Jose Bautista: The Best Choice for Toronto

Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles April 22, 2013 – Keith Allison via Flickr

The Blue Jays sure took their time re-signing Jose Bautista.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated since its original time of publication to reflect the latest available details of Jose Bautista’s contract as well as his 2016 average batted ball exit velocity. 

Until very recently, it had been speculated that the Jays were not even interested in re-signing Bautista: some had said that he’s outspoken, he’s coming off a terrible 2016 campaign, he’s only getting older and he’ll get even worse as he ages, his defense is abominable, he’ll cost too much and available payroll is better spent elsewhere.

It’s been noted by multiple baseball writers that signing Jose Bautista seemed to be the only way to save the Jays’ offseason (Fangraphs; Vice Sports; Blue Jay Hunter; Call to the Pen). I don’t believe that the success or failure Jays’ offseason depends upon a single player, but I do believe that Bautista was the best free agent outfielder available and that signing him made sense.

Best of the Rest… And Then Some

Looking at the top remaining available outfielders, Bautista is far and away the best player (ranked in terms of projected WAR as per Steamer):

Pos Age 2017 Proj Off RAA 2017 Proj Def RAA 2017 Proj WAR 2016 WAR 2016 Team
Jose Bautista RF 36 16.8 -11.9 2.3 1.4 Blue Jays
Mark Trumbo RF 31 5.5 -15.1 0.9 2.2 Orioles
Austin Jackson CF 29 -6.8 -2.5 0.7 -0.1 White Sox
Chris Coghlan LF 31 -2.1 -1.6 0.4 -0.5 Cubs
Angel Pagan LF 35 -3.5 -6.5 0.3 2.1 Giants
Coco Crisp LF 37 -4.9 -6.7 0.0 -0.4 Indians
Marlon Byrd RF 39 -6.9 -3.7 -0.2 0.7 Indians

These guys are all more palatable options than the likes of Gregor Blanco, Peter Bourjos, Michael Bourn, Jeff Francoeur and Nolan Reimold, and yet none really compares to Bautista in terms of projected Offensive Runs Above Average or Wins Above Replacement. Admittedly, Bautista is the second-worst defensive option of the bunch, but he is an elite hitter who was still good in 2016, his objectively worst year since 2009; should these projections hold true, his offensive output will more than make up for his bad defense.

Worth It?

According to the Jon Heyman, Bautista’s deal is expected to be for one year, worth $18.5 million. If this is indeed the case, will Jose be worth his contract? With the market value of one win being in the range of approximately $8-8.5 million, according to his projections, the short answer is probably.

Based on an estimated cost of $8.5 million for a win (under the assumption that the estimated cost of $7 million in 2013 has since increased fairly linearly), if Jose produces exactly 2.3 WAR as per his projection and earns $18.5 million in 2017, the Blue Jays will more than break even, especially after accounting for the league minimum salary. Should he exceed 2.18 WAR, the Jays will receive added value. The same holds true for 2018: while his production will likely be lower than that of 2017 due to age, Jose will still only need to produce 1.99 WAR to break even on a $17 million salary if the cost of a win remained at $8.5 million (or 1.89 WAR if the cost of a win were to rise to approximately $9 million).

Salary League Minimum Break-Even WAR
2017 $18,500,000 535,000 2.18
2018 $17,000,000 545,000 1.99
2019 $20,000,000 555,000 2.29

After factoring in the true cost of Jose Bautista for 2017 (salary + foregone conditional draft pick roughly valued at between $5 million to $10 million today), Bautista would have to produce at most 3.53 WAR in order for the Jays to break even. However, even this higher target certainly seems attainable given he put up 4.4 WAR as recently as 2015.

Cheaper Than Prospects

In money terms, $18.5 million per year is not insignificant, especially when the team’s owner is a corporation with a fiduciary duty to bring profit to its shareholders. But in baseball terms, signing a free agent for money means that money is the only thing the team needs to give up; prospects from the farm system need not be sacrificed and the long-term success of the team need not be compromised for win-now potential.

With rumours swirling about a possible Andrew McCutchen trade, one Pirates blog reported that the Jays were in talks to acquire McCutchen and reliever Tony Watson (their closer after Melancon was sent to the Nationals) in exchange for Joe Biagini, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Sean Reid-Foley, Rowdy Tellez as well as possibly Harold Ramirez. To be truthful, this deal might have upset me more than letting Bautista walk; although I’d be excited about McCutchen and an extra bullpen piece, I’d be apprehensive about giving up not only Biagini after his breakout season, but three of Toronto’s top prospects (sorry Harold!) in order to get a player whose bounce-back may also be in question. This move would undoubtedly have impacted the Jays’ long-term success.

Why Bautista Now?

One could argue that signing Bautista now could be the result of the Jays sitting on their hands for the first bit of free agency and missing out on better outfielders. The following noteworthy free agent outfielders have already signed (with Steamer projections):

Pos Age 2017 Proj Off RAA 2017 Proj Def RAA 2017 Proj WAR New Team Years Amount
Yoenis Cespedes LF 31 11.2 -3.2 2.7 Mets 4 $110,000,000
Dexter Fowler CF 30 7.2 -6.7 2.1 Cardinals 5 $82,500,000
Josh Reddick LF 29 8.8 -3.7 2.2 Astros 4 $52,000,000
Carlos Beltran CF 39 13.0 -10.8 2.3 Astros 1 $16,000,000
Matt Holliday LF 37 12.7 -14.5 1.7 Yankees 1 $13,000,000
Carlos Gomez CF 31 -3.0 3.9 1.7 Rangers 1 $11,500,000
Matt Joyce RF 32 2.7 -9.1 0.5 Athletics 2 $11,000,000
Michael Saunders LF 29 1.5 -9.9 0.7 Phillies 1 $9,000,000
Jon Jay LF 31 -5.5 -1.3 0.5 Cubs 1 $8,000,000
Rajai Davis CF 36 -3.7 -2.1 0.7 Athletics 1 $6,000,000
Colby Rasmus CF 30 -3.9 0.0 0.9 Rays 1 $5,000,000
Ben Revere LF 28 -4.2 -3.9 0.0 Angels 1 $4,000,000

Along with a number of Jays fans, I was initially disappointed with the Jays not having signed Dexter Fowler, but I soon got over it. And after seeing this list, I’m not convinced that I would prefer any of these players over Bautista based on their 2017 Steamer projections (other than Cespedes, whom we all know was never coming to Toronto anyway) .

Bouncin’ Back

Lastly, Bautista is a serious bounce-back candidate. His average batted ball exit velocity was consistent at 93.6mph in both 2015 and 2016 relatively consistent at 93.6mph in 2015 and 92.6mph in 2016; his walk rate of 16.8% in 2016 was higher than that of 2015 and even higher than his career average of 14.3%; and although many of his other 2016 offensive statistics were by far his worst since 2009, he was still a better-than-league-average hitter. His 2017 offensive projections look good and since he’s not far removed from 2015, he has a very real chance of exceeding them. All the Jays would need to worry about is how to mitigate his declining defense…

Adam

Adam likes baseball and uses Instagram mainly for the Joe Biden memes.

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  • George

    If, as both he and The Jays say, his shoulder is 100%, he’s not going to be the defensive liability that everyone predicts either. Bautista’s stock in trade defensively has been his arm, and that pretty well went missing in 2015-16. You can see how much it was compromised by looking at his assist totals, which were cut in half the past couple of years. He also played last year with a bum knee, which would affect both his bat speed and his defense, so I’m thinking he’s going to be a lot better on both sides of the ball.

    • Bunt to the Gap

      Some great points George. I certainly hope he’s healthy… I’d feel a lot better about our outfield situation knowing he can throw well again.

      Have you had the chance to check out the new defensive charts on Baseball Savant (linked below)? Jose missed a few balls in 2016 that have high catch rates, which could have been due to misreading the break off the bat or not moving well enough to get to the ball (I’d have to look at these individually and may post about them at some point), but overall he seemed to make most of the plays he was supposed to make, which is encouraging. He’s still an adequate outfielder.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. – Adam

      https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/player?player_id=430832&pos=RF&player_type=batter&season=2016&tab=defense_tab#

  • John

    His avg exit velo in 2016 was actually 1 mph slower – 92.6, not 93.6.

    • Bunt to the Gap

      Thanks for the reply John. I got that stat from the Statcast leaderboard (linked below) just a few days before writing this so it’s possible that the number was recently updated. (For example, this article from FiveThirtyEight had him at 94.3mph in 2015 so it does appear that Statcast is periodically updating its data as individual errors get corrected: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-new-science-of-hitting/)

      Not disputing that he averaged 92.6mph in 2016 (his hits certainly appeared slower, didn’t they?)

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. – Adam

      http://m.mlb.com/statcast/leaderboard#avg-hit-velo

      • John

        (late reply)
        Very strange! I got my info on exit velo’s at Baseball Savant: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/statcast_leaderboard

        I wonder why the discrepancy in information considering both sites are managed by MLB.com?

        • Thanks for pointing that out. I noticed a few other discrepancies with other players’ data as well.

          Your numbers definitely look more reliable so I’ve updated this post to reflect it.

          Thanks again!

          – Adam

  • SM

    I think this is essentially a a year 18.5M contract (+ foregone draft pick) – so quite pricey. As a fan, I’m ecstatic we got Joey Bats back – as a realist – not so much. For JB to put up 3.5 WAR just to break even sounds cool but I really don’t think JB can hit any more – he was striking out terribly last season and the only way he was getting on base was by walking.

    • Absolutely agree. His K% jumped from 15.9% in 2015 to 19.9% last year (career average 18.1%). The fan in me wants to believe that such an increase was related to him swinging for the fences in every at-bat (probably trying to make up for his slow start and injuries in a contract year, which is understandable). We definitely need to temper our expectations.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. – Adam

      • SM

        He remains in a contract year essentially, but lets hope this time he connects if/when he swings for those fences.

        I love reading any Jays blog and am a die hard fan. Didn’t know about Bunt to the Gap but I follow MLBTRade rumors quite religiously lol and they profiled this article. Will be sure to come back for more.