The 2013 season is just a week old, but already, it's been an adventure for Jose Bautista. The Blue Jays slugger hasn't been able to stay out of the headlines, but unfortunately, it's for the wrong reasons. More importantly, he hasn't been able to stay on the field. While it's too early to get worked up about the 2-4 start of a team many (including this scribe) picked to win the AL East, it's worth remembering how critical he is to such rosy forecasts.
Bautista is coming off a season in which he was limited to just 92 games due to a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist. After suffering the injury while swinging a bat in a July 16 game, he spent five weeks on the disabled list, then made just five plate appearances over a two-game span before going back on the DL. Ultimately, he underwent surgery because the tendon remained unstable. Such injuries are a major concern for a hitter, because they can sap power, but the good news is that hasn't been a problem for the 32-year-old righty thus far. He smashed six homers and slugged .683 in 72 plate appearances in Grapefruit League action, then homered in the Jays' second and third regular season games.
That's the good news. From a health standpoint, the bad news is that Bautista twisted his right ankle running out a groundball in the eighth inning of Thursday's game and hasn't played in any of the three games since. He did take batting practice and ran before Sunday's game, but reportedly wasn't pain-free. Nobody has suggested a DL stint is imminent, and with Toronto idle on Monday, he'll have an extra day to recuperate before the team heads to Detroit to start a three-game series.
Bautista's absence hasn't made a perceptible difference in the Jays' results; they went 1-2 while scoring 11 runs with him, and have gone 1-2 while scoring 11 runs without him. The team as a whole is hitting .223/.295/.441, numbers which respectively rank 13th, 12th and sixth in the AL; not far off from last year's rankings of 11th, 13th and 8th. Already the Blue Jays are near the bottom of the league in batting average on balls in play and the top in homers, suggesting that they haven't abandoned their all-or-nothing philosophy under hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, with or without Bautista.
Where Bautista's ankle injury is a concern is in potentially further depressing his own already-low BABIP. Driven by his focus on pulling the ball, last year's .215 mark was the majors' lowest among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, and his .256 mark since 2010 — the year he shocked the baseball world by bashing 54 homers — is the seventh-lowest among hitters with at least 1,200 PA. If his ability to run out base hits is further compromised by the ankle, he's unlikely to rebound in that area, which would limit him to a performance more along the lines of last year (.241/.358/.527) than the year before (.302/.447/.608, via a .309 BABIP).
It might not be a bad idea for Bautista to cool his heals for another reason: his ongoing battles with umpires. As his profile has risen, he's gained a reputation for outbursts relating to strike calls with which he disagrees, and made several pointed comments last week along those lines. From a column by the National Post's John Lott:
Asked about the subject by several reporters before Tuesday’s game, the Toronto Blue Jays slugger said he was “a little irritated about the fact that everybody is trying to point the finger at me.” He also said that when he checks video of disputed pitches, he finds that the umpire was wrong 70% to 80% of the time.
“Sometimes I have trouble more than other players dealing with my production being affected by somebody else’s mediocrity,” he said. “It’s just the way I am as a person. It’s a tougher pill to swallow for me sometimes.”
…Bautista said he had no “statistical evidence” that umpires are tougher on him because of his open disagreements. But he made it clear he believes some umpires do not adhere to the rulebook definition of the strike zone.
…“I don’t want to get calls,” he replied. “I want the right call to be made."
ESPN's Buster Olney noted that Bautista is prone to griping even when there's absolutely nothing at stake, relating a story from earlier this spring, when the slugger erupted over a high strike called in an exhibition in which the Blue Jays had already scored nine first-inning runs. He slammed his bat against the ground after striking out.
At Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh showed that in each of the past three years, Bautista has actually received a smaller-than-average percentage of called strikes on pitches outside the zone, and a larger-than-average percentage of called balls on pitches inside the zone. For the three seasons combined:
| Inside Zone
Based on that data, he might be advised to put a sock in it lest the tide turn against him, though one can also argue that his ongoing litigation of the zone is paying off by yielding a persistent advantage. In any event, much is riding on Bautista returning to the lineup and to form if the Blue Jays are to rise to the top of the AL East and make the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Last year's club went 45-45 (.500) and scored 5.00 runs per game before he got hurt, then slid to 28-44 (.389) while scoring 3.74 runs per game the rest of the way. The Jays are further hampered by playing without third baseman Brett Lawrie as well; he's been sidelined since March 6 due to an abdominal strain and has yet to return to game activity, so he may not be back until late April. A lineup with Mark DeRosa at third and Rajai Davis in right isn't going to win the Jays much even if R.A. Dickey brings down his 8.44 ERA, so the sooner Bautista is back, the better off Toronto will be.