Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Joey Bats: Seriously, is it time to start worrying?

In what has become a discomfortingly familiar sight, Bautista pops out last night. Photo by Nathan Denette.

Jose Bautista is off to an awful start. But don't take my word for it - here's a simple comparison of his ratios from the past few years:

2009 404 0.235 0.349 0.408 0.173 0.275 13.9% 21.0% 0.339 102
2010 683 0.260 0.378 0.617 0.357 0.233 14.6% 17.0% 0.422 166
2011 655 0.302 0.447 0.608 0.306 0.309 20.2% 16.9% 0.441 181
2012 99 0.190 0.333 0.329 0.139 0.179 16.2% 11.1% 0.301 88

In every category but K-rate, (strangely, but more on that later) Joey Bats' numbers have taken a nose-dive. He's walking less than last year, his batting average on balls in play is absurdly (and unsustainably, thank god) low, and his isolated power is actually below league-average. And overall - and this is what you see in those last two columns, weighted on-base average and weighted runs created plus - he's about 10% below league-average on offense. The Bautista that we see in 2012 looks nothing like the one from 2010 or 2011 - he doesn't look much like the one from 2009, either, but if we were compelled to choose the best comparison...

"But", you're saying, "this is a small sample-size. If his BABIP were closer to his career average (of .273) and just 1 or 2 deep fly-outs had left the park, we wouldn't be worried at all!" And you're probably right. But his BABIP has been low and he does only have 5 extra-base hits (after posting 92 and 69 in the past two years), so let's see if we can find an explanation. First, we'll check out the batted-ball details:

2009 404 0.98 16.7% 41.3% 42.1% 10.4% 12.3%
2010 683 0.57 14.4% 31.1% 54.5% 14.9% 21.7%
2011 655 0.79 16.0% 36.9% 47.0% 15.2% 22.5%
2012 99 0.85 13.7% 39.7% 46.6% 20.6% 8.8%

Again, given the caveat that these are small samples, it looks like some sort of explanation is starting to emerge, and it reconciles well with what the eyeball-test tells me - Bautista just isn't getting good wood on the ball, and is either driving it into the ground or blasting it sky-high. (In Sunday's game, he hit three IFFBs in one at-bat - one fell foul because of a miscommunication, one fell just a couple rows into the stands, and the last was finally caught by Seattle's shortstop.) His line-drive rate is noticeably down, his ground-ball rate is rising to pre-2010 breakout levels, and he's hitting harmless pop-ups at a really alarming rate. And when he does hit flies, they just aren't leaving the park. This also explains a lot of the BABIP, by the way - the expected batting average on LDs is about .700, while the expected average on IFFBs is almost .000.

Bautista wonders about the BABIP on bunts - hint: it's not enough. Photo by Mike Cassese.

So, why is this happening? Is he doing something different? Are the pitchers doing something different? Based on the next spread of numbers, it seems like that it's a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B.

First, the pitches he's seeing:

2009 404 59.9% 14.6% 10.7% 4.1
2010 683 49.5% 19.3% 12.7% 38.9
2011 655 50.3% 17.6% 11.3% 30.7
2012 99 59.6% 15.5% 6.9% -0.7

This is where it starts to get interesting - pitchers don't seem to be afraid to throw fastballs to Bautista anymore. A typical MLB batter sees around 56% or 57% fastballs, but Bautista's 50% in 2010-11 was the 6th fewest among qualified batters - a number beaten only by other sluggers like Ryan Howard and Josh Hamilton. A 60% rate, though puts Bautista in the company of guys like Michael Bourn and Michael Cuddyer. Again, this seems to jibe with the eyeball-test (and, amazingly, with Pat Tabler's analysis) - pitchers who were previously afraid to throw the high-heat to Joey Bats are now throwing it routinely.

But they would only throw it if he wasn't hitting, right? And you can see that he's not hitting it well in that last column - the one that shows that Bautista has posted a negative run-value on fastballs in play, after two seasons where he hit fastballs better than all but two other players. So, let's look at what Bautista is or isn't doing with the bat...

PA Contact% Zone% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
2009 404 80.1% 52.3% 17.5% 55.6% 37.5% 59.7% 86.0%
2010 683 80.5% 48.5% 22.0% 60.0% 40.4% 66.1% 86.1%
2011 655 79.3% 44.4% 21.2% 57.9% 37.5% 64.2% 86.3%
2012 99 80.4% 47.4% 25.3% 54.7% 39.3% 77.2% 82.0%

I could probably have started with this one chart and referred only to this one chart. That's because plate discipline is the one instance where the sample-size may not be an issue - swing and contact-rates in baseball stabilize much faster than anything else. (Of course, I'm going to break those rates down into sub-sets, which makes it a little questionable, again. Sue me.)

Now, Bautista's Contact% number looks pretty solid, but if you look at the other columns it's also a misleading number. Because, while the overall number looks consistent and encouraging, its components have changed pretty dramatically.

First, Bautista is swinging much more often at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) and less often at pitches inside the zone (Z-Swing%). Bautista's numbers in both columns are still well below-average (which are around 30% and 65%, respectively), because he's an exceptionally patient hitter, but the trend is obviously troubling.

Second, and perhaps more indicative of his problems, Bautista's contact rate inside the zone has dropped by a pretty sizable margin, while, again, his contact rate on pitches outside the zone has increased dramatically. Bautista has always made contact in the zone at a slightly below-average rate, but that's not surprising - power has a significant negative-correlation with contact, so power hitters do tend to whiff at a high rate. More remarkably, though, he used to miss outside pitches more often than league-average (68%), but is now making contact well above that average.

Especially when you think about how power and contact correlate, Bautista's contact rates are a bad development that goes a long way toward explaining the early season problems - if Bautista is making more contact with less hittable pitches, then it follows that the balls he puts in play will be more poorly hit. Not to sound like I'm hitting the panic button, but when I saw these numbers I was reminded of another power hitter who's infamous for his plate discipline and tattooing fastballs, but saw his Z-Contact% drop slightly and his O-Contact% increase dramatically last year, resulting in a complete inability to do anything useful against fastballs - Adam Dunn.

No one wants to be compared to 2011's Adam Dunn. Not even Adam Dunn. Photo by Jerry Lai.

So, where does that leave us? My quick and dirty summary is this: Bautista has to stop swinging at pitches outside the zone. Unless you're Vlad Guerrero in his prime, putting O-Zone pitches in play is deadly to a batter's production. And, really, it's not like he even has an excuse for chasing bad pitches out of the zone - he's seeing more fastballs in the zone than he has in years! (Less helpfully, I'd add that he needs to start hitting fastballs, again.)

No, all is not lost - not even for Adam Dunn, whose 2012 peripherals and production look a lot like his pre-2011 numbers, and is also back to destroying fastballs. In all likelihood, Bautista just needs to adjust his approach ever-so-slightly, to something more closely resembling what he did over the past two years. For what it's worth, this looks to me like a problem with discipline and patience - something that Bautista has been shown to have in spades.

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