In the National Post’s 10 questions about the upcoming season I was asked who will have a better year at the plate: Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion? This was my answer:
A difficult question to be sure. All things being equal, I anticipate that the younger Encarnacion will have a better year at the plate — unless Jose Bautista is able to put to rest his ongoing feud with MLB umpires.
Since the publication of that article, I’ve been asked a few times what exactly I meant by Jose Bautista’s feud with umpires and how would ending the feud impact Bautista’s offensive production. Firstly, Bautista has a long track record of disputing ball & strike calls and showing up the home plate umpire. Not only in the regular season, but even in spring training. To give you a clearer picture of Bautista’s intensity, here’s a quote from a piece by Buster Olney:
In the first inning of a spring training game last month, Jose Bautista took a pitch that may have been a little high, maybe a little outside, for strike two. He walked away from home plate, disgusted.
Never mind that the Blue Jays had already scored nine runs in the inning, against two young Yankees pitchers who struggled to throw strikes.
Never mind that this was in the middle of the exhibition season. Bautista was mad, and he did nothing to hide it.
He swung and missed at the next pitch, striking out, and slammed his bat against the ground angrily and stomped away from home plate. To repeat: It was the first inning. The Blue Jays had just scored nine runs. It was in the middle of March.
This was last season, March of 2013. In the 5th inning of the Blue Jays home opener in that same 2013 season, Bautista was ejected for disputing balls & strikes. Asked about his relatively frequent protests against the judgment of plate umpires, Bautista had this to say:
“I’m not a robot,” he said, “and I can’t control my emotions 100% of the time …
“Just because one guy reacts more than the other, then every single time there’s a close pitch it’s a strike? Or are you going to go by the parameters defined by Major League Baseball, what’s a strike and what’s a ball? I’ll let you decide what’s right and what’s wrong on that one. It’s not my place to decide.”
He was asked whether his reactions might make it tougher for him to “get calls” from umpires.
“I don’t want to get calls,” he replied. “I want the right call to be made. And I’m not saying that every time I react a certain way, the call is the way I think about it. No.
“But if seven out of 10, eight out of 10 times that I react, I go back and look at video and I still think I’m right, then there’s something to it. But what can I do? I can’t control it. I can’t change it.”
and the best part?
“Sometimes I have trouble more than other players dealing with my production being affected by somebody else’s mediocrity,” he said. “It’s just the way I am as a person. It’s a tougher pill to swallow for me sometimes.”
ESPN’s Buster Olney was quick to jump on the infamous “medocrity” quote:
Jose Bautista's words are going to get A LOT of attention in the umpires' world, w/his reference to "mediocrity." http://t.co/2VjVW3YmC2
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) April 5, 2013
If one reads between the lines, one might interpret “A LOT” of attention in the umpiring world meaning that MLB umpires would be a lot tougher on Bautista when calling borderline pitches.
Fast forward to 2014. We’re 19 games into the season and not once have I see Jose Bautista blow up at an umpire’s blown strike call – perceived or real. Not only is Jose Bautista out-performing Edwin Encarnacion, but he’s also leading the league in home runs with six, walks with 23 and OPS an impressive 1.039 mark. Of course, the fact that Bautista hasn’t had a tantrum directed at an umpire isn’t the reason he’s putting up gaudy numbers early on this season. That’s a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy – correlation does not imply causation.
Some readers thought I meant that umpires won’t be so fast and loose with Bautista’s strike zone if he was well-behaved. This is not what I meant. However, for argument’s sake, I thought I would take a take a deeper dive to see if there is any correlation:
I looked at all of Jose Bautista’s at-bats in 2013 & 2014 and every single pitch that was outside of the strike zone but still called a strike. Last season, the league average of called strikes outside of the strike zone was 5.69%. Umpires called strikes outside the strike zone on Bautista at a slightly higher rate of 6.13%. Of the 2236 pitches Bautista saw last season, 137 were pitches outside of the strike zone yet called strikes. If Bautista’s strike zone was league average, it would have been 127. As you can see, the difference is negligible. This season, called strikes outside the strike zone on Bautista are right at the league average. If you are more visually inclined, below are heatmaps of called strikes for all right-handed-hitting MLB players and just that of Jose Bautista:
So it appears that while Bautista was at war with umpires, the umpires were not necessarily at war with him.
Image courtesy of Keith Allison
Finally, what I meant by my original statement about Bautista being able to out-perform Encarnacion if he put his feud to rest was this: Bautista needs to only worry about things he can control and not about his perceived “mediocrity” of umpire strike calls. In other words, he needs to focus on waiting for pitches that he can drive rather than being concerned if a pitch is going to be a strike or a ball., or letting a blown call by an umpire rattle him and causing him to waste an at-bat. A perfect example of the aforementioned situation can be found in this video:
In a home game against Texas in June of last year, Jose Bautista, standing at the plate representing the potential winning run, took a first-pitch called strike. TV replays showed he was correct. So did Brooks Baseball, a website that logs detailed data on pitch location. You can see in the pitch-tracking graphic at the beginning of the video where the first pitch ended up in the strike zone.
Yet Bautista disagreed, and said so. Umpire Gary Darling let him have his say. Two pitches later, after a swinging strikeout on a pitch well outside the strike zone, Bautista exploded at Darling, who promptly ejected him during a close-range exchange.
In this instance Bautista let his emotions get the better of him, causing him to swing at a pitch well outside of the strike zone. Fangraphs keeps a statistic called O-Swing %, the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside of the strike zone. In 2013, the league average for all MLB players was 31.0%. For Bautista? An impressive 23.2%. But this year he’s improved on that mark by more than 5%; Bautista is swinging outside the strike zone at a 17.7% clip. That’s nearly half of the league average.
To me, this increased plate discipline is why Bautista is performing well offensively. As Rogers Hornsby once said, “to be a good hitter you’ve got to do one thing – get a good ball to hit.” No longer does Bautista chase pitchers’ pitches as often; pitchers are forced into hitters counts and Bautista is making them pay when they throw him strikes. Not only does Bautista have strong strike zone discipline so far this season, he’s exhibiting emotional discipline as well.
Featured image courtesy of Tara Walton/Toronto Star.