Jose Bautista has been one of Major League Baseball’s best and most entertaining players this decade, but after he posted a .203/.308/.366 slash line in 2017 — good for a 78 OPS+, his worst ever in a season where he posted at least 100 plate appearances — it was easy to see why many fans thought he had nothing left in the tank.
While his longstanding reputation as a showboat and his tendency to get under the skin of his opponents more frequently than he probably should may have played a role in their apprehensiveness, front offices evidently shared the general public’s concern about the 37-year-old Bautista, as he went unsigned throughout the offseason and into mid-April. Bautista, who reportedly had three offers to choose from, finally joined a team on April 18, signing a minor-league deal with the Braves, perhaps eschewing better organizational fits to reunite with former Blue Jays and now-Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos.
In an arrangement that seemed destined to fail from the start, the Braves — who were looking to plug a hole with projected Opening Day starter Johan Camargo on the DL — signed Bautista to play third base, a position he hadn’t seen anything more than sporadic action at since 2010. Despite the fact that Bautista needed to get re-acclimated to the position, Atlanta rushed him through the minors and called him up just over two weeks after signing him. He predictably looked uncomfortable at third base, but more significantly, he looked totally lost at the plate. He posted a .143/.250/.343 slash line with two homers in 40 plate appearances, and just 16 days after calling him up, the Braves thought better of their decision to sign Bautista and released him.
His discomfort while re-adjusting to a different position theoretically could be used as an excuse for his poor performance at the plate with Atlanta, but considering his significant struggles in 2017, it seemed much more likely that he was just washed up. His in-season signing with the Braves was enough of a surprise, so it seemed virtually impossible that he’d get another opportunity — at least without going to Triple-A for an extended period to prove himself.
You can imagine, then, how it was a major shock to many (this author included) when the Mets announced out of nowhere on a Tuesday afternoon that they’d signed Bautista to a major-league contract and that he’d start that night’s game. The Mets were searching for answers with Yoenis Cespedes and Juan Lagares on the DL and Michael Conforto struggling, but adding a 37-year-old who hadn’t hit effectively since 2016 and plugging him right into the lineup was puzzling to say the least.
Well, it’s still relatively early in Bautista’s tenure in Queens, but through 38 games he’s certainly made us doubters look dumb. Through 120 plate appearances in a Mets uniform, he has an .887 OPS (or a park-adjusted 148 OPS+), which ranks second on the team behind likely All-Star Brandon Nimmo. He’s moved back to the outfield and has been average at best defensively, but his ability to play both outfield corners has given manager Mickey Callaway more options each night. In the end he’s still been consistent enough that he’s accumulated 0.9 Baseball-Reference-calculated WAR in just over six weeks.
Sure, Bautista’s batting average isn’t really anything special. With the exception of the 2011 and 2014 seasons, though, Bautista always hovered around the .240-.260 range during his prime, so the .253 clip he’s put up in New York isn’t at all out of the norm. More importantly, Bautista has returned to making sufficient contact in a way that allows him to post an elite on-base percentage. He’s frequently posted OBPs over 100 percentage points better than his average, so it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that he has an outstanding .425 OBP through 120 plate appearances with the Mets.
Even as he struggled to make contact last season, Bautista hit 23 home runs, marking his eighth straight season with at least 20 homers, so there was never really much concern about his ability to hit for power — it was more that he could hit for power and do nothing else. Interestingly, that power has manifested itself differently than it has before during his time with the Mets. He’s only hit three home runs, but he has 10 doubles, meaning he’s doubled in nearly 11 percent of his 91 at-bats with the team. Essentially, he’s been a different kind of three-true-outcomes hitter; 57.5% of his plate appearances have resulted in doubles, walks (27), or strikeouts (32). Again, while the strikeouts and lack of an elite batting average might not be ideal, that breakdown of outcomes is close to the hitting profile Bautista has had for his entire career — just substitute doubles for homers — and if his OPS stays anywhere close to the .887 mark it’s at right now, he’ll have no trouble holding down a major-league gig for a while.
As he approaches his 38th birthday, it’s pretty clear that Bautista isn’t going to return to being the All-Star, MVP-candidate, 40-plus home-run hitter that he was in his prime. His future, both beyond this month and beyond the season, remains uncertain; last winter’s events are a pretty good indication that he won’t command a ton of trade interest at the deadline, and at some point the Mets are going to have to get younger. But for a guy that many thought was done following his disastrous 2017 season — and even more believed was toast following his 12-game run with the Braves — he’s acquitted himself very well, and he may just have a few more tricks up his sleeve. Whatever is in store for Bautista’s future, the best part of this is that we get to watch one of the best hitters of his generation have success for a little while longer, and that’s a good thing.