it twice, and only five—Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez—have repeated the feat in consecutive seasons. Jose Bautista is not in that group yet, but with an AL-high nine homers through Toronto's first 28 games, he's on pace to hit 52, two shy of the 54 he posted last year, when he stunned the baseball world. Bautista had never hit more than 16 homers in a season during his six-year major-league career, and had totaled just 59 in 575 games to that point while playing for four teams (Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh) prior to Toronto.

Bautista hit just 13 homers in 2009, but he finished with a flourish; 10 bombs came in his final 26 games, six in his final eight. Weeks shy of his 29th birthday, it was as though he'd either made a pact with the devil or been visited by the spirit of the Bambino. Consider the résumé of the player who woke up on September 7, 2009, and the player he has become:

G

PA

HR

HR%

BB%

K%

AVG/OBP/SLG

549

1927

49

2.5%

10.9%

21.2%

.236/.328/.385

212

907

73

8.0%

15.3%

17.3%

.273/.394/.636

Bautista's home-run rate has more than tripled, his walk rate has increased 40 percent, and he has cut his strikeouts more than 20 percent. Not too shabby.

By now, the story of how Bautista remade his swing with the help of Dwayne Murphy is well-known. Murphy, then serving as the Jays' first-base coach under Cito Gastonnoticed that Bautista was starting his swing too late, generating less power and less frequent contact than he might otherwise have done. Mechanical changes—standing closer to the plate, more crouched, with his hands in a higher position and his bat less angled—have alleviated those problems, and then some.

Suddenly, Bautista is the most dangerous hitter in the majors, one who is seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone than anyone else. Going into Sunday, just 34.5 percent of the pitches he has faced have been in the zone, numbers well below more established sluggers such as Adrian Gonzalez (37.8 percent), Miguel Cabrera (39.2), Adam Dunn (41.6), Joey Votto (41.6), Ryan Howard (42.4), Alex Rodriguez (42.6), and Albert Pujols (48.6). Given fewer pitches to hit, Bautista has done an excellent job of maintaining his plate discipline, swinging at just 33.0 percent of all pitches (the majors' fifth-lowest percentage), and seeing 4.40 pitches per plate appearance (also fifth).

As a result, Bautista leads the majors in walks (30) as well as on-base percentage (.530) and slugging percentage (.762). Yet he hasn't been driving in runs at a clip comparable to last year; while he's the major-league leader in runs scored (25), he has just 16 RBI. Seven of his nine homers have been solo shots; he has averaged just 1.33 RBI per homer. By comparison, less than half (25 of 54) of last year's batch were solo shots, and he averaged 1.61 RBI per homer. It's not that he has seen fewer runners on base when he's been up—40.9 percent of his plate appearances have come with men on base, and 27.0 percent with runners in scoring position, compared to 40.0 percent and 24.4 percent last year. But compare the frequency with which he's driven in runners from the various bases, per our Others Batted In Percentage stats:

Year

R1BI%

R2BI%

R3BI%

OBI%

2010

15.4%

13.5%

40.0%

19.1%

2011

9.40%

9.10%

16.7%

10.8%

Last year, Bautista was seventh in the majors in OBI%. Going into Sunday, he was down at 9.5 percent, and ranked 169th out of 210 qualifiers.

While Bautista hasn't seen fewer runners on base than last year, it has become easier for opposing pitchers to work around him. Going into Sunday, Bautista's teammates were hitting a lowly .245/.308/.377. Only three slots in the lineup besides his third spot were delivering OBPs above league average (.319): The number-two hitters at .325, the number-five hitters at .356, and the number-nine hitters at .362. The rest were at .291 or lower. Even so, the Blue Jays ranked fifth in the league in scoring at 4.63 runs per game thanks to Bautista's efforts

Over the winter, the Jays signed Bautista to a five-year, $65 million extension, a move that appeared premature given that the slugger was headed into his final year of arbitration, coming off a season that was completely out of context with the rest of his career. I'm still not a huge fan of the deal based upon the timing, particularly for a team that was burned by the Vernon Wells and Alex Rios contracts (though it's now the Angels and White Sox paying the freight thanks to some good fortune along the transaction wire). Why commit money at that moment, when the Blue Jays appeared far from contention, rather than wait to see if Bautista can follow up his virtually unprecedented season. How much more expensive could he realistically get? The Nationals can only sign one Jayson Werth—or can they?

