The Jose Bautista experiment hasn’t quite started with a bang. First, there was a sweep at the hands of the Giants. To some fans, Bautista was to blame because he “messed with team chemistry.” Shockingly, the “team chemistry” argument has more-or-less died off after Atlanta won their next three games. But Bautista, who has just three hits in 24 plate appearances, has not avoided criticism as the winning restarted. Yesterday evening, as the Braves crushed Drew Steckenrider and the other Marlins arms in the sixth inning, Bautista made a pair of outs in the inning. That was enough, despite a blowout win, for Braves fans to again call for Bautista’s head.
Is the criticism about Bautista fair? To a point, sure. While early results are, well, early, Bautista continues to struggle against fastballs. That’s not to say he hasn’t made some adjustments – he may have. But the worry with Bautista is directly related to his ability to hit fastballs. It was something few batters were better at from 2010-15. It remains the thing to watch. Speaking of things to watch, Bautista was brought in for power but has just one extra-base hit to this point. On the other hand, Bautista has walked four times and struck out just as many – marks reasonably close to his Jays’ heyday. He’s also been victimized by an impossibly low .188 BABIP.
But, like I said, these results are hard to draw conclusions from. Six games are the sixth worst sample size you can possibly use. You could add Bautista’s dozen minor league games, but that is an iffy proposition.
If we all agree that Bautista has only played six games and it’s impossible to grade on that many games, why are so many doing it? Spoiler alert – it has zero to do with how Bautista has played.
Bautista was a polarizing figure before he came to the Braves. He hit long, majestic home runs – thrice reaching the 40-HR mark. He also enjoyed those home runs, taking slow trips around the bases and often adding a bad flip. Of course, no bat flip has ever bat flipped quite as much as the one Bautista hit in 2015 against the Rangers. Months later, that bat flip led to a memorable fight down in Texas. Last May, Bautista, with the Jays down five, hit a homer off Eric O’Flaherty that hasn’t landed yet. He flipped his bat, got yelled at by Jace Peterson, and came to words with Kurt Suzuki.
There is a perceived attitude issue with Bautista. That he’s in it just for him. I say perceived because there is no proof that Bautista is a toxic force in the clubhouse. I, like you, have not been teammates with Bautista. Marcus Stroman has been, though. “He’s like a brother to me. He’s been incredibly instrumental since day one.” That doesn’t sound like a clubhouse cancer. Here’s more from Stroman. “He’s a guy that took me under his wing, has been a huge mentor to me. He’s taught me the ins and outs. Not only just on the field, but away from it. How to go about certain things. He still mentors me now. He’ll pull me over and say, ‘Hey, try and do this.’ This is in baseball or in life, so I’m very appreciative of Jose and I’ll always be.”
Ryan Goins was also a teammate of Bautista and said, “All he cares about, and all I care about, is what he does for the 25 guys in this clubhouse every day, and that’s being a good teammate, coming to work every day ready to play, going out and contributing. He’s unselfish and wants the team to win.”
Yet, people are convinced that Bautista is a problem for team chemistry. These concerns don’t appear to be based in reality.
Naturally, we can pivot arguments. It’s not that Bautista has disrupted team chemistry, some argue. The problem is that he’s playing over a better player – Ryan Flaherty. Which is, at best, debatable and more likely laughable. Oh, I know Flaherty is hitting .315. Having a .394 BABIP has a fancy way of making you look better than you actually are. Flaherty is not really hitting the ball harder – though his Soft% rate is 3% below his lowest mark. He’s still hitting the ball at a ridiculous rate on the ground. His flyball rate entering Thursday was 17.2%. Only Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar has a lower mark among hitters with at least 100 PA.
Sheer luck won’t be on Flaherty’s side for long. Just like more of the balls Bautista is hitting will find holes. In the end, they are probably similar. Neither is a particularly gifted pure hitter, both will take their walks, and Bautista has more power while Flaherty is a better defender. But Bautista likely has the higher end potential because he could go on a homer binge and literally carry the team for a week or two.
Johan Camargo is probably a better player once Dansby Swanson returns so maybe Bautista should have a short leash. But even then, the difference is likely not that great to worry about Bautista “blocking” Camargo. Austin Riley is the guy that has the ability to put some distance between himself and the pack of those competing for the third base spot. But he’s four games into his Triple-A career with just an additional 75 games at Double-A. Might be a good idea to not expect the world from him just yet.
Is Bautista broken and this experiment doomed to failure? Maybe. But do we know anything for sure to give up on it? No. We just don’t know. Bautista could hit two home runs in today’s game. Or strike out three times. Neither result will definitively tell us anything, though. Like any player, we need to give Bautista time to show us if he has anything left in the tank.
Regardless, don’t tell me that Bautista is keeping Flaherty out of the lineup. There’s not a person in Braves Country who thought much of that signing just a few days before the season. Now, because he’s on a BABIP-infused tear, he’s irreplaceable?
Just don’t see it.