Even as I start writing this, the landscape may be changing – Freddie Freeman was just plunked on his left wrist again. But the notion that there’s a big bat out there to help the team out now is probably a distant fantasy.
In 2017, the Atlanta Braves took a flier on former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard with the thought that perhaps he could provide some support off the bench. In 42 plate appearances at Gwinnett, he hit .184 with a 26% strikeout rate. The Braves released him.
Later last year, the Rockies tried the same thing: while with their Albuquerque AAA club, he hit .192 with 3 homers… and a 31.5% K-rate. He was 37½ years old at the time.
Now the Braves are bringing in another 37½ year old player.
Everything I’m about to say about this acknowledges the fact that this is a low-risk/no risk minor league deal that only pays off for Bautista if he can convince the coaching staff and scouts that he can still be a consistent contributor at the major league level. If that actually happens, then applause to Alex Anthopoulos and his crew for making it happen.
But I really don’t expect anything here but confusion.
As late as perhaps mid-Spring Training, such a move might have made some sense – and that’s admittedly a bit of a reach saying even that. The Braves clearly needed (need) some pop in the lineup and there is little no doubt that there is still some power in his swing – however infrequently it might connect squarely with a baseball.
Bautista is 37½ years old. He is not Ryan Howard, clearly being the better athlete. Bautista has also been more productive in his major league career: a 34.2 fWAR in seasons between 2005 and 2017 (vs. 19.8 for Howard, 2004-2016).
But the trends haven’t been encouraging for Bautista either:
- 33.1 fWAR was recorded between 2010 and 2015.
- In 2016, that dropped to 1.3 despite 22 homers.
- In 2017, -0.5 despite 23 homers.
- His hitting rate has dropped from .286 (2014) to .250 to .234 to .203 (2017).
- His strikeout rate has climbed as his hitting has waned: 14.3% to 15.9% to 19.9% to 24.8% over the same years.
- One national baseball observer I heard today attributes these changes to a ‘refusal’ to change his approach at the plate… all pull all the time.
Want to know why he couldn’t find a job during this off-season? That’s it in a nutshell. His numbers portend a less-than-replacement-player level of performance.
Could Bautista change? Maybe. He needs to do so. The trick is that most teams would want to see positive evidence of a change… with positive results… before signing him. This puts him in the extremely uncomfortable position of needing a job to prove himself… without the opportunity to do so until now.
That’s where Alex Anthopoulos came in – the man who originally bought in (literally) to Jose Bautista in Toronto. This is clearly an attempt to reward a friend who performed at the top of his game in a manner that benefited both Blue Jays and Anthopoulos. I’m good with that – I like personal loyalty.
However, the substance of this signing just appears confusing, up and down the entire organization.
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The Braves want Bautista to try playing third base. He’s done this in the past, but not for any significant innings since 2011 (205, 25 games). His last (and only) 1,000 inning season at the hot corner came in 2007 for the Pirates.
He really wasn’t very good at the position even then… at age 26: fangraphs gave him a -6.3 defensive rating for 2007. He has 43 total errors while playing third base over 3094 innings (roughly 2 full seasons).
- A May-June promotion is still not out of the question if he keeps this up, but you’d hate to see him delayed if Bautista actually can do something.
- (Just to be clear: under no scenario do I see Riley being blocked by Bautista)
You would therefore have to believe that Bautista’s primary role – should he actually make the club – would be as a bench bat pinch hitter… and hopefully the notion of third base is merely as an emergency situation.
An aside: if Freeman Freeman has to miss any significant time, then Bautista’s efforts to get back into playing shape could change… to first base. Then, of course, Alex Anthopoulos becomes a genius in that world.
But overall, this seems like a solution that’s searching for a problem… and one that seems to signal discontent with the performance of some already playing the position Bautista is said to be revisiting after a lengthy hiatus.