We needed to change our tag, so we’ve done a little exploring. “Surrexit” is a Latin word for a phrase that comes from my favourite story. It’s been around for thousands of years and comes from the ultimate ‘snatching-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat’ story. Anyways, if anyone needed to be snatched from the jaws of defeat it’s the Jays.
It should do Jays’ fans good to see Chris Davis tearing the cover off the ball. Here was a guy who scuffled in Texas and was stuck behind better, more experienced players. He struck out a lot, didn’t make a lot of contact, and his career prospects were growing dimmer by the swing. Then the trade that sent RP Koji Uehara to Texas in exchange for Tommy Hunter and Davis changed everything. Does this sound familiar? It should. In broad strokes, it’s a story similar to that of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
As we head into the All Star break, 2 of those 3 players are starting to heat up again: Davis and Encarnacion. Jose Bautista is not. Chris Davis matched Edwin by hitting his 2nd homer of the series. Edwin has 5 hits and 5 walks in his last 5 games, with 2 of those hits clearing the fence. Davis’ has 4 hits—3 home runs—in his last 4 games.
Jose Bautista is another story. His struggles began when Toronto played the Braves. His triple slash on May 28 was .299/.410/.585, giving him an OPS of .995. The 18-inning against the Padres game was particularly disastrous as Jose went 0-7 which, apart from a brief hot streak, began a downward spiral that has engulfed him ever since.
Coming into to today’s action, Jose’s triple slash was .257/.354/.498 (.852 OPS). He’s struck out more than once in a game 8 times since his offensive high point on May 28, with the low point coming yesterday (July 12) as Jose wore the Golden Sombrero, striking out 4 times. By contrast, he’s had only 4 multi-walk games in the same period.
He hasn’t taken his struggles into the field, though. His defensive numbers at Fangraphs.com tell us that he’s a very good defender. He’s made a few blunders lately that haven’t gone for errors—when he fell in CLE, turning an out into a triple comes to mind. Still, his 7.0 Fld is pretty impressive. He’s also an above-average base runner, as his 1.4 runs above average suggest.
Something unusual is happening, though. Bear with me for a minute. There is one definitive occasion when we could say with conviction that “Jose Bautista won that game.” The game was against Tampa on May 22. Jose was 4-4 with 2 HR and 2 singles, driving in all four runs in a 4-3 win. His 10th-inning home run electrified fans and teammates alike, and gave the Jays a rare series win against Tampa. This is what we expect from a team’s best player. I don’t know how often we should expect it, but this is what ‘best players’ do more often than anyone else on the team.
His problems are primarily at the plate. His batting average (.257) is consistent with his babip (.263), suggesting that there have been a few line drive outs and nice defensive plays against him. His wOBA (.368) and wRC+ (133) are both 3rd on the team among regulars, as he trails Edwin and Adam Lind in both categories. The Toronto Blue Jays’ best player is their third best offensive player, which is somewhat surprising.
Also surprising is the fact that, as infrequently as it happens this season, they’re winning despite Jose rather than because of him. Consider the following snapshot. The Jays won 11 straight from June 11 to June 23. Those 11 wins are a quarter of their season total, and they came in 12 days. During the streak Jose had 7 hits, 1 double, 2 HR and 8 runs. His wRC+ was above 100 only 4 times in those 11 games. The struggling White Sox were the opponent in one of those games. His best games were the last two games of the Baltimore series, which were the last 2 games of the streak. In other words, Toronto won 9 in a row and Jose Bautista played like a replacement player in 7 of those games. He was cold when the Jays were very hot.
So, to what should we attribute Jose Bautista’s troubles? Let’s be honest: his decline is slight and there are 69 games remaining. There are however, two key changes that he can make after the All Star game. Pitchers are throwing him more breaking balls than usual. There’s been a discernible increase in sinkers, splitters, and curve balls. This is balanced by the discernible decrease in 4-seamers, 2-seamers, cutters, and sliders.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jays gave him a plan in 2009: wait for the fastball, then swing hard. Also, by his own admission, Jose is a dead-red fastball hitter. It’s a strategy that’s worked well, turning a utility player into a star. Now that he’s established himself, pitchers have adjusted by giving him less of the hard stuff and more of the off-speed stuff. It’s up to him to re-adjust. Identifying and adjusting accordingly will spark an offensive improvement.
The other change that he could make is to see more pitches. He’s swinging earlier in the count and, consequently, seeing fewer pitches. He’s staring a sub-100 walk season straight in the face. If he continues at his present pace, it would be his lowest full-season walk total since 2009.
Also, though his contact rates are good—some at or near career best levels—he’s on pace to set a career mark for strikeouts. This suggests that there are more called (i.e. non-swinging) strikes than he’s accustomed to seeing. This would help explain his frustration at the plate. He may be his own worst enemy here: if he stopped or at least slowed down the complaining, he might get the benefit of more calls.
I’m not concerned about his triple crown production. That’s at least partly explained by hitting 2nd in the order, Jose Reyes’ injury, and Melky Cabrera hitting lead off. Those factors will conspire to lower his batting average, home run, and RBI totals. I’m also not concerned about his defense. His offense has suffered somewhat, but his defense hasn’t followed suit: it’s still strong.
I would like to see him adjust a little more quickly to the changes in pitching strategy used against him. He’s seeing a lot more breaking and off-speed stuff; he and Chad Mottola need to identify it and use an effective counter-strategy. If I’ve identified these correctly, and if he makes the appropriate changes, both he and the Jays will benefit greatly.