Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees

The latest edition of My Approach gets into the head of one of the most patient and prolific sluggers in the game, Jose Bautista.

As he did last season, Jose is off to a bit of a slow start in 2013. While he isn’t putting up the batting average he’d like, Jose remains a very productive hitter, still walking at an elite rate and hitting for power like very few batters can. His walk rate is fifth-best in the American League and his seven home runs place him among the league leaders.

During the Jays most recent home stand, Jose spoke to Getting Blanked about many aspects of preparation and research, where Bautista quotes numbers and describes, in as many words, the game theory of hitting in the big leagues. Plus a whole lot on his preparation against his nemesis, CC Sabathia.

Getting Blanked: You have a reputation as a guy who puts in a lot of work, is there such a thing as too much information?

Jose Bautista: At some point as you get older you start to figure out what works. As you change teams or coaching staffs change, it’s up to you to talk to them so they can get to know you better and they know what feedback you want. It can definitely get overwhelming when you start to get too much feedback, too much information, too many different sources of information can get confusing.

You can even confuse yourself. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what works for me – I just keep it simple and keep it basic and I don’t try to re-invent the wheel. I get the info that’s going to help me develop my plan and just go from there.

GB: You mention your “plan” – how much is about the guy you’re facing and how they pitched you in the past?

JB: I think pitchers are creatures of habit – they go by latest results. I’m a big believer that whatever’s working, they’re going to keep doing. I look at their last outings more than how they pitched me in the past.

A particular pitcher might have gotten me out with pitches inside in the past but I might be hitting pitches in better at that time so he’s not going to throw me that. Or he might not have control of his pitches in recently so he’s not going to do that. I just look at what’s working for them lately, as I’m sure they look at how I’m hitting lately, the pitches I’m hitting well to try to stay away from that.

They go through the same process so you have to keep that in check. They’re going out there looking at video of you and seeing how they can exploit you. You have to look at what you’re going to pick up on them and what they’re going to pick up on you and use that information to make your plan.

GB: How much of what you do is about feel versus information when you aren’t going well?

Those are things you work at in the cage. I don’t look at video for problems in my swing, I feel it. I know when my load is too late and know when I’m jumping at the pitcher and when I’m not staying back and then I just work on them in the cage.

But that’s it – when the game starts, you just have to go and execute. The only other thing is just adjusting as you go. Maybe you think the pitcher was going to bang you in and then you hit a home run so maybe he’s not going to go back there. Those types of changes you have to make on the run in the game.

GB: Do you have a baseline or a default position you work from in the cage? Is cage work used to target specific things or get your swing into shape?

JB: If I don’t feel good in the previous game – if I felt like I wasn’t seeing the ball on the outside corner because I was jerking my head, I’ll go and work on that in the cage. I go by what I feel in the game and I try to fix those bad habits or create good habits in the cage. I don’t go to the cage looking for things to work on.

GB: Do you ever guess?

JB: You can sit on a pitch but I don’t call it guess. More like an educated guess. For instance, I notice a great deal of disparity in CC Sabathia’s pitches this year. He only throws the curveball, well 29 out of 32 times this year prior to our start (April 27), was first pitch. After that he doesn’t throw it. He only throws the slider with two strikes, mostly. 45 out of 54 against right-handed batters, he threw with two strikes. Then he works with fastball/changeup in between.

When you have stats which are that pronounced, it’s not guessing – it’s expecting what might come your way. Against him, my approach was beware of fastball/curveball first pitch, fastball/change up in between and fastball/changeup/slider with two strikes, if I got there. And that’s exactly how he pitched me.

It is little wonder that Jose Bautista studies CC Sabathia so closely, as the big Yankees lefty pitches Bautista tougher than anybody in the league. Jose was just 1 for 19 against Sabathia for his career before they met this April, with four walks and eight strikeouts.

All that studying shows as Jose nails CC’s curveball tendencies pretty much dead on. Just as Jose noted, CC throws his curveball pretty much exclusively as a first pitch “show-me” option. Before his start against the Blue Jays on April 27th, CC Sabathia threw…29 first pitch curveballs to righties, accounting for 75% of his overall curveball usage. Including the three starts since his outing against the Jays, Sabathia throws first pitch curves 22% of the time, representing 80% of his total curveballs thrown.

JB: The only thing I didn’t notice by watching him pitch was that his ball was cutting instead of sinking, which is new. Maybe he’s trying to tinker with new things when his velocity was down. I was able to take advantage.

He started me with a curveball and I took it the whole way because I wasn’t swinging. Then he threw me a fastball – first time it jammed me because it cut and I didn’t expect it. Next at bat he threw me a fastball and it cut and I hit a home run.

Jose’s homework paid off in his first at bat against Sabathia, as the first pitch curve is down below the strike zone. Bautista had zero interest in offering at this low breaking ball.

Then the fastball which bored in on his hands “jams” Jose, which is to say he barely misses it and sends it just short of the warning track. This at bat informs his next trip.

Spitting on the curveball in his first PA earns him a first pitch fastball from CC in the fourth inning. Jose is able to stay inside this cutter over the plate, sending it into the left field seats for his first career homer against Sabathia.

JB: Later, I had an at bat when I battled, I thought I laid off some pitches in the zone and got to a 2-2 count. He hung me a slider but I hit it hard, it got caught. I feel like I had three good at bats off of him. I feel like I executed my game plan on that particular day because the stats were so pronounced. That’s basically a perfect day when it comes to having an approach and executing it.

Process not results. The Tao of Bau

GB: Against a pitcher you’re not as familiar with, what do you focus on when you’re, for example, ahead in the count. Key on a pitch in a location?

JB: Probabilities too, It depends on how you’re seeing the ball. Sometimes you’re seeing the ball well, even if you know the probabilities of what you might get, you feel good enough you just look for your fastball. If they don’t throw it you just feel like you’re going to try to take everything else.

On those days when you feel your best, you make pitchers pay because when they throw that fastball in the zone, you kill it. And when they try to bait you into swinging at pitches out of the zone or offspeed pitches, you lay off. More often than now, most of the offspeed pitches end up being balls.

GB: Who do you think has the best approach in the game?

JB: I really admire Miguel Cabrera. Obviously he knows exactly what he wants to do when he goes up the plate. He’s pretty good at hitting with two strikes, which is something that is not easily done if you look at the history of baseball. [Comparing] every single player to ever play the game their stats with two and his, the difference is astronomical. That is one of the reasons I admire him the most.

Same with runners in scoring position – I looked up his numbers over the last three years with runners in scoring position, he’s hitting over .380. That’s ridiculous. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks and why he’s one of the best hitters in the league – if not the best hitter.

Miguel Cabrera, since the start of the 2011 season with runners in scoring position: .391 average. .457 wOBA.

Another guy I enjoy watching hit is Dustin Pedroia. He’s not the most talented guy, not the most blessed guy when it comes to physical ability but he makes the most out of it and he has a great gameplan and he executes.

GB: Two very different guys

JB: The opposite ends of the spectrum, really.

GB: Miguel Cabrera can take that low and away fastball the opposite way with power, it’s just…

JB: He can take the fastball IN the opposite way with power! He hit a home run against us on a fastball in and took it out to right field. He did it the other night, hit a breaking ball off the plate away out the other way for a home run.

It’s amazing what he can do. His hand-eye coordination is one to envy and his ability to stay back and be short and barrel balls up, it’s something that not a lot of guys have. He’s a special talent and a special breed.

Miguel Cabrera, the people’s champion.

Credit to ESPN Stats & Info and Fangraphs for some of the statistics used in this piece.