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José Bautista Had Terrible Timing

After inking a one-year deal to return to Toronto, the late bloomer will officially never be as rich as he could have been. But he’ll keep the Blue Jays competitive.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In baseball, we talk all the time about sequencing. String a bunch of base hits together within one or two innings, and a team will score more runs than it would if it parceled out the same hits over nine. Players and teams can’t consistently control whether they excel in small samples with runners in scoring position, but ERAs, reputations, and division titles depend on whether they come through at particular times.

Contracts rely on good timing, too. Here’s a list of cherry-picked players whose career earnings, adjusted for inflation, will be higher than José Bautista’s following the $18 million (plus incentives) he’ll make in Toronto in 2017 after accepting a one-year deal with mostly meaningless “mutual options:” Andre Ethier. Rafael Furcal. Víctor Martínez. Mike Hampton. Carl Crawford. Vernon Wells. A.J. Burnett. Carlos Lee.

Those are all pretty good players; you don’t make $100 million or more in current-day dollars without having done something to convince a team you were worth it. But most, maybe all, of these players never had a single season as good as any of the best few Bautista delivered. Some produced less value over the course of their careers than Bautista has in the seven seasons since he became a beast. None are, or were, better known.

The difference is sequencing, not on an inning-by-inning level, but over years and careers. Some players hit the market when dollars or suitors are scarce. Others arrive in eras when their skills aren’t in demand — speed when basestealing isn’t in style, power or patience when teams overvalue putting the ball in play, durability when managers believe in low pitch counts and big bullpens. And although there’s little evidence that players can will themselves to have good walk years, seasonal sequencing matters. Two players who produce the same value can end up with dramatically different career earnings based solely on when they break out and break down.

Bautista, since his belated unleashing in 2010, has produced half a Hall of Fame career. He’s led all players in home runs while ranking fourth in offensive value and eighth among position players in overall worth. His contributions aren’t the kind that only number-crunchers can see: He hits dingers and drives in runs, skills prized for the past century. He made six consecutive All-Star teams, won three Silver Sluggers, finished four times in the top eight of AL MVP voting. Nor is he the quiet type who never attains (inter)national notoriety. He’s brash, both beloved and loathed, and he starred in one of this decade’s most memorable moments.

But because his career has been so strangely shaped, he’s been underpaid by baseball-superstar standards. Earlier this offseason, we found out what to expect when a free agent says he’s seeking a certain contract. ESPN’s Sam Miller searched for old demands and discovered that since 2008, free agents who’ve publicly let it be known what they wanted have received 87.5 percent of their desired sums, both in years and in dollars. A few weeks after Miller’s article came out, Aroldis Chapman, who had hoped for $100 million, signed for $86 million. The formula works! (Well, usually.)

But that’s only for free agents, who are just months away from starting to make their money. A free agent could always break a bone in his wrist while “washing his truck” in spring training, but he has little time to decline between signing and debuting on Opening Day. The further from free agency a player is, the more room he has to scare off big bidders. That’s the fate that befell Bautista, who last February reportedly demanded $150 million over five years to extend his stay in Toronto. If the reports were true (which Bautista denied), he or his agent overreached, but no one foresaw that he’d fall so far short of that total.

There’s a saying that free agents are paid for past production. That’s probably becoming less true as teams get smarter, but it would be hard to blame Bautista for feeling like he had money to make up. Because he signed an extension in the February following his huge 2010, when he was only one season removed from his time as a much-traveled utility player, Bautista’s salary stayed fairly low. His career year came the next season, an eight-win epic at age 30. That was the winter when an even older Albert Pujols parlayed his worst season into a 10-year deal. If Bautista had hit free agency coming off that season, he would have been one of baseball’s best-paid players. Instead, he made $70 million over the subsequent five seasons. FanGraphs figures that Bautista’s surplus value to Toronto from 2010 to 2016, relative to what teams were paying for free-agent wins, was $165 million.

In Bautista’s case, though, any past he’s being paid for now doesn’t seem to extend further than 2016. Last year, Bautista had his worst offensive season since 2009 and played in his fewest games since 2012. On the day the Indians eliminated Toronto from the ALCS, he turned 36; almost a month later, he turned down a $17.2 million qualifying offer. Those three strikes — a down year, advancing age, and the specter of draft-pick compensation — conspired to keep his options scarce. After waiting months for a more substantial offer, at a time when older, power-first players are being lowballed across the board, he agreed on Tuesday to return to his old team for slightly more than he would have made had he accepted the qualifying offer. It’s the simplest solution: The Jays don’t have to surrender a draft pick (apart from the potential one they would have acquired had he signed elsewhere), and Bautista doesn’t have to update his Twitter bio, which read “Rightfielder, Toronto Blue Jays” throughout his time unattached to the team.