For all of that, there is something to seeing Bautista get his follow-up off on the right foot; not that a Carl Crawfordesque start would have immediately proven that he wasn't worth the money, but we have half a dozen years of seeing Carl Crawford hit like Carl Crawford, to the point that we're reasonably sure he'll come around instead of hitting a buck-fifty-five. Given Bautista's shorter track record of success, any evaluation of the deal after a month of struggling would have been received much differently.

Bautista is hardly the only 50-homer slugger who kept bashing during the first month of the season following his 50-homer feat. Of the 31 hitters who reached that plateau since 1954, 15 have hit at least nine homers in their team's first 30 games; that group as a whole averaged 7.9 homers in that span. Still, the sluggers prior to Bautista did fall off somewhat in the year following their 50-homer season:

Season

Avg HR

HR%

BB%

AVG/OBP/SLG

Year of 50

56.0

8.2%

14.4%

.303/.408/.657

Year After

44.6

6.8%

15.0%

.292/.403/.597

The sluggers declined by an average of 11.4 homers, and shed 60 points of slugging percentage. Their batting averages dipped slightly, though their walk rates crept upward (their intentional walk rates barely budged, from 2.3 percent to 2.5 percent). They were still very productive hitters, but given the scarcity of such seasons, it should be no surprise that they found their previous accomplishments tough acts to follow. If Bautista can stay as close to his banner season as the rest of the pack did to theirs, both he and the Blue Jays should be quite happy with the results.

---

Bautista had a relatively quiet Sunday in the Bronx as the Blue Jays fell 5-2 against the Yankees. After collecting hits in each of his first four games against New York this season—hitting a combined .357/.500/.857 with four walks, a double, and two homers in 18 plate appearances—he went 0-for-2 with two walks and an RBI. In his first at-bat, with two outs and the bases empty against Yankees starter Ivan Nova, he scalded a ball to left-center field, but Curtis Granderson ran it down on the warning track. In the third, with one out and Rajai Davis having just stolen third base, he grounded out to shortstop, plating the run to give the Blue Jays a 2-1 lead. In the fifth, with two outs and nobody on (Davis had been thrown out stealing during number-two hitter Yunel Escobar's at-bat), he drew a four-pitch walk. Adam Lind, who had hit a solo homer in the second and singled in the third, struck out afterward. With two outs in the seventh, Davis at second after another steal, and Nova having departed in favor of David Robertson one batter earlier, Bautista walked again, and was replaced by pinch-runner Corey Patterson; apparently, he had been dealing with a stiff neck earlier in the game. "I think that he felt it while he was sleeping in Texas," said manager John Farrell after the game. "He felt fine swinging the bat. We took him out more as a precaution."

Asked about how the Yankees contained Batista, manager Joe Girardi shook his head and laughed: "The first ball he hit was a rocket, but we got a great catch from Granderson. He hit the ball hard to shortstop. We just happened to have some people standing in the right position today. He still hit the ball hard."

Girardi went on to praise the slugger's evolution: "He's turned himself into a magnificent player. And I'm just not talking offensively—defensively he does so many things right, baserunning. We were talking about how he gets the barrel of the bat to the ball, it seems like all the time. He just doesn't mishit balls, and it's pretty unbelievable to watch, actually."

As it turns out, Girardi spent a fair bit of his post-game press conference talking about another player who has undergone an evolution of his own: Granderson, whose fifth-inning three-run homer off Jesse Litsch broke a 2-2 tie and provided the Yankees with their margin of victory. "You look all the way back to August, Curtis has been a different player," said Girardi. "That's one of the reasons we turned him loose 3-0. We love the way he's swinging the bat, his ability to hit the ball out of the park."

The homer was Granderson's eighth of the year. He's now hitting .281/.330/.640, and has 22 homers since last August 14, the point where the swing he reworked with hitting coach Kevin Long began to pay big dividends. In that time, only Bautista (27) and Troy Tulowitzki (23) have more homers.

"I'm not so sure I've necessarily seen a 29-year-old guy adjust the way he has," said Girardi, who briefly forgot about Bautista but came up with another example. "Andres Galarraga comes to mind. He went from really struggling to winning a batting title hitting .370. I think he opened up his stance when he got to Colorado with Don Baylor and completely turned it around. I was there [catching]. I actually think he made the adjustment in St. Louis and I want to say Baylor was the hitting coach in St. Louis the year before who made the adjustment, and [Galarraga] came back and won a batting title his first year in Colorado."

