Glasses! Could a simple vision problem have been at the root of José Bautista’s disappointingly awful final season as member of the Toronto Blue Jays?
I mean, it’s possible, and I’m certainly not going to sneer at the importance of a batter at the big league level needing to be able to see right to pick up the spin on the balls being thrown his way. And yet my answer to that question, on first blush, is still a pretty hefty… uh… probably not.
That perhaps is not what the man himself thinks, though, as Peter Gammons relayed this interesting little tidbit about the free agent outfielder on MLB Network last night:
"He finally took advice from friends and got his eyes checked. And his vision was really bad. Now has glasses/contacts". Peter Gammons talking about Jose Bautista #bluejays.
— BlueJaysTwit (@bluejaystwit) January 24, 2018
You mean it ain’t me noggin, it’s me peepers?
The groaning that you hear is from Jays fans who are wondering why the hell it might have taken so long for a problem that might genuinely be so significant to actually be addressed. But… uh… do we really believe that was the problem here?
The glasses trope is not a terribly common one among offseason “best shape of his life” stories, but we certainly hear it.
Danny Jansen fixed his eyesight last winter and then blasted his way through three levels, and way up the Blue Jays’ list of top prospects — changes that are totally and completely expected to stick for him going forward and not at all met with skepticism *COUGH*.
John Lott of the Athletic has an excellent piece this week about Randal Grichuk and his quest to retrain his eyes in order to improve his contact rate (something that may be better served by applying many of the same lessons that served Justin Smoak so well last season, understanding that he doesn’t need to hit the ball so hard to hit it out, and trading some of his power for slightly a more contact-oriented approach — though Grichuk could still take a few more walks, something Smoak hasn’t had the same problems with), and… uh… we’ll see how that goes! Fingers crossed!
And, of course, we all remember how that Aaron Cibia guy fixed a vision problem in the winter before he destroyed the Pacific Coast League in his second time through, and then was totally fixed and on the straight track to stardom! *COUGH* *ADJUSTS GLASSES*
Which, again, isn’t to say that this stuff isn’t worth a shot. It’s surely better than flailing around out there with poor vision! But was that even what Bautista was doing last season?
Anecdotally, it felt to me like the walks were there, the eye was there, and he just simply wasn’t squaring up pitches that he used to drive out of the ballpark. The numbers do say a little different, though. Bautista’s walk rate slumped to 12.2% in 2017, which was his lowest mark since he was with the Pirates in 2007. And not only did his strikeout rate cross the 20% mark for the first time since 2009, it ballooned all the way to 24.8%.
The dip in walks maybe suggests José’s friends are on to something here, and perhaps so too does a bit of a jump in the percentage of pitches outside the zone that he swung at (25.3%, which was identical to his 2014 rate, and only a little bit higher than in his heyday, though it was five percentage points above his 2016 mark, and three above 2015). But I just have a hard time buying this as the explanation. I mean, he was still doing a pretty great job of picking up walks! And it isn’t that he was flailing so much at pitches tumbling outside the zone, but that he was missing far more in it — his contact rate on pitches in the zone dropped to 81.4% from 89.4% the year before. Yes ,that could be a recognition issue, or it could just be that he was simply not catching up to what he used to — and that at least felt to me like what it was.
And, of course, all this trouble was compounded by what happened when he actually did put the ball in play — another indictment of his swing, I think.
In 2015 Bautista produced an average exit velocity of 92.0, which ranked 16th among 555 batters (including pitchers) with at least 30 batted ball events. And his 56 barrels ranked seventh.
By 2017 his average exit velocity had dropped to 88.3, ranking 133rd. His 28 barrels ranked 96th. He just wasn’t hitting the ball with nearly the same authority. And while, sure, I suppose if you make enough weak contact on pitches you don’t recognize properly you’ll drag down your averages, I’m just not sure that’s a compelling argument for what went wrong with his season.
Let’s consider his maximum exit velocity. In 2017 when Bautista really got ahold of one he launched a ball at 112.9 miles per hour. That max EV ranked 77th in the game. But in 2015 his maximum EV of 116.3 ranked eighth.
In 2015 Bautista hit 25 balls that travelled over 400 feet, and 15 that went over 420. In 2017 his batted balls crossed the 400 foot mark just 12 times, and over 420 just five.
I’m just kinda crudely speculating on this, but you’d think that if the swing was still there and the problem was more related to pitch recognition, the times he really did hit one squarely wouldn’t look so average. (Right?)
But sure, new glasses might help! If Bautista can get back to his more usual level of walks, and cut down on the swinging strikes (which jumped to 10.9% in 2017 after generally sitting between seven and eight percent for the previous ten seasons), he could perhaps be surprisingly productive hitter for whoever employs him next. I certainly don’t want the Blue Jays to be that team — 2017 brought more than enough José Bautista not looking at all like the José Bautista I want to remember into my life — but it’s not impossible. It’s just… uh… y’know… probably close to it.
And that’s OK. He had an incredible run, and even though it ended as poorly as it did. So, I dunno. Unless he comes out flying in his new glasses in 2018, trades contact for power, and puts in a few more decent seasons before calling it a career, maybe lay off with the groaning about how long it took him to go get his eyes checked.