The kicker is that this is roughly the deal the latter-day Bautista deserves, not that a player who sees a conspiracy in every questionable call is likely to agree. Last season, Bautista’s strikeout rate rose to its highest point since his 2010 reinvention, although his contact rate stayed steady. That seems like good news — he didn’t miss more often when he swung — but it could be a bad sign, in that he may have taken more strikes because he wasn’t convinced he could drive them. Selectivity can prop up an old player, but only until pitchers detect his decline and start to challenge him more regularly. They haven’t detected one in Bautista yet — pitchers actually stayed farther away from the center of his strike zone in 2016 than they did the year before — but that could change next season if his bat doesn’t rebound. Bautista’s isolated slugging percentage fell to its lowest level since 2009, even as the league-wide home run rate spiked so high that half of teams had a second baseman who hit 20 or more home runs.

As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted last week, Bautista’s offensive stats looked so sub-Bautistan last season partly because of a not-so-nice 69 plate appearances (.190/.304/.397) between his trips to the disabled list for an injured toe and knee. In 36 games after his mid-August return, Bautista hit .262/.401/.469, good for a 139 wRC+ in line with his full-season totals in 2012 and 2013, albeit well short of his output in his best Blue Jays years.

I asked Tom Tango, MLB Advanced Media’s senior data architect, for a Statcast-style breakdown of Bautista’s production at the plate in 2016, which he offered here:

That’s a lot of colors, numbers, names, and arrows, most of which indicate that Bautista made good contact more often (and weak contact less often) than the typical player. The takeaway is that when Bautista put the ball in play, his wOBA, or weighted on-base average — an all-in-one offensive stat that, unlike OBP, accounts for how the batter reached base — was more than 20 points lower than we would have expected it to be, based on where and how hard he hit the ball. Here, too, there’s a possible positive interpretation, along with a more pessimistic spin. That difference could suggest that Bautista was a little unlucky, but it might also stem from an age- or injury-related loss of speed (which wasn’t great to begin with) and a lower likelihood of beating out singles or stretching singles into doubles or triples.

Unlike Justin Smoak, even a diminished Bautista hits like a first baseman, and his glove might do less damage at first than in right. But with Kendrys Morales — whom the Jays signed too soon, at least in retrospect, as Edwin Encarnación insurance — entrenched at DH and Michael Saunders departing for Philadelphia, Bautista will probably head back to the outfield, where he struggled last year.

We can visualize those outfield issues using Statcast-based defensive displays from Baseball Savant, which plot every out along a continuum of hang time and distance. Compared to Adam Eaton, one of 2016’s top right fielders, a much higher proportion of Bautista’s catches were concentrated in the “easy” range. Bautista rarely made “tough”- and “highlight”-level plays, which for Eaton were almost routine.

It might be more instructive to compare Bautista to his younger self rather than to a paragon of the position, but these displays aren’t available for previous seasons. Even if his legs are no fresher this year, though, and even if his old swing isn’t restored, Bautista remains a high-level hitter. That should make him no worse than a two-win upgrade over Toronto’s previous contingency starter, Ezequiel Carrera, who projects to be a replacement-level player and a below-average bat.

Take away the injuries, and not only would Bautista’s 2016 line likely have looked better, but his career-worst baserunning and defensive runs saved (in right field) totals could have been better, too. Of course, time doesn’t typically take away injuries; it adds even more. Factor in his ferocious swing, his history on Toronto’s turf (which is springier now, but still not as forgiving as grass), and the lack of past resurgences among comparable players, and Bautista’s long-term outlook doesn’t augur many (if any) more superstar seasons.

None of which makes this signing a mistake for Toronto, which brought back Bautista for the shortest term possible, eliminating any exposure to an extended decline. Before re-signing Bautista, team president Mark Shapiro had overseen a nondescript offseason that left the Jays projected to hover at the periphery of the wild-card race. With Bautista, they’re likely to play a more central role.

For athletes, whose careers unspool in fast-forward, time can be cruel. Bautista hit much better than Bryce Harper last season, and Harper reportedly went into the winter asking for $400 million. The Nationals didn’t bite, but the request wasn’t crazy: Three days before Bautista turned 36, Harper turned 24. If Bautista has a healthy bounce back, he’ll get a second chance to strike it rich in free agency, and the new CBA will spare him another draft-pick tax. But by then he’ll be 37, too old for teams to make a major commitment.

You can blame Bautista’s extension strategy for his lack of a single nine-figure financial score, but circumstances have conspired against him. Fortunately for him, he’s been saved by another circumstance: In baseball, a productive player can have terrible timing and still retire rich.