Why Jose Bautista Is For Real

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Jose Bautista has been 2010′s biggest surprise, but is he for real? (Icon/SMI)

Today we have a special guest article from our friend Mike Podhorzer. Despite skepticism from some in the fantasy community, Mike explains why Jose Bautista’s breakout 2010 — at age 29 — could be for real. –Derek Carty

Jose Bautista‘s shocking performance may very well be the biggest story of the baseball season. Naturally, the biggest question on our minds is whether he could perform at anything close to this level next year or if he is just having another fluky career year of Brady Anderson proportions.

First off, forget steroids. I am not going to speculate on something I have absolutely no evidence of, nor am I going to accuse a player of taking PEDs simply because he has increased his power output unexpectedly. A couple of weeks ago we discussed Jose Bautista on the Fantasy Baseball Roundtable radio show (shameless plug: Tuesdays at 10:30 PM EST on BlogTalkRadio!) and Patrick DiCaprio and I disagreed on Bautista’s future. He thought Bautista is mostly a fluke, while I stated my belief that he is mostly for real. Here is why.

For a hitter to hit home runs, he needs to make contact (i.e. not strike out), hit fly balls, and hit those fly balls far enough to go over the fence, which shows up in the player’s HR/FB ratio. Aside from checking out the metrics related to those skills, we could also check on the player’s Hit Tracker data to see how far his home runs are traveling and make some comparisons to the league average and to himself in previous seasons.

Ks, Flies, and HRs

Jose Bautista is striking out at a 21.3% clip this year, just a smidge worse than league average, and generally in line with your prototypical power hitter. This is a completely normal rate and one that should not be of concern. The only slight red flag is that his career strikeout rate is 24%, and this year’s rate is the second best of his career. Consequently, it is very possible that he regresses a bit next season and all else equal, less contact means fewer home runs.

Next is Bautista’s fly ball rate. Prior to this year, in four of his six seasons he has posted a fly ball rate above 40.0%, which is exactly what you want to see from a power hitter. This year, however, he has taken that fly ball rate to an entirely new level, hitting them at a 54% rate. This ranks him third in baseball and first in the American League. The huge number of fly balls is obviously a good thing for his home run potential, but then the question must be asked as to whether it is sustainable. The good news is that hitters do have a large amount of control over their batted ball types and a large shift could indicate a conscious change in approach, suggesting this could be repeatable.

Moving on, let us check in on his HR/FB ratio. But before looking at that, I want to vent a little, as I love to do. I am sick of the media and commenters on Bautista articles saying how Bautista is a fluke because he has never hit more than 16 home runs in a season. These people conveniently ignore the most important factor at play here, his playing time. Now of course Bautista has never hit home runs at the pace he has this year, but looking at home run totals from previous seasons, rather than HR/AB or HR/FB ratio, leads to a poor argument, which is unfortunately par for the course for the mainstream media and ignorant commenters.

Bautista has posted a 21.6% HR/FB ratio this season, which is certainly much higher than his 13.1% career average (which includes this year) and 13.8% previous career high. However, in isolation, a 21.6% HR/FB ratio is not outrageous. Most would assume that Bautista was posting a ridiculous HR/FB ratio given his home run production so far, but the combination of his fly ball rate and decent contact rate has allowed him to post a HR/FB rate that is very sustainable.

Bautista’s HR/FB ratio actually only ranks him third in baseball, behind Carlos Pena, who has a history of 20%+ HR/FB ratios, and MLB leader Joey Votto, who does not. In fact, how come no one is asking if Votto is on steroids? His HR/FB ratio is 9.9% higher this year than last, while Bautista’s is only 8.9% higher! I haven’t heard a peep about Votto’s home run total, but strictly using HR/FB ratio, he has increased his home run frequency even more than Bautista has. So Bautista’s HR/FB ratio is not unprecedented at all, and just this year the NL home run leader’s rate has jumped even more. Also just to be clear, I am not insinuating anything about Votto and potential steroid usage, just pointing out his HR/FB spike.