The skipper's memory was spot on. Galarraga had hit .243/.282/.391 with the Cardinals in 1992 while struggling with a broken wrist. Baylor was his batting coach, and he became the manager of the expansion Rockies, who signed the first baseman as a free agent upon his recommendation. The next year, Galarraga hit .370/.403/.602 and won the NL batting title.

Long praised his prized pupil Granderson: "When I go back to August, I did a bit of talking to the media, saying we made some big changes, we basically revamped a lot of things. Curtis didn't feel that way at all. He's a very bright young man, he was able to take the information that was given to him and simplify it into layman's terms. Simpler and more compact, a more explosive swing. I thought it was four or five big things, and he said it really wasn't that big of a deal."

---

More notes from the game:

  • Nova struggled early, giving up a run apiece in the second and third innings while throwing a combined 39 pitches. He recovered by establishing his curveball, which he used to put the finishing touch on all five of his strikeouts on the day. "He wasn't using his curveball early, and was getting in some bad counts with his fastball, because he didn't have command of it early today. Then he started using his curveball and everything changed for him, so it was good to see him make the adjustment," said Girardi.

    This was the second time in a row that Nova pitched into the seventh inning, after not doing so in any of his previous three starts this year or his seven starts last year. Said Girardi: "I think that [the curveball] has really been the key, his ability to throw it for strikes, to get first-pitch strikes, to be able throw it behind in the count to get back into the count, and to get strikeouts with it. That's extremely important."
     
  • After missing much of spring training as well as the first month of the season due to a fracture in his foot, Francisco Cervelli made his 2011 debut behind the plate for the Yankees. He went 0-for-2 at the dish with an ill-advised sacrifice bunt in his first plate appearance—Brett Gardner had just walked to lead off the inning, and the lineup was turning over—but drove in a run on a hard-hit ground ball in his second turn. He had a tougher day behind the plate, as Davis stole three bases in four attempts. Two of Cervelli's throws to second bounced at least once—one followed an extremely high pitchout that disrupted his mechanics, with the throw sputtering into second base on a half-dozen hops. On the other one, Robinson Cano made a nice play to snag the throw on one hop to tag Davis.

    Thanks to rainouts and off-days, the Yankees were able to start Russell Martin in 22 out of 24 games, with backup Gustavo Molina making just two starts and getting all of six plate appearances; he doubled once, raising his major-league line to—wait for it—.128/.160/.170. Cervelli is expected to carry a larger share of the workload, but with Martin hitting .293/.376/.587, the Yankees will continue to ride his hot bat.
  • While Davis' steals of second and third base led to a run in the second inning, his other two attempts opened up first base for the Yankees to pitch Bautista more carefully. The Blue Jays came in tied for the league lead in stolen-base attempts and second in steals, at a 77 percent clip, but it seems quite possible that Farrell's desire for the team to run is backfiring with regards to his slugger, taking the bat out of his hands.
     
  • One of the tireless adages in baseball is that speed doesn't slump, but somebody forgot to tell Gardner, who was caught stealing in the seventh inning by J.P. Arencibia and is now just 4-for-8 this season after stealing 86 bases in 101 attempts prior. Gardner did reach base in all three of his plate appearances, via two walks and a single, and is now hitting an even .200/.300/.400. Since April 25, he's 6-for-11 with six walks, getting on base in four of the five games in which he has had a plate appearance. "He's turned it around," says Long. "He's had several good games as of late, and he seems like the Brett Gardner we saw last year. Getting on base, causing havoc, playing great defense."

    Asked what specifically Gardner was doing differently, Long replied, "Basically he moved up closer to the plate. In a nutshell they were pitching him away, and he was coming out of his swing and not able to stay tight and compact on the outside pitch. So he's moved up on the plate, and that's helped him a great deal."
     
  • All six of the hits Litsch surrendered, including home runs by Granderson and Mark Teixeira (who hit one in the first inning) were by left-handed hitters. Litsch has shown a fairly wide split during his career, holding righties to a .249/.292/.413 line, but yielding a .287/.350/.448 line to lefties. This year, it's even more pronounced; lefties were hitting .358/.424/.547 against him coming into the game, albeit in all of 59 plate appearances. Of course, it hurt his cause that Teixeira and Jorge Posada, whose double sparked the four-run fifth-inning rally that culminated in Granderson's home run, are switch-hitters. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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