Blue Jays need Jose Bautista to break out

When we started You Can’t Predict Baseball back in 2010, Jose Bautista emerged as our poster child. Bautista had been in the majors since 2004, played for four different franchises that year alone, and had never hit more than 16 homers in a season. In 2010, he clubbed 54 home runs, smashing his old career-high slugging percentage by nearly 200 points. Such a sudden power surge provoked much interest, and those who argued it was simply a fluke were proven wrong when Bautista put up an even better encore in 2011, increasing his batting average by 42 points and OPS by 61 points.

This season, however, has been a different story. While we’ve been distracted by the home run antics of Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton, that thing in Miami’s center field, and the curious case of Albert Pujols, Bautista has gone mostly unnoticed ... which, for him, is a good thing. It’s still early, of course, but the numbers are not pretty: his .194 batting average and .403 slugging percentage entering Tuesday's game are near 200-point declines from last season’s totals (.302 and .608, respectively). If you’re more inclined toward sabermetrics, it’s a decline from a virtually Bondsian .441 wOBA to a workmanlike .321: above average, but on par with names like Dexter Fowler and Angel Pagan.

On the other hand, Bautista’s .167 BABIP is extremely low -- at next-to-last in MLB (behind only Eric Hosmer's .165 mark), it’s almost impossible that it won’t improve at some point. Of his eight home runs, five have been hit in May, which could mean that Bautista just got off to a slow start. However, even in 2010 his BABIP was just .233, and given his career .272 mark, the .309 he posted last year is the one that sticks out. More ominously, however, Bautista slowed down considerably in the second half last year, posting a .255/.417/.476 line after the All-Star break. That’s not terrible, especially not the OBP, but it’s human, especially compared to his .334/.468/.702 line in the first half. The only real difference between his second-half line and what he has posted in 2012 thus far is 100 points of BABIP.

The Blue Jays usually do not attract a great deal of attention, and Bautista did not recently sign a massive 10-year free-agent deal, so his slow start isn’t receiving the attention of Pujols' prolonged slump. After all, Edwin Encarnacion and Kelly Johnson are the only Jays currently posting a triple-digit OPS+ (ie, currently the only hitters producing above average), and the team is still over .500. If the Blue Jays are going to contend for the playoffs, they need Bautista to be the hitter he was over the past two years.

The middle of May is too early to call this a bad season, and as we noted, his recent splurge of home runs may be indicative of him turning things around -- though we do, however, have to stipulate that three of those home runs came against the Twins, who have terrible pitching, and at Target Field, where Bautista has 10 homers in just 52 plate appearances. Still, considering last year’s second-half slide, the picture is murky. It’s right to put optimism in Bautista’s retooled swing, which led to 10 home runs in September 2009 before his 2010 breakout. But right now, Bautista’s production is not what Jays fans have grown used to.

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