Jonah Keri Applied Analytics: What’s behind Bautista’s struggles?

Jose Bautista talks about what he needs to do to get back on track and why he needs to keep it simple at the plate.

You can’t blame the Toronto Blue Jays’ slow start on any one factor. Devon Travis has been awful, but Steve Pearce hasn’t been any better. Troy Tulowitzki’s hit well below career norms, but so have Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales. Injuries have cut deep into the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen.

Still, if you wanted to summarize the Jays’ season to date, you could probably come up with a pithy, two-word slogan to do so: “Bautista… WTF?!” Given his track record and the depths of his 2017 struggles, no player has been more vexing for Jays fans than Jose Bautista.

At the absolute height of his powers in 2010 and 2011, he blasted 54 homers one year, then actually hit even better the next season, batting an incredible .302/.447/.608. After an injury-prone 2012-2013 stretch dropped him from MVP candidate to merely very good, he returned to stardom in 2014 and 2015, belting 75 combined homers while driving opposing pitchers mad with terrific OBPs.

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Through his first 20 games of 2017, the player responsible for the second-most memorable moment in franchise history has been unfathomably bad. His .147 batting average ranked third-worst in the American League, as did his .213 slugging average. For comparison’s sake, consider this: So far this year, Jake Arrieta’s out-hitting Bautista, and Clayton Kershaw’s out-slugging him.

So what’s causing Bautista to hit like a pitcher, and not even one of the best-hitting pitchers? Let’s take a look.

First, let’s examine his performance against various pitch types, to see where the problems are most acute. (For this and all other data queries for this piece, huge thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for the help.)

JOSE BAUTISTA AGAINST PITCH TYPES (AVG/SLG)

Years Fastball Sinker Slider
2012-2016 .269/.549 .283/.523 .249/.462
2017 .111/.148 .111/.111 .059/.059

Bautista isn’t exactly hammering slower stuff either, batting .200 against curveballs in the early going of 2017, and slugging just .250 against changeups. Still, the sample sizes for those harder offerings are larger, and potentially more troubling.

Another troubling sign? Check out the frequency with which Bautista pulls batted balls over the past few seasons. It won’t be hard to spot the outlier.

JOSE BAUTISTA PULL PERCENTAGE

2010: 51.2%
2011: 51.5%
2012: 50.2%
2013: 52.4%
2014: 50%
2015: 53.3%
2016: 52.8%
2017: 32.7%

OK, now we reach the part of our program where we call out the elephant in the room: The sample size here remains very small. Through Tuesday, Bautista had amassed just 91 plate appearances this season. According to research by Baseball Prospectus analyst Russell Carleton, that’s well below the in-season thresholds at which we should start panicking about performance, regardless of which stat you choose.

On the other hand, we could be witnessing the continuation and escalation of a downtrend that started last year. Plagued by injuries, Bautista’s agility and defence took sharp downturns in 2016. The damage wasn’t limited to only his ability to chase down flyballs, though. Bautista hit just .234/.366/.452 last season. It says a lot about the right fielder’s dominance that a batting line which works out to 22 per cent better than league average would qualify as a disappointment. But his numbers last season were easily his worst in six years.

Go back to those pitch-specific numbers, and you start to wonder. Bautista hit just .237 with a .473 slugging average against fastballs in 2016, well below the levels established in the previous four seasons. Meanwhile, his performance against slower stuff like curveballs and changeups actually improved last season.

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As a player ages, he eventually starts to lose bat speed. Bautista is 36 years-old. Seeing him scuffle against hard stuff since Opening Day 2016 (with the struggles becoming more acute so far this season) wouldn’t seem to bode well for his future.

Still, we like to use evidence rather than conjecture ‘round these parts. So let’s dig deeper. Baseball Prospectus tracks a stat called True Average (TAv). The premise of True Average is simple: Take everything a player does at the plate (hit for average, hit for power, draw walks, etc.), then express all that along the same scale as plain, old batting average. So, a .300 hitter is a star, a .250 hitter is OK, and a .200 hitter is awful.

Here are Bautista’s TAv numbers from 2010 through 2016:

JOSE BAUTISTA TRUE AVERAGE (TAv)

2010: .321
2011: .357
2012: .307
2013: .307
2014: .332
2015: .316
2016: .270

Even with that alarming, 46-point drop last year, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system still forecast a strong .304 showing for 2017. So McQuown ran the numbers for every player since 1950 coming into his age-35, age-36, or age-37 season who owned a baseline performance level of .300 TAv or better, based on the previous five years of stats (with the numbers weighted toward most recent results). Basically, we wanted to see how players like Bautista who remain stars well into their 30s fare once they reach 35 or older.

Of the 209 examples in our sample, the average player saw his True Average drop by 16 points — a .300 hitter becomes a .284 hitter, basically. (Take Barry Bonds and his insane later-career numbers out of our sample, and it becomes a 17-point drop.) Some of the craziest collapses include:

• Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, whose baseline performance heading into his age-37 would have generated a .339 True Average projection, managed just a .253.

• Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, with a baseline TAv of .310 heading into his age-37 season, hit just .235.

• Hall of Famer Larry Doby, .301 projection at age 35, .236 result.

Perhaps the scariest example is Ken Phelps. The player most famous for being vilified on Seinfeld by George Costanza’s dad as the boobie prize in the Jay Buhner trade, wouldn’t have been attractive to the Yankees at all if he wasn’t a devastating hitter in his prime.

In 1986, his age-31 season in Seattle, Phelps hit .247/.406/.526. In 1987, a juiced-ball season that made stars out of forgettable players like Larry Sheets and marked the only time Wade Boggs ever resembled a power hitter, Phelps batted .259/.410/.548. In 1988, he flourished again for the M’s, prompting aging slugger-hunter George Steinbrenner to flip the much younger Buhner to get him. Phelps hit well in both Seattle and New York that year, finishing at .263/.402/.549.

Then, Phelps started floundering. He batted just .242/.342/.371 in 1989, numbers that rated as slightly better than league average, but a gigantic drop from the previous three years. The kill shot came the next year. A baseline .317 True Average hitter coming into his age-35 season, he instead hit a horrendous .150/.280/.192 in 1990 — a .191 on the TAv scale. He saw just 143 plate appearances that year, the last of his major league career.

It’s hard not to see a lot of Jose Bautista in Ken Phelps. Unremarkable hitter for much of his career, starts mashing in his late-20s, rises to stardom in his early 30s, then rides out that excellence for a few years. Both players then suffer a substantial pullback season, where they’re still useful hitters, but nowhere near what they were at their peak. A year later, Phelps falls off a cliff.

For the Blue Jays’ sake, here’s hoping Bautista does not inspire similar Seinfeldian rants five months from now.