TPA Dispatches: Bautista 2.0?

Entering 2010, Jose Bautista was a 29 year old journeyman. He’d spent most of his career as a third baseman, but had more or less aged out of that position, and didn’t really hit well enough to justify making him an everyday player in the corner outfield positions he could still handle. But then he changed his swing and plate approach, and immediately became one of baseball’s best hitters.

After 59 homers in 2038 plate appearances across his first six big-league seasons, Bautista very nearly doubled his career output in 2010 alone, with 54 in 683 PA, and followed that up with an even more brilliant 2011. From the first day of 2010 through this weekend, Bautista had hit .273/.401/.591 (164 OPS+), with a HR every 14.2 PA, compared to his 2004-2009 standard of one every 34.5.

Entering 2012, Edwin Encarnacion was 29 years old, and something of a journeyman himself. He’d spent most of his career as a third baseman, but was dizzyingly poor at it, and he didn’t hit well enough to justify making him an everyday player at the only position he can play (designated hitter). But then he worked to shorten and use both hands in his swing, and so far in 2012, he’s been one of baseball’s best hitters. He hit his 16th home run on Monday night, and comes into this morning hitting .274/.335/.579, which I’m guessing will be good for approximately a 146 OPS+. On a per-game basis, he enters today on pace for about 53 home runs, almost exactly Bautista’s 2010 total, and has hit one for roughly every 13 PA.

Can this really happen again? Has lightning struck twice for the Blue Jays?

The above glosses over a lot of significant differences between the two players, of course. Encarnacion was a ninth-round draft pick of the Reds who put up some big minor-league numbers, and even made Baseball America’s top 100 prospects (at #56) in 2005. Bautista, on the other hand, was a 20th-round draft pick who was never considered a prospect and who, in fact, played for four different teams during his debut season. And while Bautista had topped out at 16 homers (and one every 28 PA) in his pre-age-29 career, Encarnacion’s previous high was a more respectable 26 (albeit at the homer-happy Great American, where five different players hit twenty homers that season), and he hit one every 17.5 PA (21 in 367 PA) for the Jays in 2010.

But those are good signs for Encarnacion, right? He’s different than Bautista in ways that make it seem more likely that he can maintain this kind of incredible production. He was always viewed as a potential power threat — maybe not a good bet for 50 homers (who is?), but certainly 30 or 35. So to the extent that Encarnacion’s coming from a different place, that seems to work in favor of his being able to sustain…well, not this level of production (never bet on that sort of thing lasting, ever), but certainly a much higher level than we’d gotten used to.

Bautista was able to hit more homers in 2010 in some part because he just put a lot more balls in the air. Compared to 2009, per FanGraphs, his fly ball percentage jumped from 42.1% to 54.5%. This meant not only substantially fewer ground balls (41.3% to 31.1%, but fewer line drives too (16.7% to 14.4%), which is probably a large part of why his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) dropped from a career mark of .281 to .233 in 2009 (part of that was probably just bad luck, too).

Encarnacion, so far in 2012, has seen a similar transformation; again per FanGraphs, through Sunday’s games, his fly ball percentage has leapt from 44.2% to 54.2%, though he’s seen a substantially bigger drop in his line drives (ground balls have dropped just 0.5% while line drives have gone from 19.4% to 9.8%). His BABIP has also seen a substantial drop, from a career .282 to .261 in 2012 (through Sunday).

I think when you consider all those things — the changes he’s reportedly made to his approach, his prospect pedigree, and the similarities in batted-ball profile to Bautista’s breakout — you have to conclude that there’s a better-than-even chance that these first 50 or so games from Encarnacion represent not just a hot start, but a new hitter. Not that 50 homers is his true talent level, but if he plays out the string at a rate of 35 homers per 660 PA and keeps playing every game, he’ll end up with about 42 of them for the year, about which I think most Jays fans would be incredibly happy.

That would raise all sorts of interesting questions. Do the Jays sign Encarnacion (a free agent after the season) to a big deal based on one great year, the way they did with Bautista? And then, more interestingly (to non-Jays fans): can Encarnacion make the same adjustments Bautista made? Following his breakthrough 2010, Bautista had an even better 2011, and one presumes that he did it by realizing that he no longer needed to try to hit home runs, but the swing would do it for him; his relative line drive, fly ball and ground ball rates reverted toward normal, which led to more hits and a higher batting average, and as pitchers learned to fear him and throw him fewer strikes, he learned to take more pitches and resultant walks (something Bautista seems to have forgotten again so far in 2012).

If this is a new, more powerful Encarnacion, it will be fascinating to see whether he takes those same big subsequent steps forward. The second one especially will be a challenge — his historical walk rate was about 33% lower than Bautista’s pre-2011 rate to begin with, so there seems to be a greater danger that he just goes on swinging at everything, and pitchers are able to get him out by just throwing fewer and fewer strikes.

So I don’t think Encarnacion is another Bautista. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen someone suddenly become a superstar at 29 from nothing the way Bautista did — that just doesn’t happen – and Encarnacion had a lot more going for him to start out with. But his evident transformation is starting to look awfully similar, and it’s pretty amazing that this has (apparently) happened twice to two Dominican-born (former) third basemen on the same team within three seasons. And as a disinterested baseball fan, I’m really looking forward to seeing in which direction it all heads from here.