Questions swirled around Jose Bautista ahead of the 2011 season. How would he follow his amazing 2010 season? Would the pressure of a new contract affect him? Would losing the invaluable protection of Vernon Wells hurt his production? Without Cito Gaston, how was Jose expected to go on?
Jose Bautista answered all these questions and more by following his historic 2010 with another incredible season. Very little doubt how remains – Jose Bautista is one of the very best hitters in baseball. He hits for power and exhibits a terrific eye at the plate.
With these facts now taken as 1100 at bat gospel, what does it mean for Bautista in the future? What kind of career arc can we expect from this right-handed slugger? I can think of one excellent comparison – Gary Sheffield.
The career paths of Gary Sheffield and Jose Bautista could not be more dissimilar. Sheffield stormed onto the scene as a 19 year-old shortstop (!) with the Milwaukee Brewers (!!) in 1988 (!!!). Like Bautista, Sheffield changed teams with alarming frequency as a young player, moving from Milwaukee to San Diego and finally Florida within the first three full seasons at the big league level. Unlike Bautista, these moves owed largely to Sheffield’s role as History’s Greatest Villain as opposed to a plain-old under-performing ballplayer without a position.
Sheffield moved from position to position and team to team, leaving a trail of bodies and arrests in his wake. But he always hit. After posting a very impressive .421 wOBA as a member of the Padres, Sheffield moved to the Marlins and continued raking.
After struggling through injuries and labor stoppages, Sheffield hit his stride in 1996. Looking at his numbers, his ’96 season (at age 27) is strikingly similar to Jose Bautista’s 2011 (at age 30.)
- Sheffield – 21.0% walk rate, 42 home runs, .310 ISO, .454 wOBA, 183 wRC+.
- Bautista – 20.2% walk rate, 43 home runs, .306 ISO, .441 wOBA, 181 wRC+
Gary Sheffield didn’t strike out as much as Jose, though Bautista cut his strikeouts considerably from 2010 to 2011. The Sheff never managed that lofty a K/BB ratio again in his career and 1996 marked his career high in intentional walks, just as Bautista gladly took 24 free passes in 2011.
Looking forward into Sheffield’s career, we see a player who maintained his crazy offensive numbers without sacrificing his trademarked patience. At age 31 he posted bonkers numbers for the Dodgers. Though his strikeout rose while his walk rate shrank from his obscene 1996 levels, he still posted a remarkable season. 16.5% BB rate, 43 more home runs, .317 ISO, .447 wOBA and a 171 wRC+.
From the time he started in Florida and embodied the patient slugger lifestyle that defined his career, Sheffield averaged a 15% BB rate, a near 12% strikeout rate about 15% home run per fly ball. Sheffield, a slugger with a pronounced leg kick and incredibly quick bat much like Jose Bautista, still managed a .372 wOBA at the age of 37 in Detroit.
Sheffield, of course, admitted to steroid use in his 2004 Grand Jury testimony. At the very least, this drug use helped Sheffield stay on the field to post these numbers. At worst, they delayed his decline phase until a time well past its natural date while pumping up his power stroke. His 2003 season stands out in some ways, with his home run per fly ball rate jumping up well beyond his normal rate attracts some suspicion. Though Sheff did continue posting big numbers well after the drug testing was in place and the
witch hunt crackdown was in full swing.
Aside from the atrocities, a career path similar to Gary Sheffield’s would make Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays very, very happy while looking very, very smart. While the direct benefits of Sheffield’s drug use are unclear, what is clear is the type of hitter he was and the type of hitter Jose Bautista has become. If Bautista produces as Sheffield did, the contract looks great and Jose might have another significant pay day in his future.
It might not be a popular comparison but it is one that seems more than apt. Quick-strike pull hitters who covered the plate with incredible eyes. The Bill James projection system tips Jose Bautista for a 15% walk rate with 38 home runs and a .263 ISO in 2012. James’ system is generally very aggressive but, using Sheffield’s career as a guide, Jays fans can hope Jose keeps producing some of the best offensive numbers in baseball. Let’s just hope he avoids the Brewer/Padre/Marlin/Dodger/Yankee/Tiger/Met’s penchant for everything else.