Friday, June 3, 2011

I'm not saying that Jose Bautista has been injecting stem cells into his eyelids, but...

Jose Bautista doesn't look like a one-year wonder, and the Pirates fans are grumbling.
Certainly, Bautista's post-Pittsburgh productions is jarring, but it doesn't make sense. Even if he's not juicing -- and I don't really care whether he is or not -- his current rate of production so far this season is not sustainable. His .344 BABIP is outrageously high right now, and that's going to have to regress, so you'll see that .360 batting average drop 80-90 points from where it is right now, maybe more. Even if starting his swing quicker -- supposedly the one big adjustment he made last year -- holds up, then he profiles as someone who is going to hit a wall within the next two years. Quite simply, nobody blooms this late, and your big, thumping power hitters -- even the ones who walk a respectable amount like Jim Thome, Travis Hafner and Adam Dunn -- can't get it done past their early-to-mid 30s.

What troubles me about this:
1) This guy has turned into the prospect that Dave Littlefield's guys -- back then it was Mickey White who was scouting director -- thought he could be, and why they went so far out of their way to get him back after losing him to the Rule 5 draft. Even when Huntington gave him away for a third-string catcher, there was nothing about his previous big league performance to indicate that he was going to pan out at all, and he'd have plenty of time to do so.

2) Since being traded, Bautista is actually walking MORE, and by no small margin. They say you can't teach plate discipline, and I believe that. It's instinctive, and whatever you can learn about it, you learn at a very young age. In his best year with the Bucs, Joey Bats walked in 11.1% of his plate appearances. In his first full year with Toronto, his walk rate went up to 14.9%. Three full percentage points, and he still hit a pedestrian 13 home runs. His career walk-rate before Toronto was an even 10%. Since becoming a Blue Jay, it's 14.9%.

Eric Seidman over at FanGraphs did a brief and interesting piece last month about where Bautista's transformation ranks among the all-time breakouts, and it's worth checking out. One thing I would take issue with from Seidman's piece:
Everything about his turnaround defies logic. This isn’t the case of an upper echelon prospect like Brandon Wood figuring something out. Bautista was always patient at the plate and played decent defense, but he was the epitome of a player whose value was linked directly to his team-controlled status. He was a stopgap solution, a non-tender candidate, not a stud in the making.
Certainly, he was patient at the plate, but who goes from a career 10% walk rate to a 15% rate at age 28? And this started before the power even developed.

What encourages me:
Whether he's on the stuff or not, nothing about his career with Pittsburgh makes any sense from a statistical standpoint when thrown up against what he's done in Toronto.

Pittsburgh (age 23-27): .241/.329/.403 = .733 OPS, 91 OPS+ (making him 4.5% worse than the league average bat)
Toronto (age 27-30): .266/.384/.568 = .952 OPS, 153 OPS+ (making him 26.5% better than the league average bat)

No discussion of absurd transformations in baseball is complete without a Brady Anderson comparison and his absurd 50 home runs out of the leadoff spot for the 1996 Orioles. But look at how Brady Anderson's number stack up against what Bautista is doing:

Brady Anderson, 89-95 (age 25-31): .261/.364/.443, .806 OPS
Brady Anderson, 96 (age 32): .297/.396/.637, 1.034 OPS
Brady Anderson, 97-2001 (age 33-37): .257/.372/.424, .796 OPS

Let's forget for a second that Brady Anderson never hit more than 24 home runs in any season before or after his 50-homer campaign of '96. His slugging numbers were always respectable because the dude hit so many doubles and triples. From age 25-37, Anderson averaged 30 doubles and 6 triples per 162 games played, and those numbers are pretty consistent over the course of his career.

Second, let's keep in mind how critically flawed slugging percentage is. In slugging, triples are weighted more than doubles, which is absurd. A triple is a double that either a) took a fortunate bounce off a wall, b) was misplayed by a fielder, but only to an extent that the official scorer didn't see sufficient evidence to award an error to the fielder because he never actually touched the ball, or c) one of the above types of doubles off the bat of a player who can flat-out fly. Having good power means you're going to hit a lot of doubles, but it doesn't mean you're going to hit a lot of triples. And if you've got the power to hit a lot of doubles -- balls that either find the gap or bounce off an outfield wall -- you're going to poke a few out of the yard. It just stands to reason. When you stack Anderson's 1996, long considered the definitive outlier season in Major League Baseball, against what Bautista has done since going to Toronto, it's not even close.

So yeah, it stings that this guy busted out in a big way after the Pirates dumped him. But with that said, the transformation he's made since being traded is borderline supernatural. I don't know if Bautista has anything to do with steroids, hormone therapy, stem cell injections, or if he was bitten by the radioactive corpse of Jimmie Foxx. But what it's important to note about this if you're a Pirates fan is that this is an outlier of the highest proportion. This doesn't happen, and there's certainly no way anyone could have predicted it.

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