Raw HR data

Given Bautista’s increased HR/FB ratio, you would expect his home runs to be traveling further. Hit Tracker could tell us if this is the case. Bautista’s home runs (only 41 of his 42 are listed) have traveled an average standard distance of 403.9 feet, while flying at a speed off the bat of 107.2 miles per hour. Last year, his average standard distance was just 396 feet, while his balls traveled at 103.3 miles per hour off his bat. So we do see a substantial increase in distance and speed from Bautista this year. Now let’s check the league average in these two metrics. The average standard distance of home runs hit in the American League this season is 393.5 feet, with a speed off the bat of 103.4 miles per hour. So Bautista’s home runs have traveled a little more than 10 feet further than league average, while moving at a velocity of nearly 4 miles per hour faster.

Unfortunately, Hit Tracker does not have a leaders list where you could sort for standard distance or speed off bat to see where Bautista ranks. However, from experience using the site, I could tell you that his standard distance is very good, though not exceptional, while his speed off bat is fantastic. For a quick comparison to Josh Hamilton, who has hit the longest home run this season, Hamilton’s average standard distance is a whopping 419.1 feet, but his speed off bat is slightly below Bautista’s at 106.5 miles per hour.

We could also use Hit Tracker to analyze a hitter’s home run spray chart. Every single one of Bautista’s home runs has been to left or left-center field, making him a dead pull hitter. We know that hitters generate significantly more power when pulling the ball than when hitting it straight away or going to the opposite field. So this approach should help him maintain a high HR/FB ratio.

Change in mechanics

One last thing I wanted to mention specifically about Bautista is the mechanical changes he made to his stance and swing in the pre-season. There was a great article published recently at AOL Fanhouse that described every change he made, from his leg kick to his timing, that Blue Jays coaches worked with him on. Many times you hear the media talk about how a player corrected some mechanical flaw and that change is responsible for the player’s resurgence. This is almost always just noise. However, this time it seems like this is a clear explanation for Bautista’ increased power, especially since he has always shown above average power to begin with. This is different than, say, Juan Pierre suddenly hitting 20 home runs simply due to a change in his batting stance and swing.

Team philosophy

The last thing worth discussing is the Blue Jays team and their hitting philosophy. The team has hit 195 home runs, an amazing 23 more than the next best team in baseball. They also have the lowest BABIP in baseball, checking in at just .276. It seems reasonable to believe that the Jays hitters and coaches have purposely altered their approach at the plate in a certain manner. Furthermore, the team’s fly ball rate sits at 43.4%, again, the best in baseball. Their HR/FB ratio stands at 12.9%, while only the Yankees have even a 12.0% rate. Now of course all these metrics are being influenced by Bautista himself, but even if you remove him and put a league average hitter in his place, it is likely that the Jays would still remain at or near the top of these categories.

I have watched pieces of a number of Blue Jays games and almost always hear the broadcasters talk about the team’s hitting philosophy and unique approach at the plate. This leads me to believe that a lot of Bautista’s success was by design and the result of what the Jays have preached. Given that nothing in his advanced metrics clearly stand out as a fluke, like Joe Mauer and Raul Ibanez‘s HR/FB ratios did last year for example, I truly believe that Bautista is for real.

Next year

Having said that, does that mean that next season I will project close to the 53 home runs he is currently on pace to hit? No, of course not. Any good projection system will always factor in some regression for the top performers, especially those that seemingly appear to have been the result of a fluky career year. Though I cannot be sure exactly where my home run projection will end up as I would have to run the numbers, I would guess that it would be in the 35-40 range, while many others will likely think he was a complete fluke and project no more than 25.

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Comments

  1. Mike Podhorzer said...

    Brian answered the BABIP and line drive/fly ball questions well. Aside from the power, which should help a hitter’s BABIP, Bautista’s combination of extreme number of fly balls and low line drive rate are going to offset the help his power provides, keeping his BABIP low.

    The scoring of a line drive, rather than a fly ball, is very subjective. I know there have been numerous articles wirrten and studies looking at this, and there is definitely some bias in the numbers.

    I cannot recall if xBABIP looks at the hitter’s spray chart or not. I would think a hitter who could use the entire field and go the other way would have a higher BABIP than one who pulls the ball more often.

  2. Mitch said...

    Nice article. Ever-so-slightly off topic: much of the talk about the Jays “new approach” neglects to mention it has also led to 3rd from last in team AVG and OBP. Take Bautista out of the mix and I’m not sure this new approach will win many fans long-term. Just ask the corpses of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind (and even Lyle Overbay.)

    /frustrated Jays fan

  3. Mike Podhorzer said...

    This is true Mitch, but a league-leading slugging percentage has allowed them to post the fifth best wOBA in the AL, which is a much better indicator of their offensive performance this season, and might make you feel better!

  4. Brian Cartwright said...

    From 2006-2008, per HitTracker, the average speed of bat for HRs was 106.4

    Leaders       HR   SOB
    Pena, Wily Mo   28 112.2
    Rodriguez, Alex 127 110.4
    Gomes, Jonny   53 109.9
    Hafner, Travis   73 109.8
    Bonds, Barry   54 109.6
    Fielder, Prince 109 109.5
    Thomas, Frank   71 109.1
    Dunn, Adam     117 109.1
    Ortiz, David   137 109.1
    Thome, Jim     110 108.8

  5. Braves Fan said...

    Nice article.

    I’m curious, with respect to these advanced metrics, what exactly is the definition of a “fly ball” and “line drive”? I’ve seen highlights of Bautista’s home runs this year and I’ve noticed that many of them seem to be of the “line drive” type. How far and/or high does a batted ball have to travel to count as a “fly ball” rather than a “line drive”?

  6. frank pepe said...

    great article. appreciate the tone and clarification here. keep up the good work mike, keep up the good work hbt.

  7. Andrew said...

    Another point about Bautista is that he’s been pretty unlucky in his AVG this year.

    He has the fifth lowest BABIP in the AL. More importantly, his xBABIP is significantly lower than his actual BABIP.

  8. Brian Cartwright said...

    Bautista always has had a low BA. The article talked about his higher FB rate. Guys who hit lots of FBs and lots of HRs (Griffey, Andruw, Giambi, etc) have very low BABIPs, around .250-.260, because they hit a disproportionate number of high flies that are easy to catch if they don’t leave the yard.

    Line drives and fly balls are in the eyes of the stringer who records the data. It is possible to calculate LDHR/LD and FBHR/FB, but in cases like this, I believe the HR is usually divided by all air balls (LD+FB+PU) or without pop ups (LD+FB).

  9. Brian Cartwright said...

    Andrew, you seem to be assuming that xBABIP is a good estimator. Maybe so, but I have data on Bautista that gives a different picture.

    I looked at the article you linked and some other describing xBABIP. I see they’ve done a regression analysis, but I did not find the actual formula.

    What I do not understand is how, in the FanGraphs articles, they can give Bautista a xBABIP of .332 when he’s never had a MLB rate above .286.

    From 2006-2010 Bautista’s BABIP was .278, .286, .272, .275, .249 where the MLB average is .300.

    Bautista’s percent of batted balls that were FB or PU was .486, .412, .364, .402, .516 where the MLB average is .358. He’s always put the ball high in the air at an above average rate, and at a very high rate in 2010.

    Bautista’s air ball rate in 2010 is .516, and he has a BABIP of .249. From 2005-2010 in MLB, there are 16264 PA by batters with a season air ball rate of >= .500 (including Bautista this year), and the cumulative BABIP for those batters is .248.

    I would recommend doing a weighted mean of his actual BABIP for the past few seasons, then regressing that rate to the rate of other batters with similar batted ball profiles.

  10. Bob said...

    Swing mechanics! Just the mention sends shivers down my spine as I think of all the poor folks who drafted Ben Zobrist this year.

  11. Pat said...

    Where do you draft next year? The one thing missing from this article is the fact that pitcher will be more aware of him and study him further.

  12. Conor said...

    Thanks for the review.

    One point on Votto – I think the reason no one is harping about him is two-fold. First, he’s only 26, not 29 and so some power increase at that age is not out of the ordinary. Second, Votto’s season slugging is only about 50 points higher than his career and movements of 50 points are not all that uncommon, wheras Bautista has jumped 200 points off his career high in slugging (nearly a 50% increase!). That’s way out of the realm of typical fluctuation or development.

    Personally, I think Bautista is a lot more like Ryan Ludwick: career year at 29, will regress quite a lot in subsequent years but still outperform his stats prior to his age 29 year.

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