At least he got more than the qualifying offer.
This year’s round of Jose Bautista’s free agency went much like his encounter with Rougned Odor. First, he postured, then he got punched in the jaw, and afterwards he got back up and acted like it didn’t really happen. To wit, Bautista was looking for a five-year, $150 million deal, had a down year, and attempted to “save face” with what’s effectively a one-year, $18 million deal. So how much, exactly, is Joey Bats worth?
FanGraphs projects Bautista for 2.8 WAR ($23 million) next season and 6.6 WAR over the next three years ($68 million) when factoring in a standard aging curve. FanGraphs calculates how much a “win” (or one unit of WAR) costs in a given year, and while that number fluctuates (it was ~$7.97 million last year), Bautista is projected to be worth $23 million next season and $68 over the aforementioned three year period. Now that’s more than what he’s due to make next year, but nowhere near the $30 million per year he was apparently looking for. In fact, to be that valuable he’d essentially have to repeat his 2015 numbers (4.4 WAR) until he’s 41, which is highly unlikely.
In his analysis of Bautista’s potential future, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs targeted $75 million over three years as a more feasible ceiling for Bautista. He came to this evaluation despite analyzing 21 comparable players over the past 50 years with a similar age and wRC+, and noting that 15 showed decline the next season while only two (Dave Winfield, Darrell Evans) improved enough to be worth $75 million (in present day dollars).
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) is a good of way of measuring a players’ overall offensive output while controlling for park factors, where 100 is average, 115 is above average, and 140 is considered great. Jose was a late bloomer and didn’t record a season with a wRC+ greater than 105 until 2010 when he was 29. This means the comps above might not do him justice as a possible outlier.
However, when Edwards looked at player comps who performed at Bautista’s level during their age 33-35 seasons from wRC+, WAR, PA (plate appearance), and ISO perspectives over the last 50 years, on average, that group still declined to a 1.7 WAR and 115 wRC+ in the following season. Historical comparisons aside, the larger question remains: What about Bautista indicates that he might be able to defy the aging curve?
To answer that question, let’s first see if there’s anything about his 2016 that indicates it’s an aberration. For starters, Bats’ 16.8 BB% was a shade above his 2015 number and has been trending upwards. But his 19.9 K% was his highest since 2009 (i.e. when Bautista became a completely different player), and his ISO tanked from .285 to .217. His unsavory .234 average wasn’t all BABIP (.255 with a .266 career average) related, but his career-high 41% hard contact rate does indicate there’s still life in his bat. Of batters with at least 200 batted ball events (hit, out, or error) his average exit velocity of 92.7 mph ranked 17th in the league, ahead of former teammate Edwin Encarnación.
His plate discipline numbers, though, paint the picture of a man who couldn’t catch up with high-movement pitches:
|Pitch Type||Pitches (‘15)||AVG (‘15)||SLG (‘15)||Pitches (‘16)||AVG (‘16)||SLG (‘15)|
He performed roughly the same against fastballs, with a low average and high slugging percentage, but he went from punishing two-seam fastballs and sliders to flailing at them. His Pitch f/x numbers paint a similar picture, where his O-Contact% (contact percentage on balls he swung at outside the strike zone) went from 64.5% in 2015 to 60.4% in 2016. His platoon splits are also in line with the previous year, but check out his launch angle from 2015 (above) vs. 2016 (below):
In 2015, Bautista was launching taters at a higher angle than last season; in particular, the batted balls that turned into hits had a higher trajectory.
Overall it seems Bautista hit the ball as hard as ever, but at a lower angle. Combined with his uncharacteristic struggles against two-seam fastballs and sliders as well as a poor O-Contact% despite a low O-Swing% (percentage of balls swung at outside the strikezone), the Blue Jays’ slugger watched his average and ISO tank. Essentially he swung at less potential balls, but made less contact when he did. He may have been more selective about swinging at balls, but that didn’t translate into greater effectiveness. Bautista did struggle with injuries for a large portion of the season, and it’s not as if a drop in bat speed or physical decline seems to be the clear issue, so let’s give him a pass for 2016.
Edwards re-ran the second set of more Bautista-esque comps (player with Bautista’s level of production from age 33-35) without the 2016 season included, but the average of the 12 similar players was still 1.7 WAR and 115 wRC+ during their age 36 season. There are recent examples of old players still mashing in David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre, but the former is a statistical anomaly and the latter still plays elite defense while hitting dingers from one knee.
If history tells us anything, it’s that Bautista’s chances of remaining an upper echelon player aren’t high. While his defense will do him no favors in terms of value, his plate discipline and batting authority do leave the possibility open that he defies the odds into his twilight years. Father Time is undefeated, but if Joey B wants any chance of getting paid next winter, he’ll have to hold him off for a little while longer.
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