The $64,000 Question, plus Inflation. Lots of Inflation
Old game shows aside, the question is still very relevant today, and inflation makes it more important to be sure we have the right answers. The question is now more than 100 times more costly and while everyone has an opinion, not only the contestants have a stake in the answers.
Last week, Blue Jays boy-wonder GM, Alex Anthopoulos, made his first significant cash outplay on a player, inking the surprise of 2010 to a 5 year, $65 million contract extension, with a $15 million option on a sixth year, avoiding arbitration now, and free agency later. In the opening article of this blog I did a short study on Bautista’s career, looking at how his new approach may have helped fuel his amazing success of last season. Beginning his triggering mechanism earlier seems to have made him that much more likely to make contact, and allow for that contact to made with sufficient power to leave the yard with all due haste. In fact, 53 of his 54 bombs were shots pulled to left, evidence of a quick trigger.
Among Toronto fans recently scathed by other big money deals that have not worked out, many teeth were gnashed, many nails bitten down to the cuticles, bemoaning the new contract as an overpay for a commodity that has proven “it” just the once. A player who was, prior to 2010, at best a supporting cast member on MLB’s stage. A player who will inevitably join the pantheon of other one year wonders, flying today, flaming tomorrow.
At its most charitable, that comparison was made to his former teammate, Vernon Wells, who had signed for big dollars after a great 2006 season in which Wells hit .303 with 32 homers and 103 RBIs and solid defense to boot, picking up a 3rd straight Gold Glove award. Wells went on to alternate good years with bad ones before being dealt to the Angels mere days before Bautista was enriched. At worst, Bautista’s rise has been compared to Gary Matthews Jr. Also in 2006, coming off a career year with the Rangers (at age 31), hitting .313 with 19 homers and 102 runs scored, as well as making his first All Star team, the Angels bit. Hard. And nearly chewed their tongues clean off. Matthews was signed to a 5-year, $50 million deal, which predictably went sour with record speed. Coming off an .866 OPS (on base plus slugging) in his contract year, Matthews dropped to .742 in his first year in Anaheim, followed by two years below .700 before the Anaheim braintrust decided that enough was enough and dealt Matthews, along with enough money to cover all but the minimum remaining on his deal, to the New York Mets for journeyman relief pitcher, Brian Stokes. (Blue Jays angle alert – Stokes has signed a minor league deal with Toronto this past December. ESPN.com reported that contract as having been voided on February 14th.)
Not wanting to compare Bautista’s expected production to others who have signed for similar (or greater) deals, as I cannot believe that the dollars drive the performance, I decided to look into some other famous one year power spikes and compare their paths to power to that of Bautista, along the same lines I used in my previous mini-study.
Again, what is really interesting to me in Bautista’s numbers is that his combined K and HR rates have been quite steady throughout his career (see the right-hand column), barring a downturn in 2007. What changed in 2010 was that Bautista struck out 25% less and turned those missing whiffs into deep drives, suggesting that his altered swing mechanics have worked to improve his reactions.
Davey Johnson owns one of the game’s all-time flukiest seasons, as in 1973, he increased his home run output from 5 to 43. Even Bautista had homered in around 4% of his at-bats in 3 of the previous 4 seasons before blowing up. Johnson had only once topped 3%. Furthermore, in between jacks, he struck out almost as frequently in 1973 as he did in 1972. He dropped back down to 15 home runs in ’74, and hit another 12 before calling it a career and moving into management. Hindsight equaling insight, Johnson’s amazing 1973 can only be described as a fluke. Nothing in his career in the majors or minors suggested it, either before or after.
For Foster, I decided to look at his post breakout years as well, as his fall was not quite so precipitous as some of the other spikers. Foster’s combined K and HR rates were steadily in the range of 21% for three straight years, before he exploded in his age-28 season, increasing both the frequency of his homers and his strike outs. Trying to re-capture that magic, Foster saw his strikeout rate rise from 17.4% in ’77 up to 22.85% in ’78and then 23.86% in ’79, still producing respectable power with a combined 70 homers over the two seasons, before beginning to taper off back to the rates of his career norms before he broke out. So Foster might be a decent template for Bautista. Look at Foster’s first four season past his break out. From 1978-1981, Foster averaged 133 games played per year (two healthy years and two with injuries), hitting .287 with 117 home runs and 401 RBIs. An OPS of .894 which adjusted to 46% above the league average. That would be pretty decent production which I think most Blue Jays fans (myself included) would probably accept.
The modern day version of Davey Johnson, Anderson jumped from 41 home runs over three seasons (one of which was the strike season of 1994) to 50 in 1996, before falling back down to 18 home runs in 1997. Beyond the hindsight-induced observation that Anderson’s second best HR season of 24 in 1999, we can also point to his age in his remarkable 1996 season as a factor contributing to a ‘fluke’ verdict. Whereas Jose Bautista was 29 last season, Brady was a more stately 32 when he went ape-shit on AL pitchers. For many years, batter’s peak seasons have been thought to be around the age of 27, or a period from approximately 25-31. Bautista last year was in this period, while Brady Anderson in 1996 was past it. Beyond age-ism, we can see that, in the years surrounding his breakout, Anderson ranged between 19-23% combined strike-outs and home runs. In his big ’96, that figure hit nearly 27%.
You say I’m avoiding the elephant in the room? Yes I am. This may be a blog, but it’s not a tabloid. Lots of guys were actually caught using steroids who did not hit 15 home runs in their career, much less 50 home runs in a season. So, no, I don’t think Bautista will have a career like Anderson’s.
In terms of his propensity to rack up both strike outs and homeruns, Greg Vaughn has some semblance to Jose Bautista. On the other hand, like Anderson, Vaughn hit 50 in his age 32 season. And unlike any of these others players, Vaughn had already earned a solid reputation for power. In previous seasons wherein he played at least 140 games, Vaughn had hit 27, 23, 30 and 41 home runs. I think, looking at his previous healthy season, 1996 with 41 home runs, and his next season, reaching 45, that it is safe to say that Vaughn was not a fluke, but rather an established power hitter who combined a little bit of luck with good health into a career year.
Todd Hundley was a catcher. In 1996, not only did Hundley establish a career high with 41 home runs, he also played an amazing 153 games. 150 behind the plate. Only one other catcher (Mike Piazza) played even 140 in the NL. Only two (also Javy Lopez) played 130. As a rule, catchers just don’t play that much. Hundley also had seasons of 132 and 130 games played, which is more the norm for catchers. As a comp to Bautista, Hundley fails on two counts. The aforementioned games played issue is one, and the other being his home run and strike out rates had fluctuated wildly in previous season, from 23%, to 17% early, up to over 30% and back to 28.73% before his two big seasons between 34.5 and 35%. More strike outs and more homers.
Roger Maris struck out remarkably little for the power he displayed. It is interesting that in 5 of the 7 season displayed above, his combined K and HR rates fell between 18.81% and 21.69%, a fairly tight grouping. In both outlier years, his home run rate was significantly lower (under 4%) while in the first outlier (1957), he struck out more in 358 at bats than he did in the 590 at bats it took him to hit 61*. Ultimately, though, I don’t think Maris is a good comp for Bautista. Maris had great bat control for a power hitter. Bautista, as optimistic as you can be about him, will garner his fair share of strike outs. Walks, too, but loads of strike outs.
Not a one-year wonder, you say? Not now, but many certainly thought so when he exploded for 31 home runs in his first season with the Red Sox in 2003. They were extra sure when he pumped out 41 in 2004 as the Red Sox ended their long World Series apprenticeship. In the 7 years from 2004 to 2010, Ortiz has hit 260 home runs, averaging 37 per year, which includes his injury shortened 2008 as well as his early season struggles over the last two seasons. So it turns out that his power increase was not a fluke. Once we adjust for playing time leading up to his big 54 HR season in 2006, we can see that Ortiz has been pretty consistent with the strike outs, between 18.53% and 22.85%. On the other hand, his home run rate had steadily increased, from 4.85% in his last year as a Twin, to 6.92% when debuting with the Sox, followed by 7.04%, 7.82% and finally 9.68%. Very close to Bautista’s HR rate last year. Maybe a solid comp here after all.
And now for something really interesting:
I don’t really think that Jose Bautista will now assume the guise of Sammy Sosa and pump 300 home runs over the next six years. But there is a parallel here. Up to the age of 28, Sosa was a fairly nondescript one-dimensional slugger. Not as anonymous as Bautista, as Sosa had a steady job in Wrigley Field, as opposed to Bautista’s utility-role in ignominious Pittsburgh. In the five years leading up to Sosa’s sport-saving 1998, Sosa cleared 30 homers 4 times. He also struck out a lot. He had a cumulative OPS of .831, 15% above the league average. Not too shabby. And from 1998 to 2004 his cumulative OPS was 1.006, an amazing 56% above the league average (Bautista was 66% above league average last year). He went from good to great, averaging over 50 home runs per year for 7 years. What changed in his game? His K% rose slightly over time from 20-21% to 23-25% during his monster peak. His home run rate also spiked from the 5-6% range to 10% and up. Looked at another way, he struck out once every 3.6-3.8 at bats, and he went from hitting a home run once in 17.8 at bats in 1997 to once in 9.7 at bats in 1998. That number remained under 1 in 10 at bats three years out of the four between 1998 and 2001. The comp is not as strong as with Ortiz or Foster, but there are similarities between Joey Bats and Slammin’ Sammy Sosa. For one thing, we always knew that Sosa was a powerful player. Few had the same thought about Bautista prior to September 2009. Sosa’s game changed but not in the same way, with wilder fluctuations between home runs and strike outs.
Of all those we have looked at above, the two closest in career arc to Jose Bautista were David Ortiz and George Foster. David Ortiz fits in the sense that his changes as a player coincided with changes in role, from bit-part player on the Twins to undisputed started in Boston. Similarly Bautista grew with exposure and change of scenery from Pittsburgh to Toronto. George Foster is a similar type of player in terms of how he fits into a lineup, and how he looks in a uniform. Like Bautista, Foster had a reputation as an outfield baserunner killer, frequently gunning down runners with his powerful throwing arm. For both Ortiz and Foster, their breakout seasons proved not to be pure flukes, but new levels of performance aided by improved luck and a seemingly new approach at the plate.
Looking forward with Bautista, I think we may be in store for performance similar to what Foster put up between 1978-1981. Not quite reaching 54 again, but still plenty of home runs. I also expect Bautista’s batting average to improve, at least somewhat, as his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .233 last season, compared to his career rate of .270 and the league wide rate around .300. If his distribution of homeruns and strikeouts stays around is career norm, and his BABIP approaches his career norm, Bautista’s batting average may increase to .280 even as his home run output drops to a still respectable 40.
In short, Bautista is not likely to ever hit 54 home runs in a season again, but we have good reason to believe that he can maintain a pace north of 40. Health permitting (as with all contracts), Anthopoulos should be happy with the value provided by his new highest paid player.