Jose Bautista has always had a very good batting eye, even before his breakout in 2010 he put up a BB% of 13.9 in 2009, and it got even better after putting up the league’s best walk rate in 2011, but his plate discipline in 2014 has been downright phenomenal.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, and his BB% of 27.8% is due to regress somewhat, but there’s no doubting that he’s had a terrific eye early on this year.
To put his 27.8% walk rate in perspective, since 2000, only four players not named Barry Bonds have posted a walk rate of 20% or better. Bautista with 20.2% in 2011, Jack Cust with 20.7% in 2007, Brian Giles with 21.0% in 2002, and Jason Giambi with 20.6% in 2000.
Bonds obviously put up otherworldly numbers from 2000-2004, including his BB%. It got as high as 37.6% in 2004 and 32.4% in 2002, and it simply isn’t fair to compare any hitter to Bonds during the early 2000’s.
When comparing Bautista’s numbers to other players this season, his plate discipline prowess becomes even more obvious. His 25 walks are seven ahead of the next hitter, and only one qualified hitter is within 7% of his walk rate.
While no one should expect Bautista’s walk rate to stay at 27.8%, if he can keep it close to his 2011 mark of 20.2% he could be in for a season closer to his 2010/2011 totals, rather than the numbers he put up in 2012/2013.
His 2010 breakout season saw him put up a walk rate of 14.6%, and that improved to 20.2% in his 2011 season that saw him finish third in the AL MVP voting. The power explosion obviously propelled him to his newfound heights, but it’s the plate discipline that complemented his power that made him one of the best hitters in the game.
Injury troubles, inconsistency, and successive drops in his walk rate and ISO led to regression in 2012 and 2013. His OPS from 2010-2013 went: .995, 1.056, .886, and .856. His walk rate tumbled to 13.1% in 2013, his lowest since 2008.
But with his walk rate and ISO bouncing back up early on in 2014, he could be in for a monster year, and his walk rate might not be as unsustainable as you might think.
According to Fangraphs Pitchf/x data, Bautista is swinging at only 16.2% of pitches outside the strike zone, which is a significant drop from the totals of his last four years of 22.1%, 22.3%, 21.0%, and 21.8% from 2010-2013.
He’s also swinging at less pitches that end up inside the strike zone. His 52.5% swing rate on strikes is a career low, and lower than the last four years totals of 60%, 57.9%, 55.7%, and 55.6% from 2010-2013.
This large change in swing rates suggests that the BB% he’s putting up isn’t just because pitchers are potentially pitching around him or using breaking stuff because of a struggling Edwin Encarnacion, but because he’s become more selective than he’s ever been.
Another interesting thing about the swing rates is that he’s actually been receiving more fastballs this year than any of the last four years. He’s received 54.5% fastballs, compared to 49.5%, 50.3%, 52.6%, and 51.2% from 2010-2013.
You’d think as a power hitter, Bautista would attack fastballs with more aggressiveness, but he simply isn’t swinging at borderline pitches very often, especially with less than two strikes and it’s paying dividends.
Above is a zone profile for Bautista that shows how often he swings in zero strike counts from Brooks Baseball. As you can see, Bautista has been very patient early in the count. The only aggressiveness he’s shown is on pitches up in the zone that he can drive, while being able to lay off nearly every single pitch that ends up outside the strike zone.
In one strike counts, he becomes far more aggressive on pitches high and inside. You can tell here that he’s attacking pitches that he can do damage with, which is very encouraging for the Jays. He expands the zone somewhat, but is still very disciplined on pitches low and away.
Obviously, in two strike counts, he expands the zone and swings at everything inside the strike zone. But even with two strikes, he’s not chasing on pitches low and away very often.
In simple terms, he isn’t necessarily being walked because no one is challenging him, but because of his ability to lay off the majority of pitches that just narrowly miss the strike zone.
Obviously, there are cases where a team or a specific pitcher don’t challenge him to get to a struggling Encarnacion, but plenty of his walks are happening because he isn’t swinging at pitchers pitches.
His ability to be selective and go after pitches he can drive has resulted in an ISO of .308, which is in the territory of the .357 and .306 marks he put up in 2010 and 2011.
As mentioned above, the sample sizes are small, but plate discipline and pitch selection isn’t prone to the type of streakiness that happens to a hitter’s timing or ability to drive the ball.
If Bautista can continue to have a selective approach, lay off borderline pitches, and drive mistakes that pitchers leave up in the zone he could regain the walk rate and ISO that led to his outstanding 2010 and 2011 campaigns.
Combine that with the assumption that Encarnacion won’t stay in his current slump for the duration of the season and Bautista will be seeing more pitches to drive.
Bautista definitely passes the eye test when it comes to judging his plate discipline, but swing rates point towards his current walk rate as being something created through his top of the line plate discipline, as opposed to a luck driven walk rate in a small sample size.