|TORONTO BLUE JAYS|
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Signed OF-R Jose Bautista to a one-year, $18.5 million contract. [1/18]
How strange it all is. After emerging as a superstar out of nowhere in 2010, the man they call Joey Bats put up six consecutive premium offensive seasons. He established himself as one of the game’s elite power hitters, winning over fans—of his own team at least—with his bravado and the violence he did to baseballs. He had his detractors as well—umpires, the Texas Rangers, anyone who believed in the Man in White—but it seemed a sure thing that his free agency would be a feeding frenzy of teams looking to acquire the aged-but-dynamic hitter. He could be, should be, might be an instant panacea to an anemic offense, a direct injection of attitude and respectability to any team.
That’s not what happened at all. Once again, Bautista did the unexpected: he struggled in his age-35 season, watching his 40-homer power sink to pedestrian levels even as the Brad Millers and Brian Doziers of the world out-jacked him. In the ultimate indignity, the market failed him during the time he needed it most, coming flush with right-handed power hitters of questionable defensive value—can you believe Chris Carter still doesn’t have a job?—and leaving him stuck with a one-year offering.
He must prove himself yet again in order to get the final windfall of his career, a tall order for any hitter but not out of the question for a man who reached his apotheosis when most role players his age were shuffling out of the majors. Is there yet another miracle still left in Bautista’s locker? Or did this use up the last of his magic?
I’m not sure the Blue Jays expected this kind of dropoff after Bautista’s 2015 heroics, and the .270 True Average he posted last year was more in line with what the team wanted from the sixth spot in the batting order rather than the lineup's throbbing heart. The plate discipline didn’t change all that much, aside from Bautista being just a little more selective swinging at pitches outside the zone, but he wasn’t able to muscle as many balls over the fence as he had during the previous season.
All of Bautista’s enormous talent is predicated on two things: his life-changing power and his ability to draw a walk. Without the power, one might imagine that pitchers will become less inclined to dance around him, and perhaps will spend more time working him in the zone and challenging him to make contact. While this could be a fool’s errand, if Bautista is putting the ball on the ground rather than on a rope or in the stands he’s a very, very different sort of hitter. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something to watch out for.
While much has been made of Bautista’s decline as a hitter, there’s evidence to suggest that perhaps the slugger ran into some bad luck last year. To wit, Tom Tango:
— Tangotiger (@tangotiger) January 16, 2017
Bautista undershot his expected wOBA on contact by around 20 points, and his batting average drooped even as his walk rate rose. The error bars are there, telling us that with a little luck he could’ve had quite a different narrative to the season. After all, just a few more points of True Average and a couple extra balls over the wall can make a large difference in value. He’ll get to keep hitting in the favorable environment of Toronto, so that’s a boon in his favor, and one could argue that his in-division rivals didn’t improve their pitching aside from the Red Sox.
It’s possible that Bautista’s injury issues—lower-body ones, mostly—helped sap some of his power and that a season of full health might make a big difference. At the same time, injuries tend to breed more injuries, so expecting a bounce back and expecting another disabled list stint might be equally wise. Either way, both the variance of year-to-year shifts and Bautista’s prodigious history give us enough priors to think that there’s at least one good, if not great, season left in him.
Even if he could reach his former performance as a hitter, Joey Bats has deep concerning flaws in the other aspects of his game. The rifle arm that made him a threat for 9-3 putouts is still in place, but it’s an open question if he’ll make it to each ball hit in his direction. He is slow. His best defensive position is certainly designated hitter, but he’d probably be an all right first baseman if the Jays didn't already have those positions filled. (Sorta. Justin Smoak could probably be kicked to the curb at any moment.)
And his baserunning is as sad as his power is joyful. As Ben Lindbergh noted on a recent episode of Effectively Wild, he wasn’t able to get good Statcast numbers on his home-to-first times from MLB.com’s Mike Petriello because the stats were so sketchy that there’s the possibility that the data is bad. Our BRR measure has Bautista at about -2.0 runs per season over the last couple of years, which certainly doesn’t help his value. The power needs to come in spades to keep Bautista as a star-caliber player.
The specifics of this deal are “interesting.” The base is a one-year, $18 million deal with attendance-fueled incentives that could tack on almost another million if the Jays draw well. After that, there’s a mutual 2018 option for $17 million that comes with a $500,000 buyout. This option seems very unlikely to come to fruition; if Bautista returns to form then he’ll want to shop for a two- or three-year deal, and if Bautista struggles again the Jays will want out. There’s also a 2019 vesting option which seems wholly unlikely. So while there’s the possibility that this accord could stretch to the end of the decade, it also appears likely that he he'll hit the market again next winter.
There’s no mistaking this fact: Bautista is the signature Jay of the last decade. His swagger, his power, and his attitude all make for a nice little juxtaposition with idealized Canadian politeness. He is larger than life, louder than many, and an absolute joy to watch at the plate. And it seems like a good thing for the both team and player that he spends another year in the place he fits so well. Both player and team need each other, at least for one more year. After that, well, predicting what could come next for Jose Bautista tends to be a fool’s exercise.