What I Like About Jose Bautista

After taking three straight balls from David Price, Jose Bautista stood in the batter’s box with a 3-0 count and didn’t even think about swinging at the next pitch, a changeup right down the centre of the plate. However, on the very next offering from Price, a changeup on the outside part of the strike zone, Bautista connected on his seventh home run of the season and the second of the Saturday afternoon game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

It was a funny moment, as Price shook his head and grinned like a man who knew he put his best effort out there and it still wasn’t good enough. The pitcher’s body language screamed, “What more could I have possibly done?”

James Shields answered the rhetorical question somewhat the next day by walking Bautista twice, the fourth and fifth time in the series, and sticking with a steady diet of changeups and cutters, just as Price had done, to collect the only two outs Bautista had against the Rays.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs asked the question yesterday that must have been on the minds of Tampa Bay’s pitching staff after this weekend: Is Jose Bautista the best hitter in the American League?

At the moment, there can be little doubt. Sure, we’re still in April, but Bautista is on another level right now. Having already collected 2.1 wins above replacement this season, he’s leading both leagues in home runs, isolated power, on base percentage, slugging percentage, weighted on base average and weighted runs created plus. This is phenomenal in and of itself, but his excellence goes beyond these mere numbers because Bautista is putting them up while seeing more than 10% fewer pitches in the strike zone than he did a year ago.

Last year, 45.3% of the pitches that Bautista was offered were in the strike zone. That means that pitchers were throwing him slightly fewer strikes than they would to the average hitter. So far this season, 34.7% of the pitches Bautista has faced have been located in the strike zone. In other words, every time Bautista goes up, almost two thirds of the pitches he gets aren’t in the strike zone.

How has Bautista responded? He’s simply swinging at less pitches (33.6% in 2011 vs. 41.7% in 2010), while maintaining relatively the same rate of contact for pitches inside the zone (85.7% in 2011 vs. 86.3% in 2010). This is, again, the signs of an incredibly smart baseball player, but what makes it exceptional is that he’s doing it all while connecting for even more isolated power than he did last year, when his .357 ISO beat the next closest hitter by .063. This year, his isolated power is a super human .424. Isolated power is meant to measure a player’s raw power without consideration of the other stuff. It’s calculated by this formula: ISO = (2B + (3B*2) + (HR*3)) / AB.

Remember those fantasy novels you read as a kid? Jose Bautista is the hero who was merely average in everyone else’s eyes before suddenly and definitely emerging as the greatest knight in the realm.

Everything being thrown at him is being handled and there doesn’t appear to be an easy chink in the armour. Consider the trend for pitchers to throw Bautista more changeups. According to TexasLeaguers.com, changeups have gone from 10.6% of the pitches that Bautista sees (in 2010) to 15.5% in 2011. While his whiff rate on the pitch is higher than any other type he faces, Bautista is still showing a marked improvement in his ability to hit changeups for power.

Consider this: last season Bautista drove only three changeups for home runs, this year, he’s already collected three touch ‘em alls off of changeups. Compare these two spray charts looking only at change ups that Bautista has made contact with.

In 2010:

So far, in 2011:

So, not only was last season a remarkable year for Bautsita, but he appears to have actually improved on the one weakness he was believed to have had. Those home runs on change ups aren’t the result of a guy simply powering them over the fence either. They’re pulled, signalling that Bautista is timing the slower pitches properly, as well.

Now, I have to stress that it’s still the very early going and eight home runs is a far cry from 30, let alone 54, but for Blue Jays fans, you have to absolutely love what you’ve seen so far from the best player on the team. And the way in which he’s doing it bodes extremely well for his chances of maintaining it for this season.

Aside from all the numbers, graphs and pitch selections, as a Jays fan, it’s hard to remember there ever being a hitter on this team, maybe Carlos Delgado in the late nineties and early aughties, as feared by opposing pitchers. While I remain skeptical that Bautista will be able too maintain these kind of numbers for the next four seasons after this one, I’m very much happy to be along for the ride right now.