Jose Bautista Isn't Doing Himself Any Favors
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista has experienced a lot of wonderful moments since breaking out with the club back in 2009. He was an important piece to each of the club's playoff appearances the last two seasons, which was the first taste of October baseball for Toronto since 1993.
He did endure through a rough 2016 season, though -- multiple stints on the disabled list limited him to 517 plate appearances (116 games played), and his 122 wRC+ was actually his lowest since his first full season with Toronto. After not finding any takes in free agency last winter, the two sides agreed on a reunion in the form of a one-year deal worth $18 million, which includes a mutual option for 2018 and a vesting option for 2019.
One would imagine the goal for both Bautista and the Blue Jays was to have a good enough year to make picking up next year's option an easy choice. That hasn't happened, though.
Decline in Plate Discipline
In today's game, we are seemingly cool with getting more home runs from hitters in exchange for a ton of strikeouts, but there are a few power hitters who haven't had to make that trade off. Bautista has been one of them -- before taking the field this past April, he had produced a 15.8% walk rate and just a 16.9% strikeout rate since the 2009 season. And despite the struggles he did go through in 2016, that part of his game didn't change (16.8% walk rate, 19.9% strikeout rate).
This has changed in 2017, and it hasn't been for the better. Bautista's 12.7% walk rate and 23.1% strikeout rate are each on pace to his worst since 2009. While his plate-discipline statistics are solid in certain areas, there are some concerning trends. The below table displays his chase rate (O-Swing%), swings inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%), and the corresponding contact rates have changed since 2013, when his contact rates were at career-high levels.
Obviously, his chase rate isn't much of a problem since it's still well below the league average and his walk rate is still above 10.0%. What's troubling here is what he's doing on pitches inside the strike zone.
Bautista's swing rate in this situation hasn't changed a whole lot, but his contact rate sure has. Judging from what we see above and his elevated strikeout rate, it shouldn't be surprising that this is supported by a 10.3% swinging-strike rate, which is on pace to be in double digits for the first time ever in a full season's worth of plate appearances.
With seven consecutive seasons of hitting 20-plus homers under his belt heading into 2017 (and four of those being 30-plus homers), it's rather clear where Bautista's greatest attribute lies. With another 17 bombs through 489 plate appearances this year, that streak looks safe, but it's not as it's helping him be productive overall on offense.
His 88 wRC+ and .307 wOBA are both on track to be his worst marks this decade, and even more importantly when talking about his value, the slugger's Isolated Power (ISO) is on pace to decline significantly for the third consecutive season. Bautista hit 40 homers and posted a .285 ISO in 2015, but he followed that up with a .217 ISO last year before his current .168 mark.
If the season were to end today, that ISO would be the worst of Bautista's Blue Jays career, and lowest since 2008. The other two areas that are of specific concern are his hard-hit rate and pull rate. From 2010-16, the outfielder posted an average hard-hit rate of 37.7% with an average pull rate of 51.6%. So far this year, those numbers are down to 32.4% and 45.6%, respectively.
It is good to see his fly-ball rate go back up to 46.3%, but these issues in his batted-ball profile haven't help him find success -- his 84 wRC+ on fly balls in 2017 is on pace to be the lowest number of his ever for a full season, and it's a far cry from the 169 mark he's averaged throughout his career.
Unless he goes on an incredible tear over the next month and a half, it'd be shocking to see the Blue Jays pick up their side of that 2018 mutual option, which is worth $17 million for Bautista's age-37 season. So, it's rather likely we're seeing the end of his stay north of the border with the club that helped him finally burst onto the scene after years of struggling.
Where could he go next? While he's still playing the outfield just about every day, his -12 Defensive Runs Saved and -2.2 Ultimate Zone Rating show that he's probably better off getting a gig as a designated hitter somewhere. And based off his age and lack of production in recent years, it may be difficult to get more than a one-year guarantee via free agency, which is a far cry from the ridiculous numbers he threw out during spring training in 2016.
The arc that Bautista's career took has been fascinating to watch, but until there's a drastic change in his peripherals, his days as a top-25 outfielder are